Saturday, 27 July 2013

Stephen My Brother

Some people are blessed with perfect families. I was just blessed.


I want to tell you a little about my brother. He was born just over a year after I arrived. For the first three day's of his life everything was perfect. On day three my world changed. A tiny virus so small it can't be seen wrecked everything. Stephen was only day's old when he got meningitis. The worst kind of nightmare illness. I was only a baby myself so knew nothing of the horror that was unfolding in my family. This tiny invisible thing wrecked havoc on my parents and my brother.

For days Stephen fought for his life. The doctors and nurses worked, my parents were devastated, I was oblivious while most important my brother refused to give even an inch to this monster. An adult may come through such a thing once in a dozen cases, a three day old baby, one in a million. That is my brother for you, one in a million.

When you live so closely with another person you are not aware of differences. That is how it is with us. To others he had problems. They could see them but not me. He was always my brother, nothing more. The virus caused his head to swell as a baby, it was half again as big as mine. I just called him big head. He had trouble balancing. I climbed, he did not. He struggled in learning, so what. I was oblivious to any differences.

That changed one sunny day when I was in first class. Stephen was in senior infants. I came out for big break and found him crying in the yard. He would not tell me what was wrong, he just cried and tried to hide away from everyone. My best friends brother told me a boy in Stephens class called Niall Reddington had been bullying him, calling him names and pushing him around. I can still feel the rage I felt that day.

I cried hysterically with fury. Not little tears but huge sobs from deep in my chest. I never knew hate but that changed. I wanted to kill that boy, really kill him. I went after him but Thomas and a few others physically held me down. Pinned me to the ground while I cried and fought to be free. In the end it was Stephen that stopped me from hurting Reddington. He  came up to me and asked what was wrong, was I ok. He did not understand that it was his tears that had triggered my melt down. To him  I came first, my pain superseded his. To this day I have never forgiven Reddington for bullying my brother and never will. I don't know what Stephen thinks because he never mentioned it again.

This was the first time but not the last time for such horrible incidents. Each one galvanising a rage in me I would otherwise be incapable of. I am sorry to say I have dealt out punishments with a vengeance that scared me. Sometimes I felt outside myself, it was terrifying. I wish I could say that the bullies were always so easy to deal with. I cant. Of all the shitty things I have done in my life there is only one I would go back and change at any cost. It's is a simple game of fort.

I was about 8 and Stephen 7. We were living in the haunted house in Galway. Dad had just begun adding on a bathroom. He had a land drain and a septic tank sunk into the field out the back of the house. It was summer and the neighbours kids had come over to play. The clay had dried into lumps that exploded with puffs when thrown. The clouds of dust were just like hand grenades to an eight year old mind. We had formed two army's and took up defensive positions on either side of  the open tank. Thomas commanding one battalion and me the other. Stephen wanted to play. To my shame I did not want him on my team. I shoved him and made him leave,  not letting him play with us. Even now typing these words the shame of this simple betrayal makes my skin crawl. He left in tears. Stephen nearly never cried. He walked away quietly. Even then not wanting to make a big scene.  As we played that day I knew in my eight year old brain my sole was tainted forever. His look of disappointment is burned into my mind and I will never forgive my self for causing it.

We both went to the same primary school but after that I went to the Tec and he went to a different school. At least we were on the same bus. Stephen always sat beside the bus driver. Some times I did as well but others times I sat at the back with the other boys. I can't ever remember anyone being mean to Stephen or the others from his school on the bus. Mostly because Joe the bus driver was a scary dude and would have ripped you a new arsehole if you were.

After finishing secondary school I went to college in Dublin, Stephen stayed home. He kept some birds and worked in a local pottery centre. He loved both of these things. He never smoked, never drank or chased women. These were my pursuits. I never noticed how he had changed but looking at photos now it easy to see his health was waning. About a year into my college life I got a call to say that Stephen was sick and to come home.

He had a tumour in his spine. It was causing him to have pins and needles as well as making his balance worse. The doctors wanted to operate but it was not straight forward. This tumour was actually attached to his spine. He went in on a Friday for the operation and that was the last time I saw him standing by himself.

When he woke from the anaesthetic he began to spasm with pain. Not an ache. Spasms of pain so intense his whole body would arch in agony. Only his head and heels remaining in contact with the bed. Slowly it would abate only to happen again minutes later. Again and again it would happen until between the drugs and exhaustion he would collapse into sleep. I slept in a chair by his side during these nights. The rest of the family stayed with him during the days. The hospital did not ask us to leave or even respect visiting hours. They gave us coffee and sympathy. Between the spasms if you asked Stephen how he was doing. He looked at you with those innocent eyes and said "I'm fine," only to be bowed with agony a moment later.


That is the most wonderful thing about Stephen. He never once felt sorry for himself. If I was in his shoes I would have raged against the world. Not him. He was always fine, never gave out, never once complained or was even in a bad humour. That has been said about a lot of people. When I say never, I mean never with capital letters.

What ever my brothers illness took from him it also gave him gifts. He never knew what it was to tell a lie. (Not that his truths were easy to take). A contrary old neighbour once said to Stephen in front of my mother "Your such a good boy, would you not come and live with me."
To which Stephen replied "I would rather sleep in the ditch"
"Stephen!!" my mother scolded  but he just looked perplexed and said "What? it's the truth". Even my mother had to admit he had a point.
He had no greed in him and was granted patience and good nature enough for a nation.


For years his condition worsened. His mobility slowly decreased. He began using a stick, then a walker until at last he ended up needing a wheelchair. His spine began to twist, his hearing became weak. He was loosing feeling in his legs by the day. At last he was called to the specialist office with Dad.

"Stephen" he said " we can do something about the curve in your spine but it will mean that you will never walk again."
Stephen just said with all his normal candour " I cant walk now, what difference will that make" another life changing decision made simple.
He never let his difficulties stop him doing anything. He still cared for his birds, went to work, cooked his own meals. He directed his life on his terms. Once the operation to fix the curve in his spine went ahead, the pace of his problems increased. With the lack of movement came pressure sores and infections. In the beginning they were once and a while. But soon became more frequent.

I don't want to go into the years of hell that he endured, hundreds of painful procedures, dozens of infections, countless hours of probing and humiliation all taken without one word of complaint. Not one word ever!

Stephen was 33 when I got a call to say he was back in Hospital and it was not good this time. He had kidney infection and was not fending it off. They rushed him to Dublin where they did everything they could but by now none of the drugs were working. A week later they sent him home to our local hospital were he could be near his family for the end. He died in the ambulance on the way back but Stephen would not be told what or when to do anything. It was on his terms or none at all.   He died, but refuse to leave. Back he came.

A hour turned into four and then a night. Stephen was still with us but his body was running on pure will. The infection spread to his lung. Slowly the fluid began to build As he lay in his bed he began to drown. The doctors increased his medication to make him comfortable. Day and night one of us were by his side. I was alone with him when a miracle happened.

It was a little after four am when his movements changed. His breathing became less laboured and he opened his eyes. I stood and leaned over his face. His eyes were looking around and seemed to be taking in the room for the first time since his medication was increased. I smiled and he looked directly at me. I held up my thumbs and shouted " IS EVERYTHING OK" what a stupid thing to say.
I saw his mind registering who I was and putting together what I was trying to say to him. That was when he said the words that broke my heart and still break my heart now.

"I'm fine".

Having endured more than any other person I have ever known he said I'm fine. Then he faded back into sleep. He never woke again. He fought and fought for another five days but his body could not take it any more. I sat in the room with mam, dad and my sister when he took in his last breath before slowly leaving it all the way out. Never to take another. Hours earlier I had silently pleaded with whatever god was out there to take him and not make us suffer like this.

When his chest did not rise again I was relieved. I want to say that I was relieved for him but it was for me. I don't think I could cope anymore with such agony. Selfish, selfish, SELFISH!!! Another moment I will hate myself for eternally. Tears dribbled into my shirt as I mourned the passing of the bravest man I will ever know. Not for the way he left this world but how he had spend every hour since he had been born 33 years earlier.

I love you Stephen and your always with me.
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