The brother who never was

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll have probably heard me talk about my younger brother Peter, who to my children is just ‘cool’ Uncle Pete. Technically, though, I’m not one of two brothers: I’m one of three.

We never talk about Michael.

The brother who never was

Michael was my other brother. The brother I never had the chance to grow up with. The son my parents never had the opportunity to raise.

Born in the spring of 1974, he lived for only a few days. Infant mortality was more common back then.

He would have turned 40 recently. I’m not sure exactly when his birthday was. I know my dad used to have his birth date as one of his regular numbers on his football pools coupon, but otherwise we’ve never marked the day or even spoken openly about it as a family.

Without Michael there would have been no Peter. I know my mother was distraught after Michael’s death – we’ve never spoken about it – and desperate for another child. (Both my parents come from large families.) She was nearly 39 when Peter arrived. Although that’s not especially old to give birth now (Heather was only a couple of months younger when Kara was born), it was rare in those days. My mother has always been a determined woman.

The brother who is

Peter wasn’t the healthiest baby at birth and was subsequently hospitalised on a few occasions with childhood asthma attacks. Mum was, understandably, compulsively protective of him. She still is.

My brother, with two brothers

My brother, with two brothers

I didn’t take the resultant shift in attention to Peter well. I didn’t appreciate why it had to be that way until my late twenties. In truth, it hasn’t been until I became a father myself that I have fully understood how all-consuming the instinct to protect our children is. Being a mother who has suffered the loss of a child – I can only imagine how that feels.

The gap in age – six years – didn’t help our relationship. We weren’t the worst of enemies but neither were we the best of friends, and while we’re not finish-each-other’s-sentences close, we get on well now.

The brother who might have been

With Michael, the difference would have been three-and-a-half years. What kind of bond might I have formed with him?

I see one possible scenario every day. Isaac and Toby are closer together in age (25 months apart) and although, like my brother and I, they are very different personalities, they’re also practically inseparable. They do things apart, of course, but they also do so many things together.

Without getting too maudlin about it, I see in the way Isaac is with Toby how things might have been for me with Michael. What might have been.

So what does the brother who never was mean to me now?

It’s made me acutely conscious of wanting to build good memories for my children. The final example I talked about in my recent post about childhood memories – of walking to the station with my dad on a cold morning – is both one of my earliest memories and also one of my saddest, because it relates to the brief time my mother was in hospital with Michael.

Also, because I never saw Michael – or, if I did, I don’t remember it – I never got the chance to form even a fleeting image of him. To all intents and purposes he never existed: no photos, no keepsakes, just a name, a birth certificate (and presumably a death certificate too) and an empty space that none of us ever acknowledges. No memories to hold on to, only an occasional thought of what might have been.

After years of not really thinking – and certainly never talking – about Michael, I don’t really know what else to say other than that, for a brother I never knew, I miss him very, very much.

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36 thoughts on “The brother who never was

  1. Hey Tim, just wanted to tell you that this piece really struck a chord with me.

    I’m the eldest of three, and the only brother, but I think a lot about our older brother who would have made us a brood of four had he not been stillborn.

    My family (well, my parents and I, anyway) sometimes talk about my elder brother Mario. I’ve never really thought that I was the best big brother to my sisters, and I guess my personality is such that I would feel a lot more comfortable had I not been the eldest. Being the eldest brings with it certain responsibilities, and if I’m honest I’ve never carried these with any real aplomb. I certainly feel that I’ve learned more from my younger sisters than I think they have learned from me. Plus there is the simple joy for a boy to have a brother. Even if my dad says that maybe Mario might have turned out to be less than my ideal imaginations of him (and me growing up as the second son and not the first and only), I still think my life would have been sweetened by having a brother. My sisters, for sure, are probably happier because they have each other. In a more ideal universe, perhaps we would have been a balanced brood of four; maybe we would even have been even happier than we already are.

    Anyway, thanks for writing a brilliant piece, as always. I read every single one, but this one moved me much more than usual.

    • Thanks Joe, that means a lot to me. I think it’s fine to wonder what things might have been like in alternate universe where our brothers had both lived. But your dad’s right too – things would never have been 100% perfect, just different. Better in some ways, yes, but maybe not so great in others.

  2. How sad. I have twins (now 25) but when they were around 3 years old they were playing in a ball pit with two little boys and I asked their Mum if they were twins and she told me they were triplets, the third having died shortly after birth like Michael did. Incidentally my two are boy/girl fraternal and like chalk and cheese, but they are best mates.

    • Your story about those other kids is so sad – it must be a question that poor mother musty have been asked constantly, always dredging up the past.

      It’s interesting when you have chalk-and-cheese siblings – their differences seem to work for them rather than against them. I’m the same in my adult life too – most of the people I’m close to either in or outside work have totally different styles and preferences to me. Opposites attract?

  3. Reading this made me quite emotional. It’s funny, how we can miss something or someone we never really knew, because of the impact they had on our lives, despite not actually ever meeting or seeing them. I think making good memories for our children is so important. Lovely piece.

    • Thanks for your kind comment. In the same way that sometimes we don’t realise what we have until it’s gone, as I’ve got older I’ve become increasingly curious about what might have been if Michael had lived, or if I had chosen the proverbial ‘path not taken’ …

  4. I’m very sorry about your brother. This really struck a chord with me, as I lost my first child, Hugo, earlier this year when he was just a month old. If we are able to have more children, I wonder what they will wonder about the big brother they will know only through photos and our memories. xxx

    • I’m very sorry to hear about Hugo – losing a child must be so much more painful than a three-year-old losing a brother. It’s odd that, every now and then, I feel a really deep sense of loss for a brother I never knew, never remember and have barely even seen a photo of. Most of the time it’s as if he never existed (which, to all intents and purposes, he never did for me). But just occasionally I register the person-shaped hole that exists just beyond my regular field of vision …

  5. I have been fortunate enough not to have lost anyone significant in my life, so I cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like to have someone that was so important missing from your life.

    I think the title of your blog post says it all. Michael may only have lived for a short while, but he left a never ending imprint on the people in your family. I am sure that it is only natural to wonder how things may have been if Michael had lived and watching your own children together must stir up emotions and thoughts.

    Thank you for sharing this personal story. Stopping by from the #popularblogposts link up.

    • Thanks Debbie. It’s odd that the older I get the more Michael creeps into my thoughts. For many years while I was growing up it was as if he never existed. But now I’m more conscious than ever about the hole that exists in the periphery of my life. Not so much sadness as the sense that something is missing.

    • Thanks Vicki, you’re very kind. I’d been trying to write this post for over two years – somehow it just felt right to put something in writing.

  6. Really touching post. It’s strange how we miss people we didn’t really know. It’s brought back memories of my cousin who died when he was a few days old. I was 5 and remember the funeral but nothing else. He would have been 30 this year.

    • Thanks Tas. I can also remember my paternal grandfather’s death, at least insofar that I was six at the time and spent a lot of time sitting around outside a hospital (I wasn’t allowed in) and then seeing him in a coffin and going to his funeral. I knew I should be sad, but I’d only seen him a couple of times before (he was in Malaysia, we’re in the UK), so looking back it felt more that I was sad for a concept more than a person. Even now, I only really know him through photos and stories – even though I don’t have my own memories of him, he lives on through those.

  7. Very poignant writing – and it reminded me of the older brother that I never knew. He also only lived for a few days and was never spoken about. I don’t think that there are even any photos of him sadly.

  8. Thanks for sharing this. My parents had a cot death son who would have been my older brother. I have often wondered how life would have been diffetent. And I teally buy in to working as hard as possible to create positive childhood memories.

    • Ultimately memories is all we have. (And Facebook, and Twitter, and Instagram …)

      It was only a generation ago, but it was a very different age. A handful of photos, no social media, infant mortality significantly more common than it is now. At least now medical science has moved on and it’s easier for us to create memories for our kids …

  9. To me the saddest thing about this post is “never spoken about.” Silence does not protect children from grief and loss, though it may be the best that a grieving parent can do. Certainly it would have been what your parents were taught to do. But you did have a brother – it’s not that he never was. It’s that you never knew him, that his life was short, that you were never given the chance to explore what this meant within your family. I am glad you are doing so now.

  10. A beautiful post – it is strange how sometimes people we never knew can touch us so deeply and I am so sorry for the loss of your brother. One of my cousins had twin girls and lost one to a cot death – I was about eight at the time and have very vague memories of that baby girl and the shock at her death. I never look at her sister without thinking of the twin who died – what would she have been like now? Her loss is something that is never spoken about though. I’m glad that you are keeping your brother’s memory alive by talking about him so that he is no longer the ‘brother who never was’

    • Thanks Louise. The death of any child is always such a tragic event – a life unlived – and it has taken me many years to realise how much Michael’s death impacted both my parents and ultimately both my brother and I too. Sometimes I can go months without thinking about him, but then he’ll just pop back into my head. He’s always there somewhere.

    • He is there. Funny how the passage of time has slowly lifted the repression of that time. My memory is still completely vague, but I do occasionally wonder what might have been.

  11. Beautiful post Tim, so thoughtful and considered. My hubby has a similar story, a sister that never was. As you said this was a lot more common in the 70’s and early 80’s #thetruth

    • We’re very fortunate to live in a time where infant mortality is so much less than it used to be, although sadly it still happens. I can’t imagine what it feels like – we can only empathise.

  12. This is so sad Tim. It’s funny how different people react to the loss of a child – maybe your mother’s over-protectiveness of Peter was a displacement of her grief. That doesn’t make it any easier on you though. My two are three years apart and seem to become closer every day too (although it’s a love/hate relationship as I guess all siblings have!). I guess this is another reminder that remembrance is hard but so important in our lives. Thanks so much for linking up with The Truth about again X #thetruthabout

    • Thanks Sam. I’m sure that’s exactly what it was – and when you look at it dispassionately the reasons are obvious. That’s the thing with the death of a child like that – the grief gradually lessens, but the scars never go away.

  13. So sad! I can’t imagine what your parents had to have gone through emotionally. While we hear about things from the perspective of a parent who has lost a child, we never really hear about the effect it has on the siblings. This was very moving.

    While we haven’t had to go through the loss of a live birth, when I was 18 my mother suffered a loss very late in pregnancy. We had all been so excited to meet this new little life and were forever feeling her kick in mom’s belly…it was a great loss for all of us. Luckily, she had another child 2 years later (who is now 7) and we are all very protective of him! Although he doesn’t “replace” the one she lost, the beauty of his life overshadows the pain of loss.

    Thank you so much for sharing!

    • Thanks! The loss of an unborn child can be just as painful in many ways, and leaves its own set of scars. It’s different to losing a ‘live’ child, but still a loss nonetheless.

  14. It must be so sad for you, not having anything to remember him by, or know his birthday. I think in those days it was probably received wisdom not to involve children who were too young to realise what was happening, and I can see why that sort of makes sense at the time, but it seems like it’s much harder for you now. I’m really glad you and Peter have a good relationship these days :)

    • Thanks Michelle. It’s an odd sense of loss – it’s not so much that I miss a brother who was there as I’m aware of a gap where he should have been, one which has subsequently been filled in a different way.

      I’m sure you’re right that it was the done thing not to raise the discussion with children. But it’s also a shame that this puts up barriers which are subsequently difficult to overcome. It’s no one’s fault – just how things are.

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