Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

'I couldn't tell mum or dad my brother was dying from Aids'

An Ulster woman is the only person in her family who knows it wasn't cancer that killed her brother

My brother and I were close. He was some 10 years younger than me, popular, extremely intelligent. I loved his sense of humour and I thought he would always be there for me.

I'd guessed he was gay because occasionally he'd brought men friends home, though he'd had women friends, too. But we grew up in a tiny rural community in Northern Ireland, and homosexuality wasn't ever discussed. It wouldn't have been tolerated. Everyone knew that.

That was still very much the case in 1982, when Richard, by then in his early thirties, telephoned to say he had non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.

I went to see him and my first glimpse of him confirmed my fears. He was grey and gaunt and we both cried.

Seeking reassurance, I spoke to his oncologist and this was when I learnt that "if the cancer doesn't kill him, then the Aids will". It was a succinct statement, and one that raised questions.

Richard had never told me about his sexuality. How would our parents cope with the news?

Back at his flat in London, I remember sitting by his side. I can't remember the exact words I used but it was something like, "You're my brother, I love you. Why haven't you told me you're gay?"

He said: "Well, you don't discuss your sex life with me," and that was true.

I said: "There's nothing to hide," but he made me promise to keep his secret. He was a private man by nature, and protecting himself was part of it. He still wanted to be like everyone else, and outwardly he was.

But it was mainly to protect our parents. They were lovely, ordinary people who wanted everyone to be ordinary and it would have been impossible for Richard to come out in their community.

They could not have coped, they would have felt it a sort of slur.

Our father belonged to a world where men sat in the corner of a bar with a bottle of whiskey and talked about football.

Our mother lived in her own little world and it didn't include any understanding of Richard's interests — ballet, theatre and travel.

He made me promise that I wouldn't tell them and I agreed to keep the secret. He did see our parents, but the only condition they knew about was the non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.

I visited him every weekend, and we talked openly, as I watched him cope with the thrush attacking his immune system and penetrating his ailing digestive system, with the tortuous spasms of coughing, with pneumonia, and with chemotherapy and blood transfusions.

We couldn't look forward very much but we could remember our parents' happy but narrow-minded community where conformity equated with acceptance. And all the time I worried that a chance revelation to my parents would mean rejection for Richard.It is a tribute to his spirit that he lived for four years after the diagnosis and rarely complained. He was a very proud young man.

There were moments of comfort too — I remember the day during his last bout of pneumonia when he turned to me and said: "If I were to live my life again, I would change nothing."

And he held his niece, my daughter, when she was a few weeks old. At that time many wouldn't touch people with Aids — I said have her, hold her, kiss her. Aids wasn't widely understood and there was such a stigma attached to it. Before Richard became ill, I knew nothing about it and recall worrying I might have drunk out of the same cup.

Subsequently, I read a lot about it and gave talks to explain that it was because of the scale of the ignorance about it that so many young men were dying without the support of their families.

The ignorance persisted when I met the funeral director.

"You're not allowed to touch him," he said. I said: "You're too late because I've already kissed him goodbye."

We had two funerals, the first in London. My parents were not well and I said that he wanted his friends around him, and we would have a cremation in London, bring his ashes back and have a family funeral in Northern Ireland.

At one point my father was going to come to the funeral in London and I said: "Please don't, because we're going to bring him home soon and I think he'd appreciate you waiting for him there."

That's what happened. If they'd come to London they would have known straight away. I don't think my father would've wanted that.

He died nine months later and my mother died within a couple of years. Richard's death changed her, all she wanted to do was talk about him. It was hard for me, too. It hasn't been easy carrying the secret on my own.

I almost live a double life.

But I keep the secret because I promised that I would. I'm very proud of my brother."

Do you have a compelling true life story? Email us at featureseditor@belfasttelegraph.co.uk

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