My lovely brother is going to die

The T-Shirt my bro wore when he got the ‘bad’ news.

Not good, terminal cancer, the text read. Limping into the first lecture on the WebElevate course in the steel-strewn auditorium, my phone *beeped*. This plug ‘n play’ digi-media environment is all high-tech & low-lighting: exposed brick, flickering laptops, vending machines (with Rancheros!), earphones large enough for chimp heads, flagstone floors, camera pods, see-through steps, a Bistoesque stream of hops snaking through the open window from the Guinness brewery next door. One of the first questions the surgeon asked my brother when they operated a few years ago was if he drank Guinness. Outside 300 people are dressed in Edwardian costume for yet another Titanic drama…silhouetted behind them are local kids beating each other up with tree branches as sabres, a lone junkie talks to her Jack Russell out loud. What is User Centred Design?’ the lecturer asks, and then answers before there’s room for answers. ‘It’s a design process which focuses on the user through the complete design, build, deploy life cycle…’ Afterwards he launches into a long dismal history of design failures: how Sainsbury’s had to write off a $526 million investment for a dud supply chain management system. How could they have missed the spread after so many scans? ‘I woke up in a room on my own, no drip in the hand so I knew they hadn’t operated, nurse couldn’t look me in the eye, doctor came in and said it was everywhere,’ my brother explained, when I rang. The rest is a blank. ‘So…the earlier in the process you discover the issues, the easier it is to fix,’ the lecturer concludes. A bit like cancer.

On the flight to Stanstead a young architect sitting beside me drops his Powerpoint presentation which spreads out under several seats; laminated peacock feathers. A slide on the human-designed environment lodges under the warbling air hostess’ blue stiletto. To fasten your seatbelt, place the metal tip into the buckle, and tighten the straps so that it fits low and tight across your hips. He throws me a ‘look’ for not helping him but I’ve no energy to explain about the wonky hip, an inability to bend, and anyway my brother’s going to die and he has four kids who will have to grow up without him, so there’s no time for floating pleasantries. The eldest turned 17 the day before we found out. ‘I heard about my dad’, she texted from Doncaster, a graphic of a downturned smile. Her younger brother is a Justin Bieber lookalike and only wears designer clothes, funded by a Coca Cola schoolyard scam & other teen-capitalist adventures. He’s great at maths and football and wants to study Science & Engineering in a few years. The younger two, with a different Ma who bolted a few months ago, have also been told. Both have to fill out ‘feelings diaries’ in their lunchtime at their new school. The older of the two, aged 11, has being acting out a bit since. ‘He’s angry,’ my brother says, ‘but the Scouts takes his mind off it…he loves fishing and building things’. Last year when we went to France he hogged my copy of Ulysses, managing to make animated sense of it. ‘The guy’s a total nutter Aunty June, but it’s obvious he’s writing it from inside a DS game’. He informed his English teacher of his findings when he got back to Blightey. The seven year old girl loves to read from an invisible medieval scroll: ‘McDonald of Belfast wishes to marry Caldwell of Dublin, do you agree?’

Adrian: an enduring sense of humour

The drive from Stanstead to Ipswich takes just over an hour, a patchwork of chrome barriers, scorched fields, thatched roofs, shed sellers & spud floggers…the bro’s new Jaguar is smooth as liquidised soup, heated seats to boot, though unlike his BMW there’s no mini-fridge with complimentary bottle of Aspall’s for the journey. This time the drive is laden with horrifying technical info. ‘If the bowel stops working or gets blocked, they’re not going to operate, it’ll be straight to the hospice at that point, so I’ll be properly fucked.’ Yet he’s in great form; positive, composed, weirdly happy. All your droll problems just lift like the cliché says: bills, debts, work, women, blah blah, up and gone. Everything looks different. ‘I can eat as much Ben & Jerry’s as I want’. He might even go on a cruise, the Macmillan nurse is looking into it. There’s some financial advantages too that’ll help with cash flow, an end of life grant of sorts, the option of a motorised scooter to zip up to the nearby Fat Cat for some decent homebrew. ‘There’s great welly in those yokes and I’ll stick de bird on me knee for good measure’. His new lady, as I’ll soon find out, is quirky, warm and interesting. [An equal at last!] Her mum is a vicar and the dad fecked off to Thailand to open a book shop. She collects mini cars to refurb, breeds chipmunks, snores like a miner and has spent over £16K on some very intricate tattoos. ‘She’s had madder jobs than you!’ he boasts. A pet psychologist at one point, prison counsellor, bar manager, farmer. She loves his monstrous snores. ‘They lull her to sleep, can you Adam & Eve it!?’ Only in Ipswich.

Me in my Ma’s arms staring at Adrian’s dodgy 70s bowl cut

The scar on his face is from a wax apple I threw at him in 1977, knocking him out cold, though he still disputes some of the minutiae. ‘You didn’t knock me out!’ We’re sitting in the kitchen of DunPullin – his family home – drinking Biscotti Baileys while the Bison Grass Vodka freezes to a decent down-in-one temperature. ‘He broke my Tower of London mirror.’ I explain, filling in some early life detail. ‘I’m very proud of that scar, proof of fight-back’. I tell her how I robbed his ‘card tin’ for years – he won so much dosh on late-night card games – and I had a teenage cider & fag habit to feed. ‘In 1988 we went on holidays to Portugal, Adrian insisted we pay for a meal in a posh restaurant but run off without eating it. He’s a big fan of reverse logic.’ Six years between us, he followed me to London in 1989, kipped on my couch till he got a place of his own, slept with [all] my friends, laughed into the early hours too many nights to recall. ‘Do you remember when a load of us went on the piss in Richmond, there wasn’t enough room in the taxi, so you said you’d go in the boot!?’ God, yes, I do remember, bombed out of my brain, roaring at the driver to ‘turn left now’ or ‘turn right here’, even though I couldn’t see a thing.

Adrian in the DJ booth of his pub

A year later we lived in Jersey where he worked the bar and I the lounge of a rundown pub, dolling out terrible abuse to geriatric millionaires who’d travelled the world ten times over but had nothing left to do except grow holes in their jumpers & get drunk all day. ‘She was the worst barmaid ever!’ he tells Alison. It’s true, I was. A year after that again we shared a cockroach-infested house in Stratford in London’s east end. His stunt as a cappuccino machine salesman had been a dreadful failure – but we had machines steaming away in every room of the house – almost every night was a party. When I was at Middlesex University in 1992, he ran a pub just up the road, we were never far away. There were holidays to Blackpool when the kids were young, mobile homes in France, trips to Belfast when I rented Castle Chester during the MA. Before the older kids arrive in Ipswich for the weekend, and before I start my usual cooking frenzy (he goes nuts for my leek & potato soup, keep showing him how to make it, but he can’t be arsed) the three of us stroll out to the back garden, where the night sky is clearer than I can ever remember. Alabaster stars flickering against a plush overlay of navy and there it is as we crane our necks: a shooting star, a dying star, zipping across the chaos on its way home. What a crummy beautiful coincidence. We clank our glasses and smile.

*******************************

Adrian Caldwell passed away on 12th August 2012, age 47, nine months after this was written. Here are two tribute articles that appeared in the Ipswich Star – click on the pics below to read. 

Happier (sillier) times in London circa early 90s: me, Rory, Adrian, this pic went into the coffin.

Happier (sillier) times in London circa early 90s: me, Rory, Adrian, this pic went into the coffin.

About junecaldwell

June's short story collection Room Little Darker is published by New Island Books in May 2017. She's a prizewinner of The Moth International Short Story Prize and has been shortlisted and highly commended for many others including: Calvino Prize in Fabulist Fiction, Colm Toíbín International Short Story Award, Sunday Business Post/Penguin short story prize, Lorian Hemingway (USA), RTÉ Guide/Penguin Ireland and Over The Edge New Writer of the Year. In 2010 she received an Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI) bursary for fiction. Her work has been showcased at the Italo-Irish Literature Exchange in Nogarole Rocca / Verona (May 2012), Read For The World (June 2012) and Bloomnibus (June 2013) at the Irish Writers' Centre, Galway Pro Choice (Aug 2013), Over the Edge Galway (Dec 2013), Stinging Fly Spring Launch (March 2014), At The Edge, Cavan (May 2014), The Winding Stair Prizewinner's Reading (Sep 2014), One City One Book: DLR Lexicon Barrytown Trilogy reading (April 2015), Hodges Figgis Book Festival (Oct 2015), Bogman's Canon Fiction Disco (Nov 2015, April 2016), Doolin Writers' Weekend (March 2016), Five Lamps Arts Festival (Mar 2016), National Concert Hall: Kevin Barry Recital Room series (April 2016) and the Eastrogen Rising: A Rebel Cabaret. Her creative writing has been published in Woven Tale Press, The Moth, The Stinging Fly, Literary Orphans and Popshot, as well as a non-fiction biography of a Trouble's moll with Gill and MacMillan in 2006. Her short story 'SOMAT' is published in The Long Gaze Back: The Anthology of Irish Women Writers, edited by Sinéad Gleeson/New Island. Journalism: The Gloss, The Guardian, The Observer, Sunday Times, Sunday Life, Sunday Tribune, Sunday Business Post, Sunday Independent, Ireland on Sunday, Irish Independent, as well as a number of women's magazines and trade journals.

Posted on November 4, 2011, in Cancer, Family, Journeys and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 51 Comments.

  1. Beautiful June and really sad–I won’t say uplifting because it isn’t it is just a beautifully written sad tale– of a real brother and sister relationship over a long time. You are a wonderful writer and I am looking forward to reading your novel. The image I have of your brother is that he has lived a full life– and he is very brave.

  2. There is nothing I can say to make up for the fact that life simply sucks sometimes. What a beautifully written piece it must have been so painful to write. I like your brother a lot and I have never met him, it is so obvious from your writing that you two have a brilliant friendship. Thinking of you Jxxx

  3. I’ve never read anything like this. It made tears cine to my eyes. Your brother is very lucky to have a sister like you during this difficult time. He sounds like the most wonderful man.

    Ali

  4. A fabulous piece of writing.. The bond you have is so beautiful..Hope he gets to go on his cruise.. Don’t know what else to say 😦

  5. This is a really sad read, but so beautifully written. I wish your lovely brother the best.

  6. sorry to hear this but a very well-written piece.

  7. Great piece, June. This must be a very tough time for you and your family. Myself and Fiona are both thinking of ye.

  8. THANKS so much for all the wonderful messages, it’s quite whacked me in the gut. My brother is everything to me. I hugely appreciate all the lovely messages, I just wrote from the heart, without thinking and without stopping. Only way I can make sense of it all. It’s the kind of thing I wish I never had to write. X

  9. That is a truly wonderful homage to your brother. I get the feeling he is your best friend. I can relate to the “whacked in the gut” feeling. Just over seven years ago my aunt died of ovarian cancer. She was 43. I was closer to her than I am to my mother. We had two weeks notice that she was so sick before she died. Tell your brother how much he means to you at every opportunity.

  10. I was in the room when the docs told my husband he was incurable. Punched in the gut doesn’t describe it enough.

    Massive vibes going out to your whole family. Cancer fucking sucks.

  11. Beautifully done, and i’m sorry to hear about your brother. My dad is dying right now of cancer as well (it feels like, right now…) and even though i’m so much older than your brothers children, i find myself a little kid once again – and i wonder, do the feeling journals work?

    • I think it’s probably a good way for kids to 1. express themselves freely and 2. come to terms with the reality of what’s happening, slowly and in their own time, just so gut-wrenching. So sorry to hear about your dad.

  12. I am so sorry for your pain June and I really understand what it is like to go through this. I have just learned this week that my beloved mother has terminal brain cancer and our family has been rocked to its core by this devastating news. Because the brain is the seat of the personality, the very soul of a person, the tumour has stolen our mother from us before she has left this world.She can no longer speak to or recognise us anymore. Cancer is the cruellest of thieves and my heart goes out to you and anyone else suffering a loss like this.

  13. Words fail at a time like this, your brother sounds like a great guy. Beautiful piece of writing.

  14. When I said I was off to read you, I didn’t know the subject June. I’ve done this journey but no part of it with my brother, he was gone too fast. And the journey has no destination.

    The writing and the written pictures are beautiful, as ever.

    • Thanks. He’s handling it all so amazingly that it’s hard to cognise what’s really happening. I’m just gutted for him and the kids, the rest of us are periphery in a way. Thanks to Sarah who also commented and Marie and T and Elana, horribly sad stories about hearing similar news of husbands, mothers, fathers…and the impact it has, and to Kerrie too re: her aunt, and all the comments before that again and on Twitter too. The sheer disbelief (and yet we all know we’re gonna die?), when a lot of nasty wasters live on into their 80s & beyond! It’s so random & crazed, all of it.

  15. Mary O'Brien-Cox

    Beautiful as always. He, like you, is one of a kind. x

    • Ah Mary, thank you! I am finding the ‘news’ quite surreal to be honest, I’m sure this is par for the course. We’re heading over after Christmas for a few days into New Year. He’s so stolid and brave & still laughing. You have your own history too, errrr, being one of my friends! 🙂

  16. What a beautiful, haunting and heartbreaking post, June. I don’t know what to say. I read it a few days ago, but I am still at a loss for words. Your brother sounds amazing. No similar experience, but I’m sure I’d just wallow in self-pity (even more so than usual). Continue to take care of yourself, and each other.

    • Cheers Marianne. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I know it’s an icky subject, though it something we’re all destined to go through, over and over. He’s such a great guy, really good-humoured and such a wonderful father, he’s done a great job of this ‘living’ malarkey so far. Frustrating not being on the same landmass as him, that’s the worst element to all this. Heading over in Dec and then we’ll see [funds pending] after that. Hope to go over as often as possible. I’m not really understanding the reality just yet so memoiresque belches help the head & the heart.

      • I wish I could help (let me know if I ever can, given my location). I didn’t suggest it last time you were over as I didn’t want to intrude (especially during such a difficult time), but if you want to meet for coffee/a pint next time you’re over, just give me a shout. I completely understand if you’d rather not, though, fair enough. 🙂

        Your writing brings tears to my eyes, it’s beautiful, funny and poignant at the same time. And never manipulative or oversentimental. Oh, and ‘memoiresque belches’ = fantastic.

      • Marianne, that’s lovely thanks. I’ll be over around X-mass and New Year. Let’s meet for a coffee!

  17. June, what a beautiful, uplifting, desperately sad, yet poignant piece. Your brother is described in your lovely prose as a man who has enjoyed his life and has a tremendous amount more to offer. Awful news for you and for him. Sorry.

    • Thanks Michael. He’s a great guy & his kids adore him. He’s done such a good job of bringing a ton of fun into their lives. Appreciate the comment. We must have that pint in the Tolka soon!.

  18. Absolutely stunning piece of work June- you blew me away- who needs illustrator!

    • Thanks Sonya. It was spontaneous, our course makes me doubly, trebly realise all I can do is write, and I’ll never make it as a corporate knob! See you on Monday. Mine’s a green tea with lemon.

  19. This is a truly beautiful piece. How happy, hopeful and even though there is a dying star there is still life and where there is life there is always hope.

    Best
    Michelle x

    • Thanks so much Michelle & Flashsays! As the weeks zip by, the whole thing becomes more unreal. He seems ‘in the fit of health’ and is buzzing around as normal in great form.

  20. What a touching story. Funny the things we remember. I wish your brother good health for as long as possible.

  21. I’ve never met your brother (or you!) but you paint such a beautiful picture of him. So many comments here from others affected by cancer. Me too, I lost my mum. Afterwards, I said that everything was as good as it could be, under the circumstances. I hope that it’s the same for you.

  22. Hi June, I came upon this by accident. I don’t know if you remember me (Aisling) but I was a good friend of Adrian when in our 20’s. I am so sad to hear of his illness. Let him know I’m thinking of him. I lived around the corner from you.

    • Hi Aisling! Thanks so much. He was here on a holiday this weekend, still in great spirits but nonetheless ill. I’m heartbroken as he’s the only sibling I really get on with. Yes, I remember you! I’ll make sure to pass on your good wishes. His pen-name on Facebook is ‘Adrian Biglove’ if you want to look him up! Thanks for the good wishes. J x

  23. That would be his fb handle!!! I know it must be heartbreaking, he’s quite the character. It’s amazing because I was only thinking about him last week, remembering when I tinted his eyelashes and eyebrows. Well you can imagine how that turned out!!!!! Take Care . A.

    • Ash, if you’re still in touch with Rory on t’internet, can you let him know the story…It’s been a few years since him & Adrian had contact, but were always close. Ta!

  24. Will do my best June, but I haven’t had contact with him for a very long time.

  25. Adrian Caldwell

    Only just stumbled upon this today and thank you little sister for the kind words and terrible photos, thank you also to everybody else for their lovely thoughts…Adrian Biglove spreading the love throughout the Universe.

  26. John (aka Huey)

    Hi June. Lovely piece. Didn’t even know Aido was sick till I got a text from Ray yesterday. He will always be there in our memories. Hope you get through this.

  27. Beautifully written, June. There’s so much affection, love and warmth in every sentence. Brought a tear to my eye. So very sorry for your loss. You obviously had a wonderful relationship over the years with many memories to cherish.

  28. Well done for managing the intensity of the situation to say so many beautiful things. I find this quite inspiring. Your brother was an Olympian for the average man.

  29. Yvonne Thunder

    Hope Adrian got to read the earlier ones you wrote June and lucky for his children to have such an honest good humoured touching account of their dad and clearly your close relationship with him. Good on you girl! yvonne

  30. Dearest June, your writing is gorgeous but what a sad subject. But you deal with it in your usual way, through words, memories and creativity. My heart goes out to you and may your brother be at peace. Love from Rich xxx

  31. June, you words were amazing at Adrian’s funeral as is this page. Aido was and always will be a legend. Jem xx

    • Thanks so much Jem! I was so proud of his kid’s eulogies too and Ed made me laugh a lot, and hey, the priest was deliciously crazy, was he not? Thanks to all above too for the lovely comments. I feel gutted about losing my brother, but I know we gave him the best send off we could.

  32. sorry meant to write Aidos funeral. guess im not as good at writing as you.

  33. Aido was my best and closest friend for the 17 years he worked at the Cock & Pye. My wife and I were the first couple to come together under his rule and continue to share our lives together. No small part due to Aido and his advice. June, his beautiful sister is a reflection of Aido’s love of life, bloody minded determination and a gifted creator.
    Many people celebrated Aido’s life with a few shandies andante tales. He simply cannot be forgotten and will be sorely missed.
    Thank you, June, for sharing this ode with everyone. Inspiring and honest. Just how I remember your brother.

    • Ah Darren, thank you so much. I wrote this last year when he/we got the news. I remember you as one of his earliest Ipswich friends! Love to you & yours. June x

  34. Wow June…beautiful, made me blubber xx

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