I don’t remember the date, but I remember the night well. It was about 9pm on a Sunday, in April 1986, when I was at my parents' home for dinner.
An overdue apology to my long-dead brother
The phone rang. I'm not sure whether it's my memory playing tricks on me, or if it was the lateness of the call, but I seem to remember picking up the handpiece on the landline with some trepidation.
It was my sister in-law, Kaye, calling to say that my brother, Stephen, and my five-year-old niece, Belinda, had just been killed in a car crash on the road from Kalgoorlie to Eneabba. Fortunately, Kaye and my nephew, Shane, had survived.
The tragedy was brought home to me that night and the following morning, when I had to relay the distressing news to my mother and father, grandmother and grandfather, uncles and aunties. It was not a pretty sight.
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The pain of this was brought home to me over the months and years that followed, as I reflected on the events that led to my brother being on that lonely road to a non-descript town, in a car driven by a drunk 16-year-old friend of the family, on that autumn night -- events that led to this 27-year-old and his daughter losing their lives.
As ashamed as I may be in saying this, and as surprised as you may be in reading it, I don't miss my brother or niece. I never did.
In addition to rarely missing people who have died, I was not close enough to my brother or his daughter to miss them. Indeed, I believe that not missing them has caused me far more pain that any I might have experienced had I missed them.
I'm sure I'm not the first person to feel such a thing. Nor will I be the last!
But for me, this question did cause some pain and still causes me to ponder. Why didn’t I miss him, and to what extent had my attitude or feeling that meant I did not miss Stephen contribute to his dying on that road on that night, in that year? To what extent was all of this my fault?
Don’t get me wrong. I know I wasn't driving the car. I know I didn't pour alcohol down their throats. I know I didn't overload the car with people, or put an unlicenced and inexperienced 16-year-old in charge of it. I know I was not directly to blame, but was I a contributing factor and to what extent?
I'm sure I'm not the first person to ponder such things. Nor will I be the last!
My brother and I were never close, despite living in the same house and sharing a bedroom for the first 15 years of his life. I left home when I was 17.5 years of age and we engaged rarely at all after that, except on Christmas Day and Easter Sunday.
During the time we lived together, our relationship was often combative and confrontational. We were very different people.
He was very skilled with his hands, while I was academic and thoughtful. He was a great sportsman, I understood sport. I was very driven and he was very laidback. I loved music and he was ambivalent about it. I was OCD tidy and he was, perhaps, the most untidy person I have ever known, a real challenge when sharing a room. He was absolutely authentic, honest with himself and others, while was a pretentious, self-obsessed dreamer.
But none of these differences contributed to Stephen's demise, or my response to it. What might have contributed however is my focus on these differences, my intellectual capacity to leverage them to my own advantage and the fact that I was very skilled at positioning him -- in the eyes of others, including his parents -- as ‘less’; less than me, less that he could be and less than he should be. I was very adept at using my superior smarts to position Stephen as not good enough.
I really must have been an insecure young man. After years with a shrink, I now know that I was very insecure and I know why, but none of this was the fault of my brother.
The truth is, and only time has revealed this to me, Stephen was no hero. But rather than being less, his authenticity made him more; and rather than being not good enough, his capacity to forgive made him more than worthy. Besides, he deserved better, even if he were none of these things
I know that my positioning of my brother and my associated behaviour did not directly cause what happened on that lonely road on that Sunday night in 1986, But it was a contributing factor.
Stephen always felt like an outsider. He always felt less than. He always felt that he was not good enough, and I know I contributed to that feeling.
Since Stephen's death, I have had a good relationship with his son. I have put some effort into this and my relationship with his wife, even though we have nothing in common. I have always worked to make them know that they are NOT less, that they are very much good enough. Hopefully, this has been some good that has come out of something so tragic.
I have also worked hard to understand and live by my values in a way that would start to make amends for my sins and Stephens pain. It is not enough, but it is a beginning, I hope.
But there is one thing I have never done, and that is apologise to Stephen for my behaviour towards him. It is too late for this, or is it?
You were, in truth, more; and you were more than good enough.