‘Letters To My Dead’ is an experiment in writing a fictional blog of remembrance to paint a portrait of a man approaching the end of his life.
The story will be presented as blog posts written by Patrick Donovan in remembrance of his dead and posted each Saturday.
thank you for coming back and for the likes and comments that you left on last week’s post.
I realised this week that, If I hadn’t made a public commitment to post the Letters To My Dead each Saturday, I’d have stopped by now. Writing to my grandad was easy. I loved him with a child’s love and it was all a long time ago. But if my Letters To My Dead are to be worth anything, they can’t be a series of Hallmark Moments – verbal selfies for the Instagram version of my life. They need to be written to the dead that I miss and they need to be as true as I can make them. And that turns out to be a gut-wrenching thing to write.
This week, I started on a nice little homage to a teacher who made a huge difference to my life. It was positive and uplifting and true and I couldn’t make myself finish it. If I was writing an autobiography, it would make a great chapter. People would smile. My teacher would be revered and I’d look good. Yet, I couldn’t finish it because, well, in the context of these letters, it felt fake. Something can be true and fake at the same time. It’s the intent that counts.
There’s a saying that sounds hinky but that works for me: ‘How will I know what I think until I’ve written it down?’ My brain works that way. For decades, in my professional life, I kept my emotions under control and used my words to get my way. Sometimes, I’m so good at self-control and purposeful prose that I can’t hear myself anymore. Writing, this kind of writing, is how I connect to what I feel rather than what I think. Depending on your belief system, it’s how my subconscious, or my soul, or my heart speaks to me.
So I deleted the letter to my teacher and wrote a letter to Declan instead. It’s not a letter I really wanted to write. He’s not someone I normally talk about. But now seems the right time to write to him.
Declan was my younger brother. He was born in 1958, nine years and several miscarriages after me. In 2013, when he was fifty-five, he was found dead in his home. He’d missed a couple of days of work and a colleague came to find out why. His ex-wife contacted me a week later when she finally found an email address for me. It had been more than five years since I’d seen Declan. At the funeral, I found that my brother had spent the previous three years as a project manager in a charity helping the homeless and was much loved by his co-workers. He was much loved by his ex-wife, Gail, too. She’d divorced him ten years earlier, once the kids had left home. It was done in sadness, not anger. Gail had told my wife that the divorce put an official stamp on an established fact. She said that Declan had ‘pulled up the draw-bridge’ and become a lodger in their home. I knew what she’d meant. Declan had always withdrawn into himself when the world around him became too much.
Declan was the apple of my mother’s eye. She knew he’d be her last child and she doted on him as if he was the answer to her prayers, which he probably was. She still loved me and she made sure to tell me that often, when we were alone. She’d never have had to tell anyone that she loved Declan, you could see it every time she looked at him. I loved Declan too, in my way. He was my little brother and my mother’s heart and I was always going to look after him. At least, that’s what I thought when I was nine.
Declan and I were similar and different in the way that all brothers are. The age gap meant we weren’t rivals but it also meant that we went to different schools and took different paths. I’d passed the 11+ and been sent to the tender mercies of the Christian Brothers at an all-boys Catholic Grammar school. Declan was in the first wave of ‘we-don’t-stream-anyone-honest’ Comprehensive Education reforms and attended a huge, brand new mixed-sex Catholic Comprehensive. I did maths, science and social awkwardness. Declan did drama and music and talked to girls as if they were just people. But we liked each other and, when Declan was a kid, we talked about everything: books, movies, our parents, our schools and our imagined futures.
My future wasn’t hard to imagine. It was almost upon me. I’d go to the University of Manchester, where the world’s leading computers were being built and then I’d join some big company and deliver on the promise of the computer age. What Declan would do wasn’t yet clear, not just because he was only nine but because all of us felt he could do anything he wanted. When Declan was on a high he radiated energy and optimism. It was like sunshine and you wanted to bask in it.
When our futures started to arrive, we saw less of each other but we still talked. Even when Declan dropped out of college and made his living as part of a street theatre group, we would meet up and swap stories. I attended his wedding. But he was adjusting to having a family to support and I was always travelling and… well the rest is all noise and excuses. We argued more than we agreed. To avoid arguing, we had fewer and fewer things that we could talk about. Our relationship shrank slowly, like a melting glacier, so it took a couple of decades to notice that we hardly spoke any more. Then we didn’t speak at all. And then he was dead.
So here is my letter to my dead little brother.
You know I’m angry with you don’t you? What do you expect? You left me. You left me and then you died and made it permanent. I want you back. I want you not to have gone. I want to stop being angry at you. I want to stop having to seal off your memory because opening it up is like ripping out stitches.
You’re my younger brother. We’re supposed to be able to get mad at one another. It may even be compulsory. We’re supposed to be able to stay mad for years if we want. But we’re not supposed to be mad forever. There’s supposed to be time to be there for each other when it matters. You’re supposed to out-live me. You’re supposed to tell lies about me at my funeral so everyone will laugh a little and think better of me than I deserve. You’re supposed to be here when I need you.
If you were here you’d be giving me that look. The one that says, ‘Are you listening to yourself? You know you’re making this all about you, right. Like you always did? Like I’m ‘Best Supporting Actor in this week’s episode of the Patrick Donovan show?’ Then, when you’d silenced me without a word, you’d look down and say, ‘What do you want, Pat?’
You always asked me that. Except, what you meant by it changed as things got worse. When you were young and things were good, it translated as ‘How’s it going and what are you going to drag me into now?’ Later, it became ‘You always want something and I seldom like it so spit it out.’ At the end, when we’d absented ourselves from each other’s lives, it became, ‘Are you still here? Are you sure? I think you might be mistaken about that?’
Still, it’s a good question. What do I want? Why am I writing to my dead brother?
Well, I don’t want to fight. I don’t want to complain, even if it sounds like I do. I know I failed you. I know you failed me. I know neither of us can do anything about that BECAUSE YOU’RE DEAD and I’m so pissed off about that.
This was supposed to be a Letter Of Remembrance. A sort of written-down wake. But you’d have hated that. I blame our dad for that. He was such a great teller of stories and he and we were always at the centre of them. The man sustained a whole alternative, ‘happy family’ universe that became our oral tradition. But you never bought into it. When I eighteen and you were nine and dad was rehearsing a re-write of the family saga to make it sound like he’d always wanted his first-born son to go to Grammar School and then go on to university instead of getting a proper job and making a contribution, you spoke to me from the side of your mouth and said, ‘Do you think he believes this or will he have to repeat it a few times before it becomes true?’ We came from a family where truth lay in the visuals, not the soundtrack. Unlike me, you spotted early how odd that was.
So, neither of us wants this letter to be a ‘happy moments with my brother’ collage with a poignant soundtrack and a sunset at the end.
I know you’d be giving me that look again by now, so I’ll answer the question, ‘What Do You Want, Pat?’
I want to say goodbye. We never got to do that.
You were there. You were absent. Then you were dead.
So, here’s my goodbye.
You were never a supporting player in the Pat Donovan show. You always had a show of your own.
It was you, not me, who had the gravity needed to pull people into your orbit. I was happy to be one of them, even if it was a distant orbit (yeah, I’m trying too hard but you were always better at this than me).
Anyway, I never expected your show to end. I never expected to be thrown out of orbit altogether. I never expected you to want that.
But you did.
So, this is me, waving goodbye. Can you see the grief, the regret, the little bit of anger that is now permanently etched into what’s trying to be a smile? Believe the visuals, Declan and know that I miss you.
Well, Reader, I’m glad I’m not doing this as a podcast. I don’t think I’d have gotten through reading this aloud.
Declan’s been dead almost eight years now and this is the first time I’ve talked about what his death meant to me. I did what I always do with painful memories – stuffed them into a box marked ‘DO NOT OPEN’, mentally tucked the box away under my bed and then tried my best to forget that the box was there. Once the funeral was over, I stopped talking about Declan, even to my wife although she and I always talked about everything.
So now I have one less box under my bed. That’s probably a good thing. But it was also a hard thing to do. I don’t want to put myself through all that again next week.
I need to write a Letter that will cheer me up. Which means it’s time to write to my Aunt Bridget. I think of her often and she always makes me smile.
I hope to see you again next week, Reader and I’d love to hear from you between now and then.