Mark has two daughters and lives just outside Cambridge, where he was born and brought up along with younger brother Jonny by their mum Lily. Jonny and Lily died in 2018, within three months of each other. Here, Mark talks about how their deaths have affected him and how he is facing the challenge of moving on not from but with his grief.
Mark's brother Jonny with their mum Lily
Monday 7 September 2020 was an important day for me. After seven years I finally sat the viva for my PhD and passed (with amendments). Coincidentally, it was the second anniversary of my mum’s death.
She was 83 and had insisted that she was only staying alive long enough to see me get my PhD. She was madly proud of me getting my BA and my MA and attended both ceremonies, despite the fact that the second one was in Chelmsford (the first time Mum had left Cambridge in over a decade; she barely even left the house afterwards), and she understood the significance of achieving a PhD.
The poignancy of this timing has been overwhelming.
My mum had been coughing, frequently violently, for over a year. This coincided with a change in her prescription for an inhaler for COPD. She never really got on with it. Eventually the coughing became so bad that we took her to hospital where she was diagnosed with pneumonia, and the correct treatment was administered. The medical staff were concerned that her condition was not improving as they expected, and further exploratory work revealed that lung cancer was preventing the pneumonia treatment from getting through.
My family and I stayed with her in hospital for the two weeks it took her to die. Her last coherent words were ‘I don’t think this is going to end well’, after which the morphine took her.
I thought I’d feel free when she died, but I didn’t. We’d bonded too closely by then.
I had spent the last few years going to her house every weekend, taking her shopping to Tesco, watching old TV shows from the ‘70s which reminded us both of when I was growing up in that house with her. Funnily enough, it’s the house that I miss most. It was my childhood home. It was my anchor. It was my bolt hole between failed marriages.
Lily with Mark in happier times
September 7th was also four days after what should have been my younger brother’s 53rd birthday, but he also died two years ago, just three months before my mum.
Jonny was a full-blown alcoholic and although he’d been clean from his addition to heroin and crack cocaine, he still took other drugs recreationally, only smoking joints rather than just roll-ups, for instance. Jonny died after Strawberry Fair (an annual music and arts festival that has taken place in Cambridge for over 40 years). He’d spent the day peacefully with his friends, drinking solidly, smoking spliffs, and holding court as usual. That night he shared a taxi home, went up to his flat, took some speed and had a massive heart attack. The coroner’s report noted bruising on his knees and forehead from where he had dropped from a standing position.
I was at Strawberry Fair that day, but I didn’t see Jonny. I’d become too drunk and just wanted to go home.
I should regret that missed opportunity, but I don’t. You never knew what you were getting with Jonny. It could have been a miserable experience and I prefer to remember him as he was when we last met. We’d gone to the Corn Exchange, just the two of us, the first time in our lives that this had happened. I wanted to see Public Service Broadcasting and he was there for the support act, Jane Weaver. A staunch anarchist, Jonny loved the PSB songs from their Every Valley album, and I became a Jane Weaver fan, especially since she sampled Hawkwind on one of her tracks.
It was the first of a continuing series of gigs for us, he said.
Two and a half years earlier, Jonny created a mini-festival in his extensive back garden for his fiftieth birthday party. He’d decorated the garden with fairy lights and set up a stage for live performances. It was magical. He told our mum then that he was surprised he’d made it that far.
But Jonny was supposed to be indestructible. We’d often joked that our family was blessed with health, and that he and I had been hit hard with the survival stick. Our lives lived in a chemical fug, his more than mine admittedly, we’d seen our peers fall by the wayside all too often. But we were still there. And then he wasn’t. The bastard let me down.
Life doesn’t prepare you for death. Oh, you know about it in theory, but you can’t really imagine it until it happens. I’d already lost my maternal grandparents many years ago, but their passing didn’t affect me anything like as much as losing my brother and, three months later, my mum.
Big things, like arranging the funerals, were quite straightforward. As a former civil servant, I am no stranger to paperwork, and both companies involved were both supportive and professional. Of course, my mum had already paid for hers many years ago, in cash as was her way (she even asked for a discount).
But it was the other unanticipated things that hit me.
With Jonny, for example, since his death was a suspected overdose the police had been involved, and I had to go to the police station to collect his belongings in an evidence bag. It was surreal.
I only found out how popular Jonny was after his death.
The Facebook page I had set up for him years ago (he deeply distrusted social media) became a tribute page, and membership swiftly swelled to over 300, with many posting memories, pictures, and videos of Jonny over the years. His funeral was attended by over 350 people, some of whom had travelled across country. The funeral directors noted that it was (besides traveller funerals) the largest one by far that they had been involved in for over a decade.
I was a pall bearer and the entrance music I’d chosen was Creep by Radiohead, one of his favourite bands (surprisingly so as they are much more commercial that the music he normally listened to). I was okay until the words ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ came over the speakers and it truly hit me, and the sobbing started. I managed to control it enough to deliver the eulogy, and then I could simply sit back and let the rest of the ceremony hazily pass around and over me. Later, the wake was so large that the pub couldn’t contain everyone, and people spilled out into Devonshire Road.
Mum’s funeral was much smaller. Only a few family and friends and her old mates from the lace club. I forgot to change my trainers. I apologised.
Eventually I had two boxes in my bedroom containing their ashes. There was supposed to be a smaller, more personal, pagan sprinkling ceremony. It didn’t happen. Eventually I realised that Jonny’s funeral wasn’t for us, the family; it was for them, the friends. A small gathering found a suitable tree in the Beechwoods and I poured the ashes in a circle around its base. Mum always said she wanted to be wherever Jonny was. My youngest irreverently poked the bags and sniffed the ashes as she suspected they probably smelt like pork (they didn’t). My eldest was offended by her sister’s actions, not understanding her different way of processing the event.
The sprinkling didn’t make much difference, though; they still both haunted my dreams. I was constantly going to my mum’s house, borrowing her bike, hanging around the nearby garages, and so on. Jonny and I went to countless parties, usually in squats, or festivals. In reality, apart from Strawberry Fair, Jonny and I never went to a festival together. He went to hundreds.
Only recently, after two years, have their overnight invasions ceased, or at least slowed down.
Lily's last visit to Anglesey Abbey
We had a memorial bench installed at Anglesey Abbey for my mum which we visit regularly and even though I’m an avowed atheist, I talk to her. Not out loud, though – I don’t want to unsettle people. The first time we visited, they’d put the plaque on the back of the bench. I was distraught. My partner got them to move it to the front where it remains. My mum’s most happy memory was the last time we took her there for a picnic. I took a flask of coffee for her to have her favourite latte. She was so happy that day.
I’m starting to reclaim my house. Until now I have been surrounded by mini shrines of mum’s knick-knacks and Jonny’s extensive vinyl and CD collections. I have their pictures everywhere, and bookcases full of their books. I have to step round the boxes of trinkets from mum’s house that still block my bedroom floor, and the crate of Jonny’s videos and DVDs on the landing. It’s time to put them all away.
But I’ve made a start.
This blog post is part of that start.
Anyway, I passed my viva and my thesis is dedicated to my mum, and I’m sad she didn’t make it to my last graduation. I like to think she’s watching and that she’s proud.