The saddest words: what might have been

Feeling responsible for other people, to some degree, is an integral part of life. PHOTO: GETTY...
Feeling responsible for other people, to some degree, is an integral part of life. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Today, September 24, 2020, marks six years since my brother John passed away.

It seems almost inconceivable that he has been missing from my life for that length of time.

Four of our younger siblings have grown older than he was at his death.

I have moved to the other side of the world, grown up somewhat, and we all are in the midst of a global pandemic.

But life goes on. I can't help but wonder where John would be these days, if he were still alive.

He would be 24 and, I like to imagine, happy, successful and settled in life.

But would our sibling relationship have remained the same? Would we still be talking each day on Facebook Messenger, sending each other gifs of small animals? Would I still be encouraging him to set goals and work towards them? Would we still tease our mother mercilessly about her inability to pronounce foreign words? Would we still be best friends?

My brother was only 18 months younger than me and, for as long as I can remember, I have looked out for him. There were of course childhood fights, punch-ups in the back garden, and squabbles over who got to play Aragorn in our Lord of the Rings games.

But when it came down to it, I was his protector, carer and best friend. And when I needed it, he was mine.

I looked out for him in the school yard and was fully prepared to fight anyone who upset him. I encouraged him with his drawing and schoolwork, just as he cheered on my pursuits and remarked wistfully that he had my painting talents.

My mother and I would sit patiently beside him, coaching him on biology terminology for school, and demanding that he just sit down and finish that darn essay. He was overjoyed for me when I did well at school and accepted a scholarship to Otago University.

Later, when the depression began to drag him down, I sat up all night on suicide watch, knocking on his bedroom door every few hours, my chest tight with anxiety.

I would buy his favourite treats — TimTams, lamington squares and Bluebird chips — and place them outside his bedroom door. They remained untouched. He would have done the same for me.

I am reminded of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, the first two sons of Adam and Eve.

After Cain had murdered his brother Abel, God asked him where his brother was. Cain answered, ‘‘I know not; am I my brother's keeper?’’

It is a question I wonder myself, although I of course did not murder my brother. But the question of whether I could have done more to save him haunts me every day.

John took his own life. But his death was not inevitable. There were warning signs, if only we had been listening. He could have been saved.

How ingrained in our moral psychology is the obligation to protect and care for a family member? How far does one's love and respect for a sibling extend? What glues us together? Is it the memories we cherish from our childhood, or perhaps the shared frustration we feel towards our parents?

Since John's death, I have felt strangely restless, as if every new space I inhabit is merely temporary.

Sometimes I wonder if I, like Cain, am destined to wander the world. Perhaps I will never feel happy in one place. I was living in Edinburgh when I learned of John's death. I had moved to Scotland in search of new adventures, but all I wanted was for my brother to visit me.

Grief leaves no visible mark, but the emotional wounds are deep.

No person drives me from the land, but I find it impossible to stay long in places that remind me of my brother. I cannot bear to drive past his grave in Waihi Cemetery, with its sad wilted flowers and faded plastic windmills. I rarely visit the school we attended together, and I no longer bike along the Hauraki Rail Trail, where I spent many summer afternoons with him.

Even though it has been six years, I still feel responsible for John.

He visits me in my dreams, but rarely are these dreams peaceful. Instead, I'm chasing after him, gripped with an inexplicable panic that something dreadful is about to happen. This sense of protectiveness extends to my other siblings and I sometimes wonder if I might smother them with love.

I am gradually coming to realise that feeling responsible for other people to some degree is an integral part of life.

You cannot love someone without caring for their wellbeing, or feeling responsible in some way for their happiness. This feeling is nothing to be ashamed of.

While we are not wholly responsible for another's actions, we can certainly help each other to ‘‘bear one another's burdens’’.

Jean Balchin, a former English student at the University of Otago, is studying at Oxford University after being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.

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