The events of this chapter all happened over a few weeks in October 1995. At the time I was a couple of months into my year abroad studying at the University of Texas in Austin. I had just turned 20, and my brother Andy was 18. What follows are some of my memories about his death and the immediate aftermath. I just want to include a caveat here that this is not a fun chapter. And the next one wont be either. But it’s all a part of the story.
So in October 1995, Andy had just started as a first-year medical student at Edinburgh University. We had both recently discovered a new technology called “electronic mail”, and in the last “e-mail” I got from him, he asked me to buy him a genuine Dallas Cowboys jersey.
Andy was a huge Cowboys fan, probably because I was a huge fan of their rivals the Redskins, and he wanted to piss me off. That was often the way of it. I supported Celtic, he supported Rangers. I liked Pearl Jam, he liked Stone Temple Pilots. We liked being different, or maybe I didn’t like him copying me. Either way, I was fine with it.
I had been homesick for a while when I arrived in Austin, but by October of 1995 I’d started to get the hang of life in a new country. I’d become good friends with my flamboyant housemate Marc, and also with Stu, another foreign student visiting from Liverpool.
I remember that I’d gone to Dallas in mid-October with Stu and half a dozen of the other visiting students, to see the big Texas v OU game at the Cotton Bowl. It was a fun weekend, but it had been a real hassle trying to get around Dallas with so many of us.
About a week after the game, Stu asked me if I wanted to go back for another weekend in Dallas with him and this girl Kim that he had met. I was keen to go, but we decided not to tell anyone else we were going. It seems pretty childish now, but we just wanted to do what we wanted to do, and we didn’t want to have to arrange everything by committee. So we kept our plans secret from everyone else. On the Friday morning, me and Stu bunked off classes, met up with Kim, and she drove the three of us to Dallas.
That Friday night in Dallas was amazing. I’d never had a night out like it before. Kim was an up-and-coming radio DJ, and she knew a lot of people. Neither Stu or I were 21, but Kim got us into a bunch of upscale bars, and we hung out with other media and sports people. Then we ended up back at the apartment of a former college football player, this big linebacker dude, who just happened to be Troy Aikman’s roommate at UCLA.
In 1995, Troy Aikman was the quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys and one of the biggest stars in the NFL. When I told the linebacker how my wee brother was the biggest Cowboys fan in Scotland, he handed me a signed photo of Troy Aikman that he happened to have lying around. I just remember thinking that Andy was going to freak out when he heard about this.
I remember being woken up the next morning by Kim. Stu and I had passed out on sofas at Kim’s parents’ house somewhere in the Dallas suburbs. Kim told me that she had received at least 5 messages on her answering machine back in Austin from people trying to find out where I was.
This was 1995. There were no cell phones or text messages. We had landlines and answering machines with little cassette tapes in them. And no one knew where I was. I used Kim’s phone to call my house in Austin. One of my housemates answered the phone and told me that my brother had been in accident, and my family were anxiously waiting to hear from me at a hospital in Edinburgh.
I got the number for the hospital and I was able to get through to my Dad immediately. For two days now they had been trying to reach me. My Dad’s relief at talking to me, quickly turned to anger that I had been unreachable, and then sadness as he told me that my brother was in a coma. He was still fighting, but the doctors did not know if he was going to survive. I needed to come home immediately. My Dad wasn’t asking me to come home. He was telling me.
The Dallas element of this story is included only to explain the massive guilt that I felt, and still feel, at the thought of my entire family being unable to reach me in their darkest hour, because I selfishly wanted to have an unencumbered weekend in Dallas. I know the two things are entirely unrelated, but I cant ever separate the moment I heard the news about my brother, from the circumstances that surrounded it.
Anyway, I flew back to Austin and I was able to arrange a flight back to Scotland leaving the next day. 24 hours later my Dad and my Uncle Kenny picked me up from the airport on a cold and grey Monday morning in Edinburgh. During the flight, I still had some hope. Hope that perhaps the doctors were wrong. I remember that I brought the Troy Aikman photograph, but by the time we arrived at Royal Edinburgh Hospital in The Meadows, I understood that his fight was over.
A doctor sat me down and explained to me what had been going on for the past five days. And now, they were only keeping him on life support so that I could see him. I was only there to say goodbye.
A lot of my family were there at the hospital, and it looked like no one had slept for days. I was taken into the ward where Andy lay. No other patient in that ward was under 80 years old. I remember thinking when I first saw him, that he looked so alive. His hair was longer than the last time I’d seen him, and the nurses had shaved him that morning.
But then I noticed the wires, the machines, and the tubes surrounding and sustaining him. He was breathing, but only because air was being forced in and out of his body.
I still had the Troy Aikman photo in my hand and I felt like a fool. I was only in there for a few minutes and I hadn’t thought of anything to say. So I told Andy that I loved him, I pushed his hair out of his eyes, and I kissed him on his forehead.
Outside one of the nurses told me that she was surprised how calm I’d been. Apparently, she said, some people jump on the hospital bed and refuse to let go of their loved ones. I’m sure she meant it as a compliment, but it made me question myself why I was so calm. Then my parents went back in to say their own goodbyes, as I sat in the waiting room with my aunts. And then that was it. We went home and later that afternoon the life support machine was turned off.
What had happened?
The funny thing is that I’ve never really cared to know the details of how he died. I know that he was staying at the Pollok Halls of Residence near Arthurs Seat. Apparently he had been out drinking on the Monday night, which is standard if not expected behavior of first-year students, and he told friends that he was going to go back to bed after classes sometime on the Tuesday morning.
No one saw him all day Wednesday. Some people got concerned on the Thursday, and eventually they forced open the door to his room, and found him unconscious on the floor. He was taken to hospital, but he never recovered consciousness. The only other detail I know is that apparently a cleaner went into his room on the Wednesday morning, and emptied his trash can. I guess she assumed he was asleep on the floor.
Beyond that I don’t know much more. Andy had juvenile diabetes, so I’ve always assumed it was something to do with that and the drinking. But there were no lawsuits or recriminations. There was a fatal accident inquiry but I wasn’t there for it and I’ve never read the report. I’ve always just felt that nothing I do or learn is ever going to change the fact that it happened.
After we left the hospital, we went back home to Barrhead, and my Mum and Dad started planning the funeral. That’s when the numbness really kicked in for me. Numbness is the only way I can describe my ability to get through those days.
Like if you’ve gone to the dentist and a part of your mouth has been completely anesthetized. You know the dentist is drilling in there. You know that the pain is there, but you just can’t feel it yet. Like when you can hit yourself in the face and feel nothing. My entire body and mind felt that way.
I spent most of the next week at home. I remember sitting around in our living room with family members trying to come up with words for the funeral announcement in the newspaper. So surreal, discussing things like whether he was “beloved by” or “loved by”.
I remember noticing the different ways that people grieve too. How some people just wanted to get on with things, to move on, whereas others wanted to hold on to memories, both physical and mental, for as long as possible. I remember seeing my grandparents crying. And seeing my Dad cry for the first time ever.
And the phone. It never stopped ringing. Our house had one landline and we didn’t have the luxury of an answering machine. So we couldn’t ignore it. Every day, my Mum and Dad would answer the phone initially, but eventually they would get exhausted, and I would take over answering it. After a few dozen calls, we would just be going through the motions, saying the same things to every caller, “I know, it’s terrible, terrible”…. “We’re ok. Doing our best. Trying to stay strong.”… “We’re sustained by our pride”.
I don’t have a lot of memories of the funeral. But then it’s not something you try to remember. I hadn’t cried a lot that week, but I did when his coffin was brought into the church and a lone piper played ‘Flowers of the Forest‘.
When we walked into the church, everyone was facing to the front, so I didn’t see who was all there. But walking out was hard, seeing so many other familiar faces looking back at me, every one of them with tears in their eyes. So many of his friends too, and younger boys in our Glasgow Academy school uniform.
Back in the funeral car outside the church, I broke down completely. I remember feeling my jacket wet and realizing that I’d probably been crying a lot more than I’d thought. All of us were numb. On the drive home from the crematorium, my Dad pulled our car back into our driveway, something he must have done thousands of times, and he smashed the car against the stone gate post.
I remember completely mundane things about that week too, like watching Liverpool lose a surprise late goal to Brondby in the UEFA Cup, and thinking that this was typical of a shit week. And I’m not even a Liverpool fan.
After the funeral there was not a lot for me to do. Or at least that’s what I thought. It would probably have been very helpful to my parents if I’d stayed around until Christmas. But selfishly, the thought of getting away from it all appealed to me. There would be fewer memories and fewer reminders in Texas. I pushed the idea of me going back to Austin to finish the classes I’d started, and my parents didn’t argue.
So about a week after the funeral I went back to Austin and I launched myself back into life as a student abroad. Basically I decided to stay numb. Alcohol became my anesthetizer. I’ve said it before I’m sure, but the life of a student is a perfect foil for a functioning alcoholic. I stayed numb for a long time.
It was more than two and a half years later that I travelled to Australia with the sole purpose of processing what had happened. I couldn’t talk about it rationally to anyone until then. And then I spent the best part of a year in Melbourne writing and thinking about it all in excruciating detail. After that I wasn’t numb any more.
I don’t talk about it a lot now, but I still think about it every day. Let me rephrase that. I don’t talk about my brother’s death a lot now, but I still think about him every day.
And I’m not afraid to talk about it either. It happened. It changed my life. I have accepted it. It’s a scar that I don’t try to hide. The memory of my brother impacts everything I do, and it always will.