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22 December 1968

Given how long ago it was my recollections are pieces that don’t make a whole picture but they are connected.

My first recall was returning to school in the new year and pretending to the other children at my primary school that I’d had a wonderful holiday and that Christmas was as exciting for me as I thought theirs had been.

On Christmas day someone unknown to me had delivered to our house a large Esky filled with items that were dispensed to younger siblings and myself.  I received a very ordinary hairbrush and coloured hair elastics. It felt like I was receiving an item from a lucky dip, impersonal and arbitrary.

We may have had the treat of Christmas food like ham and roast chicken with vegetables as we had in past years but I don’t remember what we ate except we gathered as a family and played out Christmas like a silent movie.

Christmas is my favourite time of year.  It was also a time when a few days earlier on the 22nd, my 16 year old brother had died at home, in his bed, sleeping in a dormitory shared with four of his five brothers, below the room that I slept in upstairs, with two younger siblings.  The household was in an ordinary state the evening of his death: dinner was cooked and eaten, dishes washed, showers had, goodnights were said, the dog put into her kennel and the lights turned off.

There was no indication that anything would happen out of the ordinary, apart from one throwaway line, when I had asked Gerard about some forms that he and our mother were discussing, and he replied: ‘they’re for my funeral arrangements’.  Given the occasional sarcasm and cynicism amongst siblings it wasn’t an alarming thing to say and I gave it no further thought.

Very early the following morning I saw my mother walk past my room heading to the stairs that lead to where my brothers slept to wake the elder ones to serve Mass for that morning.  Soon after, I heard my mother run back along the hallway to my father, saying urgently: I think there’s something wrong with Gerard.   I hurried out of bed and followed them to the foot of my brother’s bed staring at the congealed blood under his skin and wondered why he had been playing in mud.  To me, he looked asleep.

I don’t remember anything between finding Gerard’s body and being in the church where the funeral was held.  I remember hymns being sung but not which ones.  I remember riding in a very shiny black car that glided along the road to the cemetery, the darkened windows blocking all exterior noise.  I recall a young boy peddling on his Go-Go bike who stopped as the procession of cars passed.  I don’t remember the cemetery.  I remember food, everywhere, the kind of food that we didn’t regularly consume in our household and the feeling of guilt and strangeness when eating the fruits of hospitality bestowed upon us.

I remember Gerard as quiet and creative, the second eldest of ten children, who wasn’t around much due to his lengthy hospitalisations, who happened to be smiling in most of the photos we have left of him.

So why, upon my return to school back in 1968, some four weeks after Gerard’s death, did I pretend about the events of the school holidays?

The topic of Gerard’s death and his funeral felt concealed.  I couldn’t work out why overt grief was feared.  I knew my brother had died because I had seen his body but I didn’t express my grief as there was no place to do so, nor was I part of a ceremony that authentically commemorated his life or acknowledge us as a family; perhaps a reflection of the social behaviour at that time.

The covertness was so powerful.  There was no talk amongst my brothers, sisters or parents, about how each of us had felt and responded to our brother’s death, or on the topic of death.  There was no place in our community where I could speak about the natural and sad end of my brothers’ life, or to express the confusion I had felt about the incongruent reaction from my parents, community and church.  It was like being in that shiny black car that kept the noises and experience of the world at bay.  I was excluded from the important parts of death and exposed to the worst: the agony of stifled grief and lack of communication.  Nothing around me indicated that it was okay to talk about the death of a family member.

Shroud Memento emerged from my desire to work creatively, involving textiles, organic matter and design.  My brother’s death is seminal to where the creative process has found its place.  Through shroud making, I hope to address the needs of the living at the end of a life, to invite the living to partake in a ceremony to farewell their dead, to invite personal and creative expression and grief, to invite conversations about death.  To acknowledge that death has occurred, lives come to an end and that death will happen to us all.

Soon after Gerard’s death, my parents chose to plant a Flame Tree, in the home garden where we were raised and where Gerard breathed his last breath.  The tree produces vibrant red flowers at Christmas time and throughout summer, fondly reminding me of Gerard.

Wishing you a safe and happy Christmas.

 4 Responses 

  1. Dear Helen, what a stunning piece of writing. So moving and tender and truthful. I am so glad you have found this work. Have a peaceful, restorative Christmas. xx

    • helen

      Thank you Charlottte xx.

  2. Fiona Fitzpatrick

    Hi Helen
    A poignant reflection on your brothers life and your responses, then and now. And while your parents didn’t talk about Gerard’s death , their choice to plant a Flame Tree says a lot about their desire to say something in a different, creative, life giving way. Beautiful.

    • helen

      Hi Fiona. There is so much to say about Gerard’s death whilst aiming to keep the message clear and how I felt as an eight year old. My parents were devastated. It would have been impossible for them to emotionally care for themselves and for us as children at that time. I’ve always appreciated the thoughtfulness and appropriateness of planting the Flame Tree. Every member of my family could write a different version of how our brother’s death affected them. I hope you and your family have a wonderful Christmas. xo

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