If you mourn the passing of anyone close to you, and especially if they died relatively young, that anniversary and the days leading up to it are likely to feel tense. While life has to go on, the tension between ‘carrying on regardless’ and ‘reflecting’ means there are a few dates in the calendar which one will always dread.
August is a difficult time for the London-born author and poet Joanne Limburg. In August 2008, when she was in the middle of writing her excellent memoir, The Woman Who Thought Too Much, about her experiences with obsessive compulsive disorder (both pre- and post-diagnosis), her younger brother Julian, a scientist living in the USA, took his own life. Now Joanne has written a second memoir: in Small Pieces: A Book of Lamentations, she describes the impact of that tragedy with great sensitivity and care, as well as a capacity for emotional detail and depth. Small Pieces movingly pinballs across the years, either side of the tragedy, and lays bare the effects on her and the surviving members of her family and his, too. It encapsulates that feeling that, in whatever circumstances you lost a family member, it chimes with all the regrets you continue to carry around: if only I could have done something, if only I’d said that, if only I hadn’t said that.
In the summer of 2010, I left a full-time office job and opted for freelance life. Although I was still living in London then, and continued to do so for a couple of years, I wanted to see more of my family in Wales. I now had a nephew, my mum was still very active (as she continues to be), but I especially felt that I hadn’t seen as much of my younger brother as I’d have liked. Indeed, there had been about 10 years between our mid-twenties and mid-thirties where sightings of the two of us had been pretty rare. In my newfound self-employment I wanted to make up for lost time, and visit Wales more often. I especially thought that, as the two of us got older, we’d have more opportunity to see each other. We’d had a somewhat stormy relationship as children, but despite – perhaps even because of – the distance between us as adults, we had come to accept and respect our differences.
Then, on 2 August 2011, while I happened to be already staying with my mum, he visited, sat us down and told us that unfortunately, he had secondary cancer, this time a number of brain tumours, and he was about to begin radiotherapy and, subsequently, chemotherapy. He requested two things of us at this stage: firstly, that we must stay positive, and secondly, that on no account were we to research his sort of condition on the Internet. I never did the latter – though some time later, I read Tom Lubbock’s eye-opening and completely devastating Until Further Notice I Am Alive, which answered a number of questions I had been pondering. As for staying positive, I could really only do that while I was with my family. Privately, in my own head, my mourning process had already begun. Whether his end was days or years away, I was already aware there was an end approaching. We all know, abstractedly, that there’s an end for all of us, but here I knew it was coming. August the second was the beginning of all this.
When he told us, others went to pieces while I remained strangely, bizarrely calm. I somehow not only acted positive, but felt positive too. After all, he’d run marathons, was super-fit and was about to pass his maths GCSE with an A-star. If anyone could get through this, surely he could. But within a few days, I’d slumped into a gloom. I’d decided to stay a week longer at my mum’s house, and I vividly remember the ghastly Friday night that week when, perhaps dizzy with the oncoming crisis, we begged television to entertain us or at least distract us. Somehow we found ourselves staring like zombies at a panel game hosted by Chris Moyles. Now, there are those of you who may wonder if there is any other way to experience a panel game hosted by Chris Moyles, but we kept watching, perhaps out of spite, perhaps out of the same kind of spite that the panel game hosted by Chris Moyles was subjecting us to. It was agony, a kind of existential prison: we couldn’t or perhaps wouldn’t reach for the remote, possibly because to turn the TV off might mean we’d have to talk about what we were facing. And neither of us felt able to do that. A couple of days later, I returned to my home in south London, a city where riots had broken out in a few areas, and I decided to watch rolling news on the subject almost as a form of deranged escapism.
My brother’s decline would be swift. I could reel off all the significant dates as my visits grew longer and more frequent: first and last radiotherapy sessions, the last family birthday, the last proper conversation, the first and what turned out to be the last chemotherapy session, the last phone call, the last exchange, the last last encounter. At the time, I continued the positivity entirely for his sake and those around him and me. And then each time I’d go back to London and explode with horror and rage and sorrow, on the grounds that at least this way he wouldn’t be able to hear or see me do it.
He died not in August but November. Yet I mourn 2 August as deeply as the day he died, for it all stems from that.
Joanne Limburg’s Small Pieces talks a lot about the limitations of memoir: frequently you can’t speak for other people. Everyone grieves and reacts differently, and for reasons of courtesy, confidentiality and just sheer mystery, there will always be gaps in our stories. She explores how one squares up our feelings with those of the people who remain. It is an account packed with insight and imagination into not just bereavement but of family, childhood and identity (specifically, in Joanne’s case, her Jewishness). It also wonders whether the object of your grief is gone or not-gone. Because whether or not we believe in a god or an afterlife, we can’t help but believe in the maddening but seductive and helpful power of memory. It is why, for both Joanne and I, in our different but sometimes similar ways, Augusts will always be tense months.
Joanne Limburg’s Small Pieces: A Series of Lamentations is published by Atlantic Books, as is her equally great account of OCD, The Woman Who Thought Too Much. Her brother’s death also inspired a series of poems in her collection, The Autistic Alice, published by Bloodaxe Books. Further information at http://www.joannelimburg.net