My brother’s topsy-turvy life had amazing highs but treble the number of lows

TJ tried to take his life several times and one attempt left him paraplegic. He died suddenly last year

‘I’m so proud of TJ that he was brave enough to speak so publicly about his struggles and about his spiritual desire to find peace in his life.’

‘I’m so proud of TJ that he was brave enough to speak so publicly about his struggles and about his spiritual desire to find peace in his life.’

 

I was eight months’ pregnant when my brother TJ’s life-altering accident happened. As I sat alone, outside the ICU of Mayo General Hospital, my mind wandered and suddenly I was eight years’ old again.

I was anxiously watching my mother wash her hair at the kitchen sink as she pretended she wasn’t crying. But I saw the tears. Her oldest son TJ had been involved in yet another serious accident – on a farm where he had been working as a trainee. In the intervening years, I have never actually asked my older siblings if that accident had been yet another suicide attempt. I was the youngest of 12 children so as a young child, my parents tried their best to protect me from what they would call “family drama”. Others on the outside might call them a series of seriously traumatic episodes.

Growing up, TJ and I didn’t have a relationship.

He was 19 years older than me. We never lived in the same house. In a typically Irish way though, blood is always thicker than water and so it was deemed appropriate that I would spend part of my college summer living with him in New Jersey. This involved long days working alongside him as part of his successful painting and decorating business and many nights were spent hanging out with him and his partner Joann. I found it strange to suddenly be living with someone I called my brother but whom I hardly knew.

Somehow it worked. I have fond memories of that summer.

I started to re-evaluate the relationships I had with some of my siblings

In subsequent years, we had a falling-out and ended up not speaking to one another for years. It wasn’t until my father became gravely ill in 2005 that we made amends; in an unspoken sort of way. A few months later, I made a grand gesture of sending TJ an invitation to my wedding. He reciprocated by flying home from the US for literally 24 hours to be there for my special day.

In the late noughties, after decades living abroad, TJ eventually returned to live in Ireland and I saw him sporadically. When both of our parents died within 11 months of each other, I started to re-evaluate the relationships I had with some of my siblings and tried to see TJ more often. Then the accident happened. He had a bad fall at my sister’s home in Mayo and now here I was, once again, sitting in a hospital family room.

I had been here before, too often and too recently.

Paraplegic

I don’t recall the circumstances of that evening but all I remember is that other family members had already left so I was the last sibling to see TJ before they took him away in an ambulance to the Mater hospital in Dublin. He was head to toe in a brace and unconscious. I bent down to kiss his forehead and told him we loved him. The nurse told me to be prepared that he might not survive the journey from Mayo to Dublin. Thankfully he did but it was confirmed that he was now paraplegic. I was heartbroken for him. A man who had always been so independent and who had always struggled to find consistent happiness and peace in his life was now 100 per cent dependent on others.

What a nightmare.

About six weeks after TJ’s accident, I gave birth to my second child, Peter. I have precious memories of travelling from Waterford with Peter to visit TJ, first in hospital and then when he was transferred to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire. Although TJ had never had children of his own, he was always fun with other children and he genuinely enjoyed interacting with Peter. It’s bizarre how we just adapt. On those visits, I often found myself feeding Peter with one hand and my brother with the other. This was how life was for him and us now.

TJ
TJ

Amazingly, TJ went on to self-publish a book of fiction called Ignominy and I’ve no doubt one of his proudest and most joyous moments was his book launch in Mayo. Around that time, he went on his local radio station to talk about the book. During the interview, TJ admitted that his accident was the result of him trying to take his own life. I’ve listened back to that interview many times since. I’m so proud of TJ that he was brave enough to speak so publicly about his struggles and about his spiritual desire to find peace in his life.

A year after TJ’s accident, I took up running. Every time along the route, my thoughts invariably wandered to TJ and the sad reality that he’d never walk again. Each time I visited TJ, he always asked how the running was going and he often had words of encouragement. I felt embarrassed talking with him about running as though I was rubbing salt into the wound.

I run alone, and I have quietly cried many times on my route, thinking of TJ and his topsy-turvy life that seemed to encompass amazing highs but sadly, treble the number of lows.

Died suddenly

TJ died suddenly on June 29th, 2018; on my father’s birthday. He had been admitted to hospital a few days previously, but he had told no one. We only got the call early on June 28th because he had gone downhill rapidly. By the time some of my siblings arrived at the hospital, he was unconscious, and we never got to speak to him again. We sat with him for hours, taking turns with breaks and in the early hours of June 29th, I was once again alone with him while all the others were in the family room. He was breathing lightly and then suddenly there was silence.

There was no big dramatic last breath; he was just simply gone. I looked up anxiously at the nurse, hoping she’d tell me I was wrong to think this was the end but her compassionate eyes confirmed our new reality. As I had done before, I once again leaned over and kissed his forehead for the last time and reminded him that he was loved. TJ was dead, and I burst into tears.

In the weeks leading up to that day, I had been training to run the Waterford Viking Quarter marathon, which was scheduled for two days later. Suddenly the run didn’t matter to me anymore. That weekend was instead spent with my family, giving TJ the wonderful spiritual, humanist send-off he deserved.

It’s now 12 short months later and the Waterford Viking marathon took place last weekend. Nearly 3,000 people lined the streets of our oldest city, to complete either the quarter, half or full marathon.

Running doesn’t come easily to me but I love the head space it affords me. I had trained only a small amount in the last few weeks, but I went ahead and signed myself up for the quarter marathon. Somehow it seemed like unfinished business from last year.

Gabrielle with her friend Nicola.
Gabrielle with her friend Nicola.

The atmosphere of excitement and anticipation at the starting line was palpable. As the Viking Character pounded his drum, we were all asked to clutch our hearts – a powerful gesture to highlight the need for improved cardiac care in the south east.

All I could think of was TJ.

As I gently made my way around the 11.5 kilometres, he rarely left my thoughts. It also struck me that every single participant was here for their own personal reasons but we all had one thing in common; the understanding that when we cross the finish line, everything seems better.

Afterwards, I toasted my oldest brother and celebrated his complicated yet well-lived life.

____________
Support services
Samaritans
: call 116 123, text 087 260 9090, email jo@samaritans.ie.
Pieta House: call 1800 247 247, text “help” to 51444, email mary@pieta.ie.
Aware: call 1800 804848.
The HSE also provides info at yourmentalhealth.ie

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