*Picture is Dad holding my two-months premature baby brother.
What do you think of when you think of ‘family’? For some of you this word will conjure up images of famous families: The Waltons (showing my age here ha ha), The Kardashians, The Obamas etc. These families appear to stick together through thick and thin, always have each other’s backs, openly love and support each other. No family is perfect but shared values, memories and experiences seem to be the glue that binds them together. I’ve been thinking a lot about what family means to me lately. When Mum passed away in 2007, that just left myself, my younger brother and my Dad. There had been some conflict amongst Mum and Dad’s extended families over the years for various reasons so with little contact with aunties, uncles, cousins, the Family Hawkins became a small unit. With Dad passing away a few weeks ago, that leaves just my brother and I. You would think given the circumstances that we would now be closer than ever but sadly that couldn’t be further from the truth. In the same week we lost our Dad, my brother told me he doesn’t want to speak to me ever again and in shock, I retaliated and told him I felt the same. The Family Hawkins is no more, not something I ever thought I’d say.
Human beings can be complicated creatures and that can make family relationships complex and challenging. We all grow up hearing that blood is thicker than water and family comes first, phrases I used to wholeheartedly endorse, but the reality is sibling relationships do not always transition well with the transformation from childhood to adult life. My brother and I were actually incredibly close when we were young. Six years older than him, he idolised me and I in turn was very protective of him. He was a kind, sensitive soul and there was never any conflict between us. We always got on and genuinely liked and loved each other. As Mum and Dad’s marriage grew increasingly volatile, I tried to shield my brother from the worst of it and comforted him when the nightly rows escalated. However, when I left home for university, our relationship began to change. He struggled being at home without me and admitted later that he had felt abandoned by me, even though I was just trying to live my life in the adult world. Mum and Dad were in a bad financial situation after Dad left the Army and I gave all three of my university student loans to my Mum and Dad to help them whilst I worked shifts at a restaurant to financially support myself during my studies. One year they had no money to buy my brother the computer console he had asked for for Christmas so I bought it for him and we said it was from Mum and Dad. I don’t think he ever knew that I did that for him. After my brother dropped out of university, a decision I supported for the good of his wellbeing and mental health, he found it hard to make ends meet. Wanting to be there for him, I invited my brother to live with my now ex-husband and I to help him get back on his feet, even though we were in a dire financial situation ourselves. Unfortunately he didn’t respect the room we had given him, leaving dirty plates, full ashtrays etc littered around, causing friction between him and my ex, and my ex and I. When my marriage ended and I left my ex-husband, I took my brother with me, and he lived rent and bill-free with me whilst I did my teacher training and dealt with bailiffs and banks harassing me for my ex’s debts. Getting my first teaching job was a much-needed light at the end of the tunnel but required me to relocate from the North of England to the South. I didn’t want to leave my brother stranded so I let him stay in my house and asked him to look after my cats temporarily, until I got settled and could bring them down South with me. He said he was happy to do that and I sent him money to cover the cats’ expenses – until a phone call with my Mum informed me that my brother had given my cats away without consulting me. I was stunned. My brother knew how much I loved those cats – what kind of person just gives away another person’s pets? When I confronted him, he told me he hadn’t been able to cope with looking after them; in response I told him that giving them away was not his decision to make and I would have collected them if he had told me. He apologised but it was a difficult thing for me to forgive. The selfishness of his behaviour made me view him differently, and the loss of my cats hit me hard.
When I moved to teach in Dubai a literal and metaphorical distance grew between us. We had grown up and grown apart. We didn’t really know each other anymore. Birthday and Christmas cards would be exchanged. We would intermittently SMS or leave a comment on FB pictures but that was about it. When my brother got engaged I was over the moon for him and told him I would fly back for a wedding whenever it was arranged. This seemed like a good opportunity for us to reconnect. However, months before they got married, Dad and I both received an email asking if we would mind not coming to the wedding as my brother and his fiancée just wanted ‘to keep it to close friends’. Dad and I were shocked and devastated. I erupted at my brother over his rejection of his family, who had done so much to support him. I asked him what he thought Mum would think. Clearly feeling guilty, my brother responded by ripping me to shreds via email. It was an attack I had not seen coming and the pure venom in his words cut me to the core. I didn’t go to my brother’s wedding – why would I go to the wedding of someone who hadn’t valued me enough to want me to be there – and we were estranged for over a year. I was pleased though that my words must have gotten through to him as my brother relented and allowed our Dad to go to his wedding. Dad said he felt awkward and unwelcome but he was glad he had gone to represent the family. It made him happy to see my brother happy.
My brother and I patched things up eventually on a superficial level, mainly for Dad’s sake, but I never really forgave him for not wanting me to be at his wedding after everything I had done for him, or for the vicious emails he had sent me when I had tried to explain to him how gutted I’d felt. He wasn’t the kind sensitive brother I had grown up with anymore. He was essentially a stranger to me, as I was to him, and we got on with our individual lives. Just because someone is family, your sibling, that doesn’t mean they can get away with treating you badly, taking you for granted, or being mean, and my guard went up with him after the things he had said and done that hurt me. I maintained a relationship with my brother out of respect for Mum and Dad and because of the close relationship we had had as kids but I honestly didn’t feel fully emotionally invested in the relationship anymore. I cared about him and wanted him to be happy and healthy obviously, but it felt easier to conduct our relationship from a distance with pleasantries exchanged via social media and email.
Being committed to working abroad meant that when Dad’s health deteriorated, someone had to step up and take care of his finances, his medical decisions, and so on, and I was incredibly proud to see my brother maturely taking charge. I felt that in some way it might be the making of him. To his credit, he packed up Dad’s belongings in his flat, dealt with all the financial arrangements, found an excellent care home for Dad when he was discharged from hospital and took on medical power of attorney. He did once ask if I would like to transfer my savings into his account to pay for any expenses that came up for Dad which made me uncomfortable but I just said no, I was prepared to contribute financially as and when needed, which I did, making monthly payments of £100. The whole situation must have been extremely stressful for him but he just got on with it all and did our Dad proud. What I didn’t expect though was for all of this to be thrown back in my face when Dad passed away. I have written various blog posts about my chronic illness and what my life was like when working full-time with my Fibromyalgia at its worst – the struggle to get out of bed, to cook for myself, to fully function, just existing in survival mode all the time. When I was diagnosed, I shared this information with my brother so he could understand how challenging my life had been. When I told him of my plans to go travelling, to remove stress from my life and to heal, for the good of my health and wellbeing, he had appeared supportive of that decision. During the years my brother stepped up and took care of Dad’s stuff, I did what I had to do to take care of me. That’s what life with a chronic illness requires. Just because I wasn’t constantly sitting by his bedside, that doesn’t mean I loved my Dad any less than my brother. I had thought my brother had done everything that Dad needed out of love; I hadn’t realised it was a competition and that I was being judged the ‘uncaring selfish daughter’.
I was in Antigua Guatemala when the first email from my brother came telling me that Dad had been rushed into hospital with an infection and his condition was critical. We had been here before. From the time my Dad had his first stroke, over a four year period, he was in and out of hospital, and I had received news before telling me to prepare myself for his passing. This time felt different though. I replied to my brother, sending him my love, and delicately made it clear that if the doctors asked about intervention to prolong life that I would support a decision to let my Dad go in peace. He had been through so much and he had had no quality of life for a long time. I knew doctors had asked about intervention when Dad had begun having his strokes and my brother had told them that Dad would have wanted them to do all they could to prolong his life. I privately disagreed with that decision (due to poor life quality as the strokes became increasingly debilitating, robbing Dad of who he was and his ability to do basic things for himself) but understood that my brother was not ready to lose his father and that he needed more time to come to terms with that loss. I knew my brother needed to feel that he had done all he could for our Dad and I wanted to support my brother. My brother replied that he was on the same page and I began to emotionally prepare myself for the loss of Dad. I was a wreck, on edge waiting for news. I was grateful to be in a hostel with lovely staff who took care of me and my friend Meghan who was my rock during that week. I didn’t hear anything for two days. I emailed my brother asking for any news but didn’t get a reply for 24 hours – an upbeat email telling me Dad was stable and asking me what I’d been up to, implying all was well. I was furious I’d been made to wait so long for news but didn’t want to cause a fight so I didn’t reply. Gut instinct told me this was not like all of the other times and I was right. The next day I got an email telling me Dad probably had days to live at the most. Stunned to get this news after the upbeat email the day before, I had a melt down and Meghan and I went out to get drunk. I couldn’t deal with my feelings so I just shut them off, and sank tequilas and glasses of red wine until the night became a blur. The waiting was unbearable and I knew it was too late to try to make it back to England in time so waiting was all I could do. What I didn’t know was that my Dad had already passed away at that point but I hadn’t been told. I wasn’t informed until the next day. My brother claimed he had tried to call me (I had no phone service in Guatemala, but when I got to the US and had service, there were no missed call or voicemail waiting notifications from him) and then told me my Dad had passed away in a one sentence email: ‘He passed away on Friday morning’, was all it said. I was livid not to be told until 24 hours after my father’s life came to an end and too upset to speak to my brother. Aware we were both grieving I also didn’t want to say anything that would cause a fight so I did not reply.
After a few days, I made the decision not to go to my Dad’s service. There were several reasons for this decision and it was not an easy decision to make. Flights back to the UK are expensive, I have a professional commitment to honour in the US and feel I have said goodbye to my Dad in my own way. The service is taking place in the city my brother lives in, a place with no links with my Dad whatsoever, and I just don’t feel comfortable grieving with strangers. I knew when I told my brother of my decision not to attend that it would not go down well; I expected some anger, I expected to be made to feel guilty, but I did not expect a savage email informing me that he never wants to speak to me again, ripping me and my work to shreds. You see my brother is also a writer and a poet and it’s clear that he has been harbouring a lot of resentment and jealousy. He is not pleased to see me happy after a tough couple of years and not pleased to see me achieve any success. The inferiority-complex chip on his shoulder finally fully revealed itself and this was the excuse he needed to tell me what he really thinks of me and my work. Oh well. It was probably time to cut the bullsh*t, to tear apart the veneer of our ‘happy family’ and stop pretending we have a meaningful supportive sibling relationship as adults. It is what it is. I’ve had so much loss in my lifetime I’m used to people coming and going out of my life. How many times can you let someone hurt you before you call it a day? I’m not prepared to be my brother’s punchbag just because I’m his sister. I don’t need that sh*t in my life.
At this stage of my life, family doesn’t mean the people I share blood with. My family are a trusted group of people who have my back, have proved their loyalty by being there for me through the good and bad times, are proud of me, know who I am and what my values are, and just want to see me happy. They know who they are – I thank you and love you. Not everyone is fortunate to belong within an harmonious and loving family unit but as adults we can choose who we consider to be family. Will my brother and I ever reconcile? I really don’t know if I have it in me to open up my heart to him again but I am an eternal optimistic and what will be will be. I wish him all the best in the meantime and will be thinking of him on the day of Dad’s service.
*Me with my baby brother.
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