“Life is so cruel,” it was all I could think of to say to my nephew Stuart, who was on the other end of the phone.
I was sat on the Brompton Road, the traffic rushing passed me with far too much haste, slight drizzle beginning to fall. I had missed Stuart’s message on Facebook, the day before, I’m not great with social media, so I was returning his call. Stuart wanted me to hear it from someone who knew me, a friendly voice.
Dave, my only brother, had died, suddenly, two days ago.
But he was healthy, strong, looking forward to the future, looking to finally retire, making plans. It wasn’t fair.
I was stunned, as if someone had kicked me in the side of the head. This wasn’t real. But my eyes glazed over with tears.
Still sitting there, I called Martin, my husband. I told him what had happened, and as I did it slowly began to feel real, slowly my mind was processing the shock.
My tube journey home felt unreal, like I was stuck in a vivid dream. People were behaving as they normally do. Laughing, talking, reading their phones, ignoring the others around them, and pushing onto the tube so they could get the last seat. I wanted to shout at them, “It’s not fair! None of this is right!” But I didn’t. I just sat there, staring at a stupid poster advertising Tinder.
When I arrived home to an empty house, I locked the front door behind me and screamed in frustration, my voice bouncing around the empty room.
Dave is thirteen years older than me. That might not sound much to an adult, many people have partners thirteen years older or younger than them, but to a child it is an impossibly large gap. Dave left home, to go to university, at eighteen, when I was only five. He didn’t return to living at home, even after he finished his degree, instead embarking off on his own life. He was more like a young uncle to me, than a brother. We simply didn’t have the chance to be close.
What also didn’t help us was that my parents saw Dave as the perfect son and, all through my childhood and adolescence, they compared me unfavourably to him. In my parents’ eyes, I could never be as good a son as Dave. It wasn’t his fault, he didn’t even know they were doing it, but it didn’t stop me being resentful. It was only as an adult I discovered that my parents compared all three of their children to each other and always unfavourably.
Also, as adults, we lived so far apart. He had settled in Lancashire, I live in London, and I don’t drive. I simply thought we were never meant to be close.
Linda, Dave’s wife of over forty years, died at the height of the Covid lockdown. She didn’t die from Covid, but that wasn’t important, when she died Dave was isolated by the lockdown. He rang me, in a terrible state, to tell me what was happening. I kept ringing him over the following days, reaching out to him. Then, that afternoon, he texted me, Linda had died. I was in the middle of our busy District Nurse office. I went to the next office, which was empty, its staff redeployed, and rang him back. He was in a terrible state, on his own at the hospital. I wanted to just reach out down the phone and comfort him but I couldn’t, I only had words. So I told him how sorry I was.
I wasn’t able to attend Linda’s funeral, only a handful of people were allowed to be there. I knew why I couldn’t be there but I still felt I was letting him down. We talked a lot over the phone a lot over the following days, and weeks, and then months.
Dave travelled down to London as soon as the lockdown lifted. He was being inducted into the Fellowship of Engineers. We were able to have dinner with him the evening before. He travelled down on his own and spent the afternoon walking around Covent Garden. He revisited the places where he and Linda had visited so often before, together, but that day he was presented with what he’d lost. He was almost swamped with grief. As a nurse, I’ve looked after many people at the end of their lives. I have seen so many relatives drowning in grief. Every time, I wanted to press a syringe to their skin and draw out all of their grief and pain and sadness, freeing them from it. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t do the same for my own brother, but I so wanted to. I told him if was normal what he was feeling and I told him I was sorry.
That evening the three of us talked, talked easily and openly. Dave and Martin talked as equals, both as professionals, but from different specialities. Before Martin joined us, Dave and I talked as brothers. We had so many different things in common.
When Dave rang me and told me he had met a new partner, all I felt was relief. He wasn’t on his own anymore. Not for a moment did I think he was trying to replace Linda, he had loved her for such a long time, but now he had found companionship.
Martin and I met Margaret, Dave’s new partner, on a bright spring Sunday, on London’s South Bank. Both Martin and I were struck by how happy they were together, and it was such a pleasure to see. I could file away that memory of that winter night, the memory of Dave so lost, and not worry about it again.
Dave travelled down a lot to see Margaret and was able to see me too, and I looked forward to those visits. Suddenly I found we had so much in common. He knew my parents as well as I did and saw the things that I saw, that I didn’t know if I could have told anyone else. I didn’t have to explain my parents to him, I didn’t have to make excuses or justify what happened, because he already knew them. We could talk about all those things without explanation. When I published my first book, he championed it and that meant so much to me. He’d read it and enjoyed it, he even recognised the inspiration behind some of its stories.
As a child I longed to have an older brother. Someone who knew me, was on the same wavelength as me, someone who knew the same things as me. As a middle-aged man, I suddenly found I had the brother I had always wanted. Dave and I were finally getting to know each other. I looked forward to talking with him and seeing him, especially seeing him. His visits to London helped me get through last year, which was a difficult year for me. He was happy again and he was making plans for the future. Martin and I were planning on coming and seeing him this summer, but suddenly it was all taken away.
I have lost my brother suddenly and without any warning. I cannot find any meaning or purpose in what has happened. How can something positive come from all this? All I can think is, “Life is so cruel.”
Dave Payne 1953 to 2023
(Thank you to my niece Rachel, who first posted the picture of Dave I used here. It so perfectly captures him)