top of page

When I Had a Brother

by Ellen Maloney

        He tumbled into my life when I was eight years old. Me, self-conscious and clunky, moving through the world like an apology, trying to find a space that I could curl up and vanish inside. Him, unapologetic for the way he crashed around, with his sparkly eyes and a smile that could lift the thickest Scottish fog.

I was twelve and he was five when I first went into hospital. He came to visit, wearing blue Osh-Kosh dungarees, clutching a Superman balloon, his curly ginger hair falling over his freckled face. I hugged him tightly, trying to reassure him I had not changed. “You’re smooshing me!” he protested, with his infectious giggle, but squeezing me back.

        I was moved to a different hospital soon after, this time further away. Then one even further away. For 6 years, my mom and brother visited me in different hospitals around the country. My brother and I remained close. Despite the age difference, despite the physical separation, despite our wildly different experiences during the weekdays, at the weekend, we would be reunited. Neither of us spoke about what happened in-between visits.  He and my mom resumed their normal lives. I returned to what had become mine.

        A week before I turned eighteen, I left hospital to what would become my new home. My mom had remarried and was living in a new city, a new country. My brother was on the cusp of his thirteenth birthday. I enrolled in a community college and tried to adapt to my new normal. My brother and I would sit on the sofa eating English muffin pizzas, watching ‘Kenan and Kel’ when he got home from school each afternoon, laughing at the people who walked past our sitting room window. Once, we saw the mailman stop in front of our house for a few seconds and spontaneously throw all the mail he was holding up in the air as if he suddenly lost control of his arms. We laughed about that for years afterwards.

In time, I moved out of the family home and we saw less of each other. My health was difficult to maintain, and I continued to go in and out of hospital. My brother had his own life to live and left home to go study in a remote part of Scotland. We barely communicated for years.

        I moved back to the city I had grown up in when I reached my late 20s. My brother, graduated from college, ready for a new start, moved back to the same city. And so, we found ourselves meeting for coffee, still laughing about the mailman throwing all the post up in the air, still sharing recipes and joking about the same ridiculous things we always had found funny. I was still self-conscious, still apologetic about the way my very existence took up space I did not feel entitled to. He had become engaged in student politics, was more comfortable speaking into a megaphone than he was talking face to face. He was filled with an infectious passion for wanting to change the world. He would take me on marches and demonstrations. Together we made placards and posters. I was incredibly shy, but he took me to meet the journalists and politicians I had long admired from afar My brother would introduce me as “his sister” and I had never felt so proud. My brother made me feel brave, made me feel like my thoughts and ideas were important, that I too could have opinions of my own, that not only did what I thought matter, but that what I did would matter: that I too could make a difference. He gave me the power to believe in something, inspired me to dream of a future, and gave me hope. My brother was my hero.

        In the last five or six years, we grew even closer. I’d go over to my brother’s apartment and spend an afternoon with him cooking. We went to comedy shows together, concerts together, movies together. We chatted on Facebook most days, tagging each other in memes, sending each other GIFS and articles that we knew each other would like.

        Then it stopped. September 16th, 2017.

        One day he was there and then he was gone. Vanished. Into a void.

        The last message he sent was, “mariooooooooo!” Then radio silence.

        The closest I have to an explanation was when I bumped into him on the street one day and he stared blankly over my shoulder as if trying to remember who I was. “I’m just busy,” he said flatly.

        From the surface, it looks as if his world has carried on spinning as if I was never part of it. He is active on Facebook and Twitter, posting regularly, the way he always has done. He has not been in touch with anyone in our family since September 2017.

        My world has not carried on spinning. My world has remained suspended, time held still; my hands clutching desperately, trying to capture when it was that something went so horrifically wrong - and what exactly, and why – so that I can go back and fix it. I have a constant ache in the middle of my chest, my insides threatening to collapse inwards, tears constantly on rims of my eyelids.

I cannot grieve. My brother is not gone. As far as I know, he is healthy and happy. I can watch him from afar. For this, I am thankful. I am so lucky, and I remind myself of this each and every day.

        And yet.

        Each morning I am left with the same confusion, the same heartache, the same mixed feelings of powerlessness and confusion. And loss after loss after loss.

        “Do you have any siblings?”

        This gets me every time.

        “It depends on who you ask,” I want to say.

        My brother was my best friend. My brother was my hero. My brother made me brave. My brother made the world a better place.

        My brother is a stranger.

About the Author

Ellen is a writer of both poetry and non-fiction. A recent student of the New School Writers Colony in New York, she's currently working on an essay collection. Previously published in The Guardian, YWCA Anti-Heroin Chic, and guest blogger for the Center for Youth and Criminal Justice.

From the Editor

Want more of Ellen's work? You can follow her on Twitter @eatsleeplaugh or find it here 

bottom of page