After a few moments, I put the cap back on, put the whisky back where I found it and had a little lie down. Needless to say, it was to my taste, being a young, albeit curious, adult.
Seventeen years later…
I was at work when my mobile phone rang. It was Mum. It was not Wednesday. It was not 8pm. I answered.
Ben has been taken to hospital. We think it is his potassium thing again. But it is quite serious.
I consoled Mum, saying Ben was being looked after and was in the best place. It wasn’t the first time this had happened, his life having fallen apart in the past couple of years.
Ben had married his High School sweetheart, a lady whom he had met at college when he was sixteen. Like Ben she was a photographer and he always had his most recent couple-shot on his pinboard. Of course nowadays, they are called selfies. In mine and my brother’s day – and wait for it… self portraits.
I remember their wedding, I remember holding their first-born, little Nicole. I remember Mum calling me to say Ben had been made redundant from the newspaper he worked for. I remember Mum calling me to say Ben was struggling to find work. I remember Mum calling me to say he and his wife were separating. I remember being very upset.
We are a very independent family. I was the first to move out – I went to university – I am also the youngest. Ben was next, but only when he was married. My eldest brother, for reasons, still lives at home. Before 2016, I only went home for special occasions. My parents visited me maybe a handful of times a year. I didn’t really speak with either of my brothers, they had their own lives to live, and I the same. We all kept up to date via our mother through her weekly phone calls to each of us.
I have since discovered this is (apparently) odd. But frankly, I don’t care. This is how we work, this is how we roll. We all love each other dearly.
And so Ben moved out of his family home to a one-bed flat a mile-or-so up the road. According to my weekly updates, he still saw his little princesses (there were now two, with the addition of Rachel) and he was dealing with everything.
Until that is, one day when I was called to say Ben had gone to his doctor with chest pains. After examination, it had been realised that he had a very low potassium level, and this affects the function of the heart. Ben was admitted to hospital and cared for well. When pondering why this had happened, Mum opened up a bit and started to explain.
Ben wasn’t doing so well looking after himself. Having never actually lived on his own, moving straight from the family home into his new family home, actually having to fend for himself was proving problematic. According to my parents, he wasn’t really eating much, and when he did, it was crappy microwavable meals that give the body very little sustenance and a high dose of sugar and salt. Ben had started to lose weight.
I should probably point out that the three Whites are all quite slim. Myself being the shortest, I am aware that even I appear quite underweight. My brothers both being close-to 6-feet, well they look even more underweight. It is our metabolism or something. We all struggle to put weight on, although myself and my eldest brother are perfectly (ish) healthy.
However, I am well aware if I started to eat crap, or stopped eating regularly and my weight dropped, I would be in trouble. Ben though, he didn’t seem to notice, or care.
Mum and Dad visited regularly, each time taking a boot-full of food to fill his cupboards. Fruit, vegetables, meat, tins and jars. They filled his kitchen, only to return a few weeks later and clear out all the spoiled food and refresh once again. Although they didn’t admit it to me, Mum and Dad were becoming increasingly worried.
After a year of independence, Ben managed to fall in the shower. His emaciated body not able to withstand the impact and he suffered two fractures to his hip. Honestly, he was either drunk, or he suffered a sugar-low and passed out. Needless to say, this hospital visit was going to be a long one.
Ben went to a nursing home for physiotherapy, but was struggling with mobility. His flat wasn’t on the ground floor and I can only imagine what it must have been like to be cooped up in a grotty little apartment having the mindset he probably did.
He was clearly struggling, clearly failing, but much was kept from me, such is our family. But, it is also a point worth making, such is myself.
The day following my work-call from Mum to say Ben’s potassium was low again, I was called again. Even before I answered, I knew it wasn’t good.
Ben has pneumonia, both lungs. He is in intensive care and on life-support. If you can, please come and say goodbye.
I told Mum I would be there in the morning. I hung up the the phone and broke down.
[What happened at this immediate point is – and will continue to be – etched in my mind for eternity. The phone calls, the feelings, the tears. The names will never leave me. I will not say. I will never give details. Those who spoke to me, and equally so, those who did not, will never be forgotten. But it goes without saying, a great deal of shame is cast on those who cannot console a crying man.]
The following day I arrived home, crying the whole train journey. I remember the snow on the ground, the countryside looked very pretty, green and white. I arrived at Claygate station and as I walked over the bridge I saw my father’s yellow Honda. I paused because I didn’t want to cry in front him. I paused to gather myself, and then I walked down the other side and slung my bag in the boot of the car. We barely shared a word on the short drive through the village.
I walked into the family home, Mum came out to the hall and hugged me for the first time in my adult life. Dad went and put the kettle on.
I was given the latest update, a very bleak prognosis and was told we were going to the hospital after lunch. I was told to prepare myself.
Ben was on life support, had a feeding-tube, a plethora of machines banked up behind him and two nurses by his bed twenty-four hours a day. He was dangerously underweight and malnourished. His potassium level was desperately low, his heart enlarged. His liver and kidneys were failing. He was heavily sedated. He was dying, the palliative care team were visiting each day to assess and plan for his passing.
I held his hand and spoke to him. Ben was unconscious, but I spoke anyway. I told him he needed a shave – he hadn’t done so in quite a while. His dark hair, which usually curls when it is not his usual short cut, was thin and weak. He was jaundiced and incredibly skinny. He already looked dead.
We spoke with his doctor, a nice chap who explained everything quite carefully. We developed a bit of a rapport, perhaps because I asked questions which Mum and Dad didn’t think to ask. We discussed planning for his passing and what would happen. That is when the DNR subject was raised. Ben’s body, being so weak and fragile, would not be able to withstand the trauma of resuscitation should something happen. It was decided between all that the form needed completion.
Forgive me, this part I don’t like discussing too much.
And so we went to say goodnight to Ben, and we left. Needless to say we didn’t eat much ourselves that evening, neither did any of us sleep that well. I went for a walk through the village, trying to clear my head (and smoke a few cigarettes). I ended up on the High Street, outside the local convenience store. I went in, but of course they didn’t have any Glenfiddich. The best they could muster was a bottle of Bells. I decided it was better than nothing.
The following days we made the same trips. Each time I held his hand and spoke about bullshit. I told him what was happening in the world, what was happening with me, my job, my life. Of course, each time with no response, Ben was still sedated for his own good. The doctor told me they woke him up each night to ensure his brain was still functioning. This is, as I’m sure can imagine, incredibly traumatic. Each time Ben didn’t know where he was, why he was there and why he was in so much pain. The doctors quickly made their assessments and then increased the sedation and allowed him to sleep again.
But on the fourth day, something was different. As we arrived and signed-in, his doctor came and interrupted our routine. He explained that he felt encouraged by Ben over the past two days and has started to reduce the sedation, it being very toxic and actually destroying his kidneys. I guess though, the lesser of two evils.
Although barely conscious, Ben was occasionally moving his eyes, his hand, making the odd noise. It was such a stark contrast to what we had all come to know and accept. The fifth day was even better. Ben squeezed my hand a little and managed a short smile. The sixth day, well…
Hey, buddy! You do know there are two very pretty nurses here, one either side of your bed. If you ain’t gonna talk to them I will.
Shut up. And give me my coat back.
Apparently Ben owns a very similar jacket to one I was wearing. And although clearly still struggling, there was significant improvement. His doctor was amazed. Ben had started to drink by himself – some highly-nutritious fruit drink that tasted weird – and the conversations became increasingly coherent. And increasingly flirtatious towards the nurses.
As a family we remained very cautious, Ben was far from healthy and nowhere near out of the woods yet. But it was encouraging to hear his doctor speak of moving him out of intensive care and onto a ward.
Unfortunately though, the resistance of optimism proved correct, and on the morning of January 24th, Ben’s sugar level dropped sharply. The doctors tried to stabilise him but he had probably had enough. A nurse asked him if he was comfortable, to which he replied he was, and thanked for the nurse for asking.
He passed away.
That morning I was stirred by the phone. It was about 6am, I knew what had happened. As I heard shuffling around and muted voices, my father eventually knocked the bedroom door. He explained what I already knew – the hospital had rang and they were going in. They missed Ben by about ten minutes. I couldn’t sleep and went downstairs to the garden to breathe the morning air, and to smoke a few cigarettes. As I returned into the house the phone rang again. It was Dad, he explained and asked me to inform my brother. We sat in the living room together and waited for our parents to return.
Parents should never lose a child, and although mine had come to terms with it before myself, it was still a shockingly sad time. Mum and Dad proceeded with arrangements and I returned to my home and started my new job.
Ben was always the charismatic one out of us. He was always smiling and joking, always looking out for other people. He was a great father to his two little girls and until the final couple of years, a man full of spirit and adventure.
I decided to write these two pieces primarily because I wanted to. But also because I still get the occasional message on Facebook from an old friend of Ben’s who has only just found out.
From this I have learned to visit my parents more often, to spend more time with those closest to me and to make time for others. I have learned to call people from time to time and not just send a message or email.
Of course I miss him, but I am thankful he passed to me many things, as a big brother should. One of which comes in a green bottle and is labelled Glenfiddich*.
*Although as I have grown older, my taste has changed a little and it would seem Laphroaig is my whisky of choice at the moment.