This day is always a peculiar one for me. The birthday of someone who will forever remain young in my mind. 34, skinny, good looking, and one of the loveliest people I had the pleasure of being related to. But it’s sandwiched between happy days, and therefore I always end up with a strange mix of emotions during this week.
My Uncle died when I was 9. It was, I suppose, the first real experience I ever had of death, and of being confronted with the knowledge that I was never going to see that person again. I know that losing someone never gets easier, but this first memory is the one that always stays in my mind. It’s the first time I remember feeling gut-wrenching loss, but not really understanding it at the same time.
I guess I should explain. I was a fairly sheltered child. Not in the high-maintenance, never-wanted-for-anything, kind of way. Not at all. Simply that I grew up in a happy family, and therefore never really experienced extreme negative emotions. Not to mention the fact that when you’re a kid living in that kind of environment, death isn’t something you tend to think about in a realistic way. It’s something that’s scary, sure. But I for one had never considered the possibility of anyone I actually knew dying. It was something that happened in films, and to famous people, and to really old people. But not to people that I saw everyday, and who were young, fit and healthy. That just didn’t happen in my mind. Naive, yes. But I was only 9.
Not only was I only 9, but I had an active imagination. That meant that when my parents had to tell me that my Uncle (Henry) had died the night before, the first logical explanation my mind jumped to was that he’d been murdered. Kind of laughable in hindsight, but at that moment in time it was the only thing that made even the slightest sense. I’d seen him only a few days before (at my brother’s birthday), and in my head people either died because they were old, or because they’d been killed. I can’t even begin to imagine how my parents managed to remain straight-faced at that assumption. I mean, I guess I can, they’d both just lost their best friend, but to hear your child jump straight to murder must’ve been a bizarre experience. And slightly ironic I suppose in a twisted way, because, as I eventually found out, it was an act of suicide.
It still surprises me how clearly that night is engraved in my memory. Almost 12 years later, and I can still see my Dad’s expression, trying to hold it together as they corrected my over-active imagination. I still don’t know how I’d ever go about trying to explain to a child that the person that they see almost every day isn’t ever coming back. I still don’t know if I can fully explain it to myself, the fact that certain people aren’t ever going to be in my life again. The thought makes me feel a little bit sick actually, so I have so much love and respect for my parents for managing to explain. Albeit over several conversations, but I don’t think the first experience of losing someone, combined with the added emotion of discovering they chose that fate, is something that you can discuss in one sitting. Especially not with a 9 year old.
I’m fairly certain that I still don’t know all of the details, but I think I’m okay with that. For a long time, I didn’t want to know physically how he died, the knowledge that he’d taken his own life was enough for me. But I did eventually find out the details, at least the general ones. I was angry, actually, when I found out. Because I still wasn’t really ready to hear it, but the person who told me felt that I should know. So that I knew the “truth” as it were. In all honesty it just caused me to relive that feeling of confusion and disbelief that I felt that first night, by this point a good two or three years previously. Then, moving into my teens, I became angry at him. My Uncle. For forcing everyone to feel this way. I hear that’s a natural response when someone close to you dies, but at the time I felt sickened. By his choice, and then simultaneously by my anger towards him.
I still occasionally feel like that. When I think about this day, and the 14th of December, two dates that my entire family are always going to feel shaky and sad and confused and hurt on. But mainly I try to smile in his memory. I sing his favourite songs, and find the few photos I have of us together, and try really really hard to find the smell of woodsmoke. Because that instantly reminds me of him. And I guess this feeling doesn’t ever really go away – it’s been 12 years, but I still get choked up thinking about it. And again, I think I’m okay with that. It’s a reminder that I had a fantastic person in my life for even just a little while. And, as cliche as it sounds, sometimes the pain or grief is necessary in order to remember the good parts too.
So, sadness aside, this is a song I recorded for Henry. It always makes me think of him, my Dad, and a little bit my brother too. (Apologies for the dreadful quality of the recording, but when you’re using a make-shift recording device you do the best you can.)