2017 minus 42: Mike

Posted: 20 November 2016 in 2017 minus, family, personal
Tags: , ,

Anyone who’s followed my blog for some time – either this one or the one that preceded it – knows that January 9th is a bad day for me. It’s not as bad as it used to be, back when everyone would stay the hell away from me on the day, and I’d answer queries and comments with monosyllabic grunts, but not good, no.

Almost 19 years ago, I lost my big brother at the horribly young age of 38. And every year, on the anniversary of his death, I put something up about him. This, for example, is what I wrote about him this year. 

Occurs to me though that I’ve rarely written about his life, and what it was like to have him as a big brother.

And, since he was born on 20th November 1959, today seems as good a time as any to do so. Warning: this post will probably skip around a bit in terms of tone and times, and for fairly obvious reasons, it’s about Mike and me. Just a heads-up.

Michael Russell Barnett. My big brother. 

He’d have been 57 today. He’d likely have been completely grey/white – his hair was already greying a bit in his mid-30s. Like me, when I started going grey, he pretended it didn’t bother him. Like me, it did. He had red lowlights for a short while, but quickly stopped bothering about it. If it bugged him after that, I never knew about it. 

The greying made us look more alike. We never looked that much like each other; we bore just enough of a resemblance though that folks quickly guessed we were brothers. But he was far better looking than me. I don’t say that out of any false modesty; we used to joke among us three brothers that Mike had the looks, I had the brains, and our younger brother had the practical abilities.

(That wasn’t and isn’t true, of course; my brain was better at numbers and figuring out things, but my younger brother had – and has – a brain for how things worked practically that left mine and Mike’s in the stone age.) 

I can’t remember at time when Mike didn’t have girlfriends, or when he wasn’t surrounded by a mob of friends. He was a great big brother to grow up with: silly when he could be, serious when he had to be, a peacemaker between his younger brothers on more occasions than I can think of.

He enjoyed school, both the social aspect and the academic side of it… in theory anyway. He’d have beeen the first to admit that he wasn’t the most diligent of students; he always did enough to get by. He got good grades, but never spectacular ones. He was fit – up ’till his early 20s anyway; more about that in a moment. He played squash at school and sixth form college, and was pretty good from all accounts, until he started getting suspiciously short of breath. Again, more about that down the page.

He played the guitar, with more enthusiasm than talent, but I clearly remember the genuine pleasure Mike took in grabbing the Complete Beatles Songbook and playing the classic songs in his bedroom, while we two younger brothers sang along. He loved music; I can’t remember a time when his bedroom wasn’t filled with music, either last week’s charts, which he’d taped from Radio 1, or albums he’d bought.

I’ve said before I couldn’t have asked for a better big brother, and it’s true. I stuck him on a pedestal, a dangerous place for any sibling to stand, but he never let me down. I called him Mike. To most everyone else, he was Michael. He was my big brother and I loved him unquestionably. 

I remember when I was about 13, maybe 14? Either way, was around my bar mitzvah, 1977/78-ish. I had – understandably – began to notice things about my body, and that of the girls that surrounded me. This was in the days when sex education in British schools mainly consisted of the single word “Don’t”.

I was terribly shy, terribly confused, terribly nervous. But I was fortunate. I was lucky. I had Mike.  (Yes, I was a late developer; Mike was anything but. As I say, he’d had girlfriends from when he was an early teenager.)

He took me to one side, one Sunday afternoon, prompted by my parents. He gave me a booklet to read and told me that when I’d read it, I’d be even more confused, but to come find him. He was right. After I’d read this booklet – I remember it had a purple cover, with pictorial representations of a naked man and naked woman – my reaction was mainly one of “I do what with what?” So, I found him in his room, he grabbed dad’s car keys, and we went for a drive, to a pub, about ten miles from home. Once there, he got me a soft drink and we repaired to a bench in the beer garden far from anyone else.

“OK, then,” he said. “Ask away.”

Just that. No “I know you’re nervous.” Just a matter-of-fact “ask away”. He knew I trusted him. 

Looking back, he could have had fun with me, told me any urban myth, and stuff and nonsense, and I’d probably have believed him. He was my big brother, after all, and I trusted him.

Instead, he told me the truth, to anything I asked. Some stuff he blushed when telling me, but he told me what it was like the first time he had sex. He told me how shit scared he’d been, how convinced he’d be that he’d ‘get it wrong’. He said he’d had a number of girlfriends – which I knew – but that afternoon I was to assume that he’d had one, “Miss Ermintrude Abernathy” he called her, and that anything he told me about anything… it was Ermie. 

He kept adding biographical details to Ermintrude’s life as we spoke, and after the serious stuff was over, that continued; by the end of it, we were crying with laughter about how he’d abandoned her to a life of misery in the grinding poverty and chalk-mines of Luton, Bedfordshire.

Skip forward a couple of years to the first of the ‘being mistaken for each other’. Mike was looking after me and my younger brother; we were playing Monopoly. His girlfriend Lynne (later his fiancée, still later his wife) calls on the house phone (no mobiles back then). Mike talks to her for a few minutes, then – without warning – hands the phone to me with a grin. I ‘get’ it immediately and for a minute or so just go “uh-huh” and “really?” to Lynne, then hand the phone back to Mike once he’s played his move. 

He carries on the conversation for a couple of minutes then hands the phone back to me while he shakes the dice and moves his piece. This continues for about ten minutes before we’re obviously – and audibly – failing to hide the by now no longer stifled laughter. He makes an excuse then finishes the call…

(Lynne never discovered this until just before they were married. She… wasn’t pleased, though mainly because she panicked that she’d said something entirely inappropriate to me…) 

OK, now I’m 16 or 17 and I’m watching television with the family, an episode of Quincy. Long before then, I’d become used to picking up a doctor’s prescription for Mike for something called “digoxinDidn’t have a clue what it was, of course, and since the one time I asked Mike what it was for, I got a genial “mind your own business” and I didn’t have the internet back then… I left it… figuring it wasn’t that important. He was my big brother. I trusted him. When he wanted me to know, I’d know.

So, we’re watching Quincy and after autopsying a body, Quincy just comes out with the following line:

OK, we found digoxin, so we know he had heart problems…



My head whips ’round to look at my big brother, my eyes growing wider with every nanosecond. He shot me a look that repeated his message from a few months previous… And I left it alone. He was my big brother. I trusted him. When he wanted me to know, I’d know.

Another year goes past. Mike had been ill, very ill, off work for a while, no energy, in bed all day. Our parents had, reluctantly, gone on the holiday they’d booked months earlier. Our local doctor came – yeah, they did house calls back then – and the next thing, an ambulance is called, Mike’s in the local hospital and they’re talking about transferring him to Harefield. And that’s when I found out my brother needed a heart valve transplant at 23 years of age. 

He was operated on in September 1983; in one of those odd moments of synchronicity, the operation took place on Yom Kippur, during which there’s a bit recited about those who’ll die in the next year. I remember thinking “gee, thanks…” Though my parents were allowed to see him almost immediately after the operation, it was a day or two before I was. 

My big brother was there, unconscious, a yellow tinge to his skin, tubes in various parts of his body, with what looked like a fat, angry, pink-red worm stitched to his chest. 

Yeah it wasn’t pleasant.

Lynne and Mike had split up by then, but they got back together during his recovery and in 1985, they married. Mike asked me to be best man; I didn’t realise at the time how much of an honour that was, for him to choose me. He had any number of friends he could have asked, any of whom could have done the job, but he chose me. To this day, the thought of that chokes me up.

At the wedding, one of Lynne’s customers arrives late, sees me dancing with Lynne and makes an assumption. Later, half cut, and only semi-jokingly, she says to Lynne (out of my hearing) “Ooh, is the brother [she points at Mike] available? He’s much better looking… You should have married him!” Lynne retorted “I did marry him!” And then immediately seeks me out and, with superlative joy, gets her own back on me for the phone call by telling me… 

By then, Mike had left a potential career in accountancy (he never enjoyed it) and joined the family hairdressing business. He was good at it. Lynne and he had a couple of boys, and he was happy. He loved his wife, he loved his kids. 

He enjoyed his life. 

He liked Laura immediately when I started going out with her and took immense joy in both my getting married and in us having our own child, Philip in 1995.  

Mike loved being an uncle. He told/warned me more than once that being a parent is a mixture of joy and heartache, that especially: when your child has a temperature, you’re the one who sweats… But he absolutely revelled in being an uncle. And he took immense pride in Laura and me asking him to give Phil his first haircut.

I bitterly regret that my lad never got to know his uncle. Mike died when Phil was two years old.

He called me about 14 years after his first operation, June 1997. We’d been joking for months that if his valve transplant lasted 15 years, he’d throw it a party. The call was to tell me that we wouldn’t be having the party. The valve wasn’t going to last 15 years. It wasn’t going to make it to 14. He was going in for a double valve transplant the following week. He hadn’t wanted to worry me before then, but now I had to know. 

I remember being totally calm during the call, then basically falling apart afterwards.

He had the operation, and was doing well, recovering… He went on holiday with his family in the October; had a great time. We had Christmas at his place and the last picture I have of him is holding his nephew up, smiling with pleasure at the joy Phil’s expressing.

He was doing well, recovering…

And then he wasn’t. 

And then he was dead.

I’d be lying if I said that I still think of Mike every day. I don’t. But every couple of days, something will happen and I’ll think of him. Someone will say something and I’ll remember my brother.

Or it’ll be his birthday.

And I’ll miss him. I’ll miss him so hard it hurts.

Tonight, I’ll pour myself a drink, wander outside for a moment, raise the glass to the heavens, and thank him for being my brother for 33 years.

Rest easy, brother. x 

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.

  1. For some reason your post “Twenty-Two years” showed up in my feed this morning. I’m so glad it did. I love your stories of Michael, I love the way you write – and I relate to the strangeness of being older than your brother now. My mother died at 57, and the past two years (57 and 58) have been sad, surreal and scary (would I make it past 57?). thank you for sharing your stories

    • Thank you! That’s very kind of you to take the time to say so.

      Yeah, that moment when you realise you just woke up on a day they never reached is very odd, and it never quite stops being… odd.

      The blog is kind of on a hiatus at the moment, which should have ended months ago, but I’m starting to feel the itch again. So who knows.

      • 2020 almost killed my creativity. I hope you start writing again

        • Oh, yeah. In my case, I knew I’d take a break after 2019’s blogging but then return.

          But 2020, Covid, and the knowledge that I had nothing to add, nothing to write that other more knowledgable and more sensible people weren’t already writing…

          Yeah, kind of a brutal realisation.

          I’ve kept up a [mostly] daily brain dump elsewhere, but I need to get back to writing more than a couple of hundred words at a time.

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