Tony Birch: 'My brother had trusted me, and I had betrayed that trust'
My younger brother, Wayne, passed away earlier this year. His death was sudden and our extended family continue to deal with the grief of the inexplicable loss of a gentle man. A week after his death I sat at the kitchen table in my mother’s Collingwood home alongside my two sisters, arranging Wayne’s funeral. We were shown a display of cremation urns and flowers and caskets, including a gold-plated coffin apparently favoured by the families of men who’d been murdered during Melbourne’s gangland war of the early 2000s. The chair I sat at was the same one my brother used each night for the last 35 years or more, enjoying dinner with our mother before returning home to his one-bedroom flat, two streets away.
The following day my sisters and I searched through photographs of my brother in the hope of selecting 20 or so images to be shown on a screen at the funeral, accompanied by music. Wayne had been a particularly beautiful child, with a mass of chestnut curls and big brown eyes. I sometimes teased him that he had been adopted, not because he was an outcast, but because he was simply too gorgeous to be blood related to a brood of hard-looking kids. Scanning the many family albums our mother had assembled over the years, loving memories of Wayne and stories of our shared past resurfaced, triggered by an image of our brother as a newborn baby in our mother’s arms, as a four-year-old boy with his head heavily bandaged after a fall that required stitches, and as a slightly anxious student at the local Catholic school.
A close study of a photograph can reveal moments seemingly fleeting but ultimately precious. In our initial choice of photographs for the funeral, I failed to look closely and missed a vital understanding of the relationship between myself and my brother. In the weeks following Wayne’s death, I became disabled by guilt, the result of a memory from our childhood, when I was around 12 years old and my brother was seven.
Originally published December 13, 2019. Written by Tony Birch.