Eighteen years. Almost two decades. Or to be more precise, eighteen years and four and a half or so hours since my brother died.
And yes, I rewrite this every year. I stick up something about Mike annually on this day with not a smidgen of guilt nor concern; Michael deserves a public remembrance from me every year.
9th January 1998. I’d gotten into work early and, having dropped my bag at the office, was having a coffee across the road at my then favoured café. Thirty minutes or so after sitting down, around five-past eight, someone else who’d been in early came to get me; a call from Laura. I know, this was long enough ago that I didn’t possess a mobile phone. I went back to the office with a growing sense of dread; a call from my wife, mentioning my brother didn’t sound like good news. It wasn’t; a call to the hospital led to a growing suspicion from the immediately understandable reticence of the doctor to tell me anything over the phone… and then the knowledge – the horrible, horrible knowledge – that my brother had died.
Not a good morning.
Mike was 38 years old, over a decade younger than I am now. And that’s a thing you never get used to – that you’re now older than someone who was older than you. It’s a genuinely strange feeling, realising that; knowing that you’re seeing birthdays that he never reached, experiencing birthdays, anniversaries, life, that he never got to have.
And that’s leaving to one side the fact that he lost those years – he lost seeing his children grow up, he lost the chance to see Phil grow up, and that Phil never got the chance to know Mike. Not properly, not as a growing child should get to know someone.
I’ve got friends who I’ve met over the past few years who I absolutely know Michael would have liked to have met, and they’d have liked to have known him. I can easily see Mitch and Clara sharing a laugh with Mike; very easily indeed as a matter of fact, probably at my expense, the way you allow friends and close ones to do that. I can also smile, reluctantly at times, at the life experiences and choices I’ve made that would have at various times, cheered him, made him laugh, made him angry, and left him speechless in exasperation. He was my brother and I loved him – what else would you expect?
Where the hell have those eighteen years gone? Eighteen years… Of course, I know the answer to that: I look at my son, and know the final family photo taken of Mike was with Philip, when the latter was a little over two years old. And Phil’s now twenty, an adult, and he’s studying at Aberystwyth with his fiancée, far more interested in spending time there with her than with his old man. And I don’t – and won’t – blame him for that.
Still and all, where have the years gone?
I’ve said before – and I maintain – that it’s utter nonsense to say that ‘time heals every wound’. It doesn’t. It doesn’t even come close. What it does do, I’ve discovered – and I rediscover with every passing year – is lessen the temptation to pick at the scab.
So with every year that passes, it hurts a little less… most of the time.
Every so often, of course, it bites; it hurts terribly, and I miss him so fucking much; his wry humour, the love of comedy we shared, the cool way he’d examine a problem from every side, then laugh and say “fuck it, go for it…”
Michael Russell Barnett wasn’t perfect, far from it. He loved puns, just didn’t ‘get’ comics at all, had problems carrying a tune in a bucket, and his enthusiasm for playing the guitar wasn’t in any way matched by ability.
Still, as a brother, Mike was as good as they get and if I’d have gone to Brothers ‘R’ Us, I couldn’t have picked better. He taught me so much, and I hope he knew how much I respected him as a person, not just as a brother. I was best man at his wedding to Lynne, and that he trusted me (at the age of 21) with that responsibility honoured me then, and it still does. I’ve still many wonderful memories of Michael, but those few hours on the morning of his wedding when it was just me and him… ah, they’re memories I wouldn’t trade for anything.
He died eighteen years ago today and I miss him dreadfully, especially today. I miss him always, but today, it’s a bugger.
Rest easy, brother.
A few years ago, after I posted something similar to the above, I got several emails and messages from people who either didn’t know I’d had a brother, or didn’t know what had happened. Both asked what had happened. Here’s what I put up in response..
Soon after Mike’s death, I was asked to write something about him; I’ve linked to it before, but figured it was about time I put it on this blog as well. So, here it is:
Michael Russell Barnett
20th November 1959 to 9th January 1998
“On Thursday, Mum took me shopping. It sounds
harmless if you say it fast enough, doesn’t it?”
– o –
When I was at Manchester Polytechnic, ostensibly studying for a degree, one of the highlights of my time there was getting a letter from Michael. Full of gentle humour, the letters showed a literary side to Michael that can still reduce me to laughter 15 years later. The above line was written as he was recovering from his first heart operation.
Reading through the letters recently, what surprised me wasn’t so much the realisation that Michael was only 23 or 24 when the letters were written, but how much of my own writings have been influenced by Michael’s style.
Michael taught me so much, from how to play backgammon to the skills necessary to cheat at cards better than our younger brother; from how to scan a line when writing a lyric or poem to the proper glass out of which to drink scotch – “one with a hole at one end and no hole at the other.”
I’ve often said that Mike was my hero. And he was. The courage he showed throughout his illnesses and operations, the way he dealt with people and the way he supported me in all I did was everything I could have wished from a brother. We shared a particularly dry sense of humour and it was rare that a few days went by without one of us calling the other to share a joke or to tell the other a particularly funny story or a funny event that had happened to us.
Yet of all the memories that spring to mind about Michael in the 33 years I was privileged to have him as my ‘big bruvver’, four stand out as clear as day…
– o –
“Dear Lee, How are you? I hope you’re getting down
to it. And getting some studying in as well.”
– o –
I’d driven up to Harefield to visit Michael before his first op. He was in the ward and when he saw me, he grabbed his dressing gown and we headed for the café. As we were leaving the ward, a nurse rushed past us and went to the bed next to Michael’s. We didn’t think anything of it until another nurse, then a doctor, then another nurse, pushing a trolley pushed past us. Naturally concerned, we headed back into the ward to see them crowding around the bed next to Mike’s. The curtains were quickly drawn and Michael suggested we leave. At that moment, we realised we’d left Michael’s cassette recorder playing.
In the sort of accident of timing that only happens in real life, Michael reached out to turn the cassette recorder off just as the next track started. The song was by a band called Dollar.
The title of the song? “Give Me Back My Heart”
We barely made it out of the ward before doubling up…
– o –
“I’m looking forward to our engagement party. My only problem
is how to ask Jeff for a day off on a Saturday. I suppose on
my knees with my hands clasped together as if in prayer…”
– o –
Wednesday 9th October 1985
Lynne and Michael’s Wedding Day. As their Best Man, I’m theoretically responsible for getting Michael to the shul shaved, showered and sober. Failing that, it’s my job to just get him there. Anyway, Mike has a few things to sort out at their new home, so I tag along and we spend a few hours together. Precious hours that I wouldn’t swap for anything. We tell jokes and pass the time, two brothers out together letting the rest of the world go by.
We get to the shul and get changed into the penguin suits. Flip forward a couple of hours and Lynne and Michael are now married. Mazeltovs still ringing in everyone’s ears, the line-up has ended and we poor fools still in morning suits go to the changing room to, well, to get changed – into evening suit. For whatever reason, Mike and I take the longest to get changed and we’re left alone for five minutes together after everyone else has left.
As a throwaway line, just to ease our nervousness for the forthcoming speeches, I make a comment that I’m sure glad I’ve got everything with me: “Suit, shirt, shoes, speech…” Mike grins and repeats the mantra. “Suit, shirt, shoes…” There’s a horrible pause followed by a word beginning with ‘s’. But it’s not “speech”, it’s a shorter word.
Mike looks at me in horror, and I’m beginning to realise what’s going through his mind. “Don’t tell me you’ve lost your speech,” I tell him.
“I know exactly where it is,” he says, making me very relieved for a moment, before continuing, “it’s in my wardrobe at home.”
After another split-second when we struggled not to crease up at the ridiculousness of the situation, Mike took control in that calm way that he had. He borrowed a pen off of me – the pen that he and Lynne had given me as a thank you for being Best Man – instructed me to get a menu and then stand outside the door and leave him for twenty minutes…
An hour or so later, after I had given my speech, Michael stood up to make his. He started off with a line that fans of Rowan Atkinson would recognise in a moment : “When I left home this morning, I said to myself ‘you know, the very last thing you must do is leave my speech at home’. So sure enough, when I left home this morning, the very last thing I did was… to leave my speech at home.”
As I say, it was a familiar opening to fans of Rowan Atkinson. To everyone else, it was merely a clever start to a speech. To everyone else that is, except our mother. Mum, you see, knew exactly how the speech should have started and there was a classic moment – thankfully caught by the photographer – when she realised that he wasn’t joking – he really had forgotten the speech…
– o –
“Last week I graduated to hair-CUTTING. Next week, if
I’m lucky it’ll be cutting the hair on someone’s head…”
– o –
After Mike’s second heart operation, Laura and I took our then 20 month old son to see him. Michael had often told me that being a parent was a mixture of joy and heartache but that he was absolutely revelling in being an uncle. When we got there, he insisted on going outside with us, for Philip’s sake, he said, but I suspect that he wanted to go outside as well, ‘breaking parole’ if you will. He took Philip by the hand and went for a small walk with him.
Looking back, watching Mike and Philip walking together, and a little later, Michael holding Philip on his lap, I remain convinced that it was at that moment that Philip started his adoration of Michael, a feeling that lasted after Michael’s death.
– o –
“Did you go to shul in Manchester. Hmm – is a shul in
Manchester called Manchester United?”
– o –
The last big family occasion was on Boxing Day 1997. It had long been a family tradition that the family got together at Lynne and Michael’s on Boxing Day and this year was no different. The last photo I have of my brother is of Michael lifting Philip to the sky, the pair of them laughing out loud.
He looked so well, having regained all the weight that he’d lost through his illness, still with a very slight tan from the holiday he, Lynne and the boys had taken in late 1997.
That’s how I’ll remember my brother, full of life, laughing and surrounded by his family.