Every Sunday morning I talk to my brother on the phone, and it always cheers me up. Last evening, when I was lying miserable and exhausted in bed at 6.30 pm I got a sweet email from my sister. So today, in honour of my siblings, I decided to post this old piece I had in The Times, the year after my father died.
The Comfort of Siblings
I am a late developer, and so it is no great wonder that it has taken me fifty years, and my father's death, to appreciate fully the worth of my brothers and sisters.
I don't deny that siblings can be some of the most annoying of God's creations, especially when young. Sisters are apt to borrow your opal ring, wear it to clean the hen-house, and then come and tell you they’ve lost it. Brothers are apt to lean from their bedroom window and give a running commentary while you kiss your boyfriend goodnight, or write in the cream on your wedding reception trifle "Wot, no shotgun?"
Siblings may also out-perform you at school, or in my case, something worse: be seen as having more common sense, so that when in the middle of my degree course I told my mother I was pregnant, she said "Oh Sue, I always said it would be you."
I know that in some families the death of a parent brings out the worst in those left behind, with scrabbling over legacies, and recriminations about how little this one or that one has contributed. Or there are arguments over the gravestone or where to scatter the ashes.
In my family it has been the opposite. During my father's last illness we combined efforts to support my mother in her caring role. Then when my father was in hospital we shared the visiting.
When I left my father at the hospital, I would drive disconsolately back up the dale to my mother's house. Wanting to share my distress at my father’s deteriorating condition before I saw my mother, I'd ring my younger brother (a gardener) and he would tell me which village and in which garden he was working. I'd meet him at the gate for a hug and a chat, so I was sufficiently restored not to burden my mother with my tears.
In my father's last week we took turns to sit by his bed - sometimes alone, sometimes in twos or threes. And between his death and his burial we stayed at my parents' house. All through the days we spent together with my mother we lurched between tears and laughter in a way that was both comforting and liberating. We all knew that each was upset, and we didn't have to be proper, or to make any kind of pretence. The closeness, the intimacy, the warmth and the comfort from being all there together, with no hangers on in the shape of spouses or children, felt special. We had not been assembled like that, with no-one else, since we were children. In the worst of times I found the best of times.
When other family members appeared on the scene for the burial at the end of the week this cocoon of ease-amid-grief evaporated.
Siblings, more than others, can understand why one is grieving for someone who in his latter years was grumpy and often less than loveable, because they too remember him as a fine and handsome hero.
Having so many siblings, I have one for every season of grief. There's one to be practical and effective, one to be sensitive, one to listen, one who, while missing the missing father, remains cheerful and good humoured and insists on looking to the future.
I can share family in-jokes and memories of my father with all of them. I can see my father's eyes in my brother's and my father's character traits in the others. And the fact that not all these characteristics are attractive helps me to be realistic about the father I have lost.
Last month I went on holiday with my elder brother and sister, something we haven't done before. It was as easy as being with close friends, but better.
At dinner we toasted my father. And during the meal my brother winked at me for no reason other than affection - just as my father used to do. After dinner he offered me some chocolate, giving me instructions on how to open the packet and tear the wrapper - just as my father would tell me how to cut the stilton.
© Sue Hepworth/The Times 2003
posted here with the permission of the Times