What I Asked Of My Brother As He Lay Dying
Forgiveness — but would he prove capable of giving it?
(First published July 2019 on my blog) What I knew about my eldest brother (Harry) was relatively little. Only that he’d had a brutal upbringing — at the hands of both our mother and our father. He’d learnt to box at an early age at the Botany Boys Club and this catalyzed in him an intensely deep-seated sense of manhood.
He went on to ride motorbikes before he had a license, knocked out two of my father’s front teeth in one of their confrontations, and had been stabbed in the back by a large kitchen knife thrown at him by my mother as he ran from her rage.
He left home before I was born, occasionally showing up to fix his motorbike in Dad’s workshop. His intense anti-authoritarianism and willingness to fight anyone, including the police, landed him in Pentridge Prison in his early 20s.
He was a marked man when he was discharged from prison, and found himself being “advised” to move on from wherever he stayed long enough to be identified.
Like many others with similar problems, Harry fled to work in New Britain (Papua New Guinea) for 15 years in about 1960 (shortly after Mum died — after spending time in a psychiatric institution).
The phone call
I knew that Harry had been living in Darwin for decades — 3,200km from me in Melbourne as the crow flies and 40 hours by road.
When my phone rang 4 weeks ago with a caller-id of “Darwin” I wondered what was coming.
A doctor from the Royal Darwin Hospital informed me that Harry had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He was being allowed to go home to get his affairs in order.
Harry had identified me as the one member of the family who he’d like to help him.
I was confused.
I had no idea what I had to do, except to jump on a plane and go see him. My head was spinning for a couple of days but then I came to realise that he wanted me to act confidently, empathetically and decisively. I organised a list and worked my way through it.
Harry was immensely relieved.
His friends and their genuine affection
I also learnt about his favourite music, and how he wanted to be remembered.
I met so many people who appeared to care for him immensely as a person — even the bank manager came to greet Harry with obvious affection and warmth.
The raging anger and confrontations of the first 45 years of his life were old memories.
Sins of the past and unforgiveness
People made a point of telling me how generous he was and how they loved him — and how they will miss “that old man”.
Our meandering discussions also reinforced how weird families can be, as Harry expressed his inability to forgive one of our brothers and his disdain for one of our sisters. Incidents that happened 20, 30 and 50 years ago provided the foundation of his convictions about these siblings.
He also said that he would never forgive our father.
Dad was a product of his own cruel upbringing, and he did his best. He just did not know any better. This realisation came to me in my late 30s, and I forgave him. Harry, like my brother, felt differently.
Unforgiveness allows others to define how we die
When we face our death regrets are normal. That’s positive. It shows that we have learnt something along our journey.
Unforgiveness is not normal, but it is more common than regrets. But unforgiveness is a poison. It taints the soul and narrows the abundance of our parting.
Even more importantly, carrying unforgiveness allows others to define how we die.
I would have very much preferred my “unforgiving” sister, and brother to forgive Harry. But that isn’t my task, it is theirs.
However, I did want Harry to consider forgiving them, and our father.
Unfortunately, he would get dangerously agitated when I initiated this kind of discussion (since he could hardly breathe due to his lung cancer). He would rise in his chair, cough and wheezing, and want to “explain things”.
Don’t tell me why, I’m not interested
This wasn’t working, and in any case, I had no interest in engaging in all his “whys”.
I believe in by-passing the “logic” and just doing “what we need to do from here”.
Here’s what I asked him to do, as a favour for me.
Harry, I need you to do me a big favour, as your brother. I know that you’re a different man to the one that Rose and Graham think of, and a better man. Think of the respect your friends here have for you as a person, and then, for me, carry that feeling into forgiveness for Rose and Graham and dad. Will you try to do that for me?
Harry agreed to try.
He passed 2 weeks later, just 4 weeks after his initial diagnosis. He forgave my brother and sister, but he couldn’t find it in him to forgive our father.
I had to bury him with that in his soul.
Harry had allowed our father to define his life for his first 45 years.
He’d then transformed himself massively into a person closer to his core beliefs and values — a much better person and well-loved.
Ironically though, he allowed dad to define how he went to his grave — carrying unforgiveness.
Personally, I would rather die knowing that I have asked forgiveness of everyone that I have hurt in my thoughts, words or actions, and forgiving everyone that has hurt me in their thoughts, words or actions.
This is a way to live life, not just a way to die.
PS The week after Harry died my sister expressed regret for not forgiving him.
Harry had a fascination and deep interest in indigenous people right from his youth and sparked by what he saw in his time in PNG, which appalled him.
Marietta James is an artist from the Burarran community of East Arnhem Land. Harry came to her rescue when she was being held to the ground by a knife-wielding assailant.
She asked what she could give in return. Harry asked that she do a painting for him — one which revealed as much as she was permitted to reveal by the Elders.
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I’m Walter Adamson. I write about life, health, exercise, life and cognitive fitness to help men and women over 50 live longer better.
Originally published at https://www.walteradamson.com.