A Writer’s first obituary

BROTHERLY LOVE (L-R) Nicholas, Michael & Andrew Burge in 1973.

Nicholas Burge (June 1973 – September 1973).

ONE of the earliest original pieces of writing I completed was an obituary, written for my younger brother Nicholas who had died seven years prior from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

I was in the final year of primary school, with an inspiring teacher, a sensitive Welshman, who set us a writing task to record the story of ‘something I’ll never forget’.

I don’t know why I chose Nicholas. Most probably it was because there had not been much talk about him since he died, even though I had experienced first-hand the devastating impact his loss had on my family.

The piece has long since been lost, but I know I wrote about the morning he died. Me (aged three) and my older brother (four) were the ones who discovered the baby, dead, in his cot, during our usual morning ritual of waking him and taking him into our parents’ room.

Not understanding the concept of death, of course we did not see the impact that was coming, when we went to tell mum and dad that the baby wouldn’t wake up.

At the time of writing about the day, I had no more than a mental picture of my mother, flying out of the bed with a great sweep of the pink sheets, and my father trying to wind the old party-line telephone into action. Mum, keening like a seagull, held the dead baby in her arms.

I learned much later that we’d all driven from our farmhouse into town, the dead baby in a carry-basket between my brother and I. We were left with our grandparents while Nicholas’ body was taken to the hospital.

Later again, when I retrieved his death certificate, I discovered Nicholas was buried the very next day in the family plot. Apparently my father was incapable, in his grief, of driving away from the cemetery. Mum took over.

We didn’t last much longer on the farm after that. Despite being encouraged to have another baby, the grief worked its way between my parents, and we left the land for a brief life in town, before they separated and divorced. Not long after, we moved with mum closer to the city where she’d grown up.

There were psychological reasons for everyone’s behaviour in the wake of Nicholas’ death, but this is not the place to explore them. When I wrote his obituary, I was too young to understand them anyway, I was only responding to being asked about something ‘I would never forget’.

Perhaps this was also my first lesson in how powerful words can be? I know it bonded me closer to my mother, to have her son recall with great importance something that was a life-changing moment for her family. When I packed up our house after her death, I found Nicholas’ clothes in a little bundle wrapped inside her wedding veil in a bottom drawer in the garden shed. A photograph of the baby boy confirmed they were his.

When I wrote to my father about the same events many years later, he expressed that he always believed it was better to get on with the care of the living, as opposed to thinking about the dead. At the time, I said nothing, because I didn’t know if I agreed, or not.

But writing about my memories gave Nicholas a place in my life, even though his own had been so very short. Like most of my writing, this little obituary involved looking back, and I have since learnt how controversial that can be. In this case, I believe it was more than worth it.

Obituaries are biographies, often written at acutely painful times. I recall my obituary for my brother Nicholas was very short, like his life. It was an affirmation that he existed, that we knew him, and that we loved him. Sometimes writing is really that simple.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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