Last week, I saw my brother for the first time in 6 years.
He has lived in Australia since 2003. For the first ten years, we saw each other every year or two, but it’s been more difficult since he had children, because the flights are so expensive and they no longer have space for guests at their house.
When his wife was on maternity leave, in 2015, after having their second baby, I saw just her and the children. She came over here to see her family, but my brother couldn’t get the time off work.
I found that trip a bit of a disaster.
The oldest child had just turned 5, and the youngest was only a couple of months old.
I was looking forward to seeing them, but for some reason the 5-year-old took an instant dislike to me. He seemed to hate me throughout the visit!
When I first arrived, I tried to give him a present, but he just lay on the floor and pretended to be asleep, with fake snoring.
Every night he would go round saying good night to everyone, but he refused to say good night to me. There were lots of other small things that happened that conveyed how he felt about me, like one moment when he was on the trampoline in the garden, and he said, “someone come on with me!”
I saw the opportunity for potential bonding, and got on the trampoline.
“GET ME OFF THE TRAMPOLINE!” He wailed and burst into tears.
My mum kept saying, “well, it must be very difficult for him, suddenly having all these new people to meet.”
Then, my other brother (who lives in England) joined us, halfway through the trip. My nephew instantly loved him.
This time, I didn’t have particularly high expectations.
This time it was just my brother and the two boys, who are now 4 and 8, as his wife couldn’t get time off work this time. We were all going to be together in the Lake District, where my parents live.
There wasn’t enough space for everyone in my parents’ house, so I stayed in a holiday home nearby, with Andrew, my other brother and his girlfriend.
I drove up to the Lake District on my own on the Saturday, as Andrew was working and joining me after the weekend.
My England-brother and his girlfriend were driving up the next day.
I found the place we’d rented, in the centre of my parents’ village. There was a little key safe next to the front door, and I’d been sent the code. It worked, and it opened, so I got the key out.
I unlocked to the front door, and walked in.
There was just one, damp-smelling room, with some clothes airers and ironing boards. Where were the beds? Where was the kitchen? Where was the bathroom?
This looked VERY different on the website! I thought.
Then I realised that there was another front door next to this one, which my key also unlocked. I went up some stairs and it was much more like the website. There was a lovely kitchen and living rooms, and then another staircase led to the bedrooms.
It turned out we “also had use of the laundry room,” which was the one I’d gone in by mistake.
There were bike racks in there, and I think that must appeal to people who go to the Lake District for mountain biking.
After unloading the car, I phoned my parents, and my Dad answered, saying they were back from the airport and would be having dinner soon.
I got changed. It was probably the last day of the summer, that day. It had been lovely and hot all day, but unfortunately, I spent most of it sitting in a hot car on the M6. I changed out of my sweaty clothes, and put a sunny dress on, and then walked over to my parents’ house.
I let myself in, and they were already sitting around the table, eating pizza for dinner.
My brother’s 4-year-old was clinging to him like a koala, as he was overwhelmed by the long plane journey and being in a new country, with new people.
The 8-year-old was shyly eating pizza.
When my brother briefly let go of the 4-year-old to give me a hug, he cried.
I sat down and ate some pizza, and we chatted about things like our journeys, while the boys sized me up.
I asked the oldest nephew if he remembered when he came over before, but he said he didn’t. He also claimed to have no memory of my parents (his grandparents), even though they had spent quite a lot of time in Australia when his brother was born.
Cool. Clean slate. I thought.
After we’d had some dessert, my brother managed to get his 4-year-old to start laughing instead of crying, by bringing up an in-joke they have about bath time, and then they went to bed.
I came back to my holiday home after that, and enjoyed having the place to myself.
There was one twin room, with two single beds in, and one double room.
Andrew was only going to be there from the Monday to the Friday, because he working working over the weekend, and then it was his Dad’s 70th Birthday the following weekend.
(I was a bit annoyed really. His family always seem to have something on that clashes with whatever I’ve just invited him to with my family.)
Anyway, I decided my brother and his girlfriend should get the double room, as they were there for nearly a whole week, instead of 4 nights.
I unpacked my things in the twin room. I tried to push the single beds together, but there was a bedside table separating them, which was nailed to the wall, which I thought was a bit puritanical.
The next day, I got up late and wrote a blog post, and did a session with my Phillips Lumea hair removal device (which I might write a separate post about, as I’m a bit obsessed with it).
My parents, my brother and the boys came around when I was still in my nightdress, writing, and I said I’d join them later.
It was absolutely pouring with rain, and I realised that, despite having brought 7 pairs of shoes for 7 days, none of my shoes were appropriate for rainy weather, so I bought some new boots on the way over to my parents’ house.
I spent a bit of time hanging out with my family.
My parents’ neighbours and good friends came around with some boxes of toys that their grandchildren play with, which they wanted to lend to my brother’s boys.
The boys excitedly looked at what was there. After giving some cars the once over, the oldest boy (who hated me last time) discovered some paper, felt tip pens and craft things. He started making animals out of paper, behind the sofa for some reason.
They were really good! Normally children’s drawings and craft things are basically rubbish, but these were amazing.
He’d cut out separate little pieces of paper for the legs, and stuck googly eyes on.
(The ones on the right were made by the four-year-old. 😍)
“Did they teach you to do that or school? Or did you just make it up yourself?” I asked.
He said he’d thought of it himself.
I sat on the floor behind the sofa with them and made a ladybird, copying his style.
As we drew various animals, we talked about our favourite animals. The 8-year-old’s was a gecko.
The 4-year-old told me he “didn’t like cockroaches because they bruise him,” and he had stepped on a redback spider and squashed it.
(Later on I asked my brother if those things were true, and he said, “he likes a tall tale.”)
After lunch, I went back to mine and fetched a shop I’d bought them, which I’d forgotten to bring earlier.
I had seen it in Marks and Spencer, and texted my brother asking if he thought they’d like it, and he’d said they’d love it.
(I’d replied saying, “Do you remember when Mum and Dad bought a new freezer which came in a massive box, and we decided to make it into a passport office? Why were we obsessed with immigration at such a young age!”)
The shop was a big, flatpack, cardboard thing, which my brother and I assembled. It made a sort of booth, with a window, and had a little till and Open/closed sign.
One of the boys was jumping up and down excitedly as we built it, which was nice.
As soon as we’d finished assembling it, and my Mum was finding things from the kitchen for them to sell in the shop, the oldest boy ran off.
Oh well, I thought, assuming he was underwhelmed and had gone to play with something else.
At least the 4-year-old seems to like it.
But then, the 8-year-old came running back in. With ‘gift cards’ he’d made for the shop!
He’d made some pretend money out of paper as well.
Which melted my heart.
We all played with the shop until it was time for dinner.
This was a price list the 8-year-old made:
(The 4-year-old drew on the weird Swastika things. Unclear why.)
My England-brother’s girlfriend had texted around midday, to say they were leaving soon. As their journey to the Lake District takes about 4-5 hours, we had expected to arrive at 5pm-ish.
My Mum made a lasagne and planned for it to be ready for 6pm-ish.
I texted them at about 5pm, asking how their journey was going and what time they thought they’d arrive.
They replied saying they still hadn’t left!
My brother’s girlfriend is a bit of character. I’m going to write a separate post about some dynamics that came up during the holiday.
Apparently they were hours late leaving the house because she was “faffing and icing cakes.”
They finally arrived very late on Sunday night, when the rest of the family had gone to bed, except for my mum and me. My mum was a bit disappointed they missed the lasagne.
On Monday morning, we all went for walk up a hill near my parents’ house.
The views were amazing. It started raining just as we were arriving home, which was lucky, and it poured for the rest of the day (and the rest of the week).
At lunchtime, I went to pick up Andrew from the train station.
It was great being reunited with him, after not seeing him for a few days. I was excited to see him on the platform, and didn’t do very good driving as I drove him back to my parents’ village.
We went back to our holiday home, and he seemed eager to consummate the reunion in one of the single beds, especially as we thought we had the place to ourselves.
Unfortunately, moments after he’d penetrated me, we heard my brother and his girlfriend going in and out of their room, on the other side of our bedroom wall.
I wanted Andrew to hurry up and finish, as I was anxious about them accidentally walking in on us.
I kept saying encouraging things to him, like “it’s fine to crack on and come, if you like,” and “don’t worry about making it last too long,” but on this occasion, annoyingly, it went on for ages.
Luckily, we didn’t get walked in on.
We went back over to my parents’ house and Andrew met my brother and the boys for the first time. Andrew is very bit of a crowd-pleaser, and everyone always likes him.
It was a lovely addition, having him there with everyone else. He’s such easy company, and always enjoys things.
That night, when we were getting ready for bed, I went to clean my teeth. When I came back, for a moment, I thought I’d wandered into the wrong bedroom.
Andrew had moved the beds so they were against a different wall, so that they could be pushed together after all! He was lying on his side on the new bed arrangement, looking alluring like a concubine.
For the rest of the holiday, every time I went over to his side of the bed for hug, I fell into the ravine between the two beds.
On Tuesday, we did something special which I’d arranged.
When my Mum was a girl, she used to go on family holidays to a little cottage in the Lake District, near Ullswater. A friend of her family owned the cottage.
It was one of a little row of cottages, halfway up a mountain, that coal miners used to live in.
Then, before I was born, my family used to go on holiday and stay in one of the other cottages there.
Apparently, I was conceived there!
(I don’t know why I know this!)
We also had one family holiday there when I was two, and my earliest memories are of that holiday. (After that my parents realised the cottage was too small for five people.)
I remember looking out of the back window of the car, as we drove up an un-made road, up the mountain to the cottages.
Apparently I escaped while my family were unpacking the car, and was found by a fisherman on the edge of a stream, but I don’t remember that.
I do remember looking up at a chair that had been put in front of the doorway, to stop me escaping again. I remember being really scared of the stairs, because they were steep, wooden stairs with gaps in.
When I was trying to find somewhere for me, Andrew and my England-brother and his girlfriend to stay, I was annoyed when cottages were coming up that were on the other side of the Lake District, and not in the area I had typed.
Then, I looked at one of the cottages that came up, and thought, That looks familiar! It can’t be…!
It wasn’t the same cottage we stayed in as children, but one of the neighbouring ones. Further investigation showed the layout inside was exactly the same as the one we stayed in as children – even the scary stairs!
I considered it as an option for us 4 adults to stay in, but there wasn’t enough beds, and it was too far away from my parents’ house.
The minimum stay on the website was 3 nights, but I emailed the owner, explaining my family’s connection to the cottages, and asking if we could have it for just one night, instead.
It took quite a lot of back and forth, but eventually, we were able to arrange it!
I booked it, thinking my brother and his children could stay in the cottage for one night, and rest of us could just go and see what it looked like inside and reminisce, and maybe go for a walk in the surrounding area.
Over years, every so often, we’d been for a walk up that mountain and peered in the windows of the cottages.
When I told my Australia-brother about the plan, he said he wanted me and Andrew to stay there, as well, as I’d arranged it.
There was only one double bed and two children’s bunk beds, but we thought my brother could sleep on the sofa as it was only one night.
I thought it was a real shame that there wasn’t enough space for everyone, and said that to my other brother a few times.
So, on Tuesday, (another pouring wet day) we all drove over in a few different cars to Ullswater, to the cottage.
I drove, and it involved going over Kirkstone Pass, which is a road that goes over a mountain pass, and is pretty scary in places. It definitely tested my hill start ability.
We made it over the mountains, and parked at the base of the hill where the cottage is.
Even though it was raining, it was really special, walking up the mountain road to the cottage.
My mum was so excited to see inside one of the cottages, after all this time.
(You can see the steps I was scared of at the back of the room.)
We spent a bit of time, unpacking and exploring, and then went down to the nearest pub for dinner.
We had a lovely dinner. The food was great, and it was lovely spending more time together.
Normally, my default is to find children a bit annoying, but my brother’s kids weren’t annoying at all.
Even the 4-year-old’s meltdowns were quite endearing. He is very sweet and lively and funny.
The 8-year-old is quieter and more reserved, but could be jolly and have a laugh too. He is very bright. I think he might be a genius, after seeing those animals he made.
Both boys had a lovely capacity to enjoy things, in a really enthusiastic way. For example, the 8-year-old got given an “I-Spy” book of common British garden plants and animals. For the rest of the holiday, every time we went out, he enthusiastically looked out for creatures and things he could tick off in his book.
My mum had bought them little RSPB badges, one shaped like an owl, and the other shaped like a robin. She bought them after before the holiday, then forgot where she’d put them. When she finally found them, both boys earnestly wore their bird badges on their jumpers.
In the pub, the 4-year-old was excited about having pie and chips for dinner.
He said, “when I say ‘pie’, you say ‘chips!’ Pie!”
“Chips?” The 8-year-old replied, slightly disapprovingly.
After dinner, it was dark and pouring with rain as we walked back up the mountain road to the cottage. The rest of the group went back to my parents’ place.
It was a relief to get into the cottage and dry off.
The boys were excited to be sleeping in the bunk beds. There was a globe in their bedroom and they spent ages trying to find Australia on it.
As Andrew and I sat in the living room, we could hear my brother reading the Bad-Tempered Ladybird to the boys, and I thought, This is great.
After the boys were in bed, my brother, Andrew and I stayed up talking and drinking for ages. Andrew and my brother got on famously.
We established early on that Andrew and my brother both work with arrests. Whereas Andrew is a policeman, my brother used to be a nurse, and now he is in charge of the machinery during heart operations. So, he deals with the odd cardiac arrest.
It was nice spending time hanging out, chatting.
Unfortunately, I got a bit tipsy and we got onto politics, and I got irrationally annoyed with Andrew for being a patronising centrist.
Earlier in the week, I had said to him, “we’re going to place where I was conceived!”
And he said, “what do we need to bring?”
I said, “Contraception!”
However, in reality, when we went to bed, I flounced over to my side of the bed because I was cross with him for being too much of a Lib Dem.
The next day, we got up and had breakfast.
I heard the children get up at 5am, as they were still a bit jetlagged.
They went out for a walk with my brother, and I heard them video call their Mum when they got back.
I heard the 8-year-old say, “Mummy! Mummy! We went for a walk and I saw 13 slugs! And… Mummy! I got stung by a nettle!”
Eventually we got up and the rest of my family came back over. We checked out of the house, and then went to an impressive waterfall called Aira Force.
When we were in the cafe there, having a cup of tea, my mum hugged me and said, “I’m SO HAPPY! Because we’re all together!” and it gave me a lump in my throat.
We had planned to go on a boat on Ullswater but the 4-year-old was having a bit of a meltdown and we decided they’d probably overdone it.
We drove back over Kirkstone Pass, and my England-brother and his girlfriend and Andrew and I had an interesting conversation about religion as I navigated the hill starts.
The next day, my Godparents came over to the Lake District and spent the day with us. It was their first time meeting Andrew as well, and they approved of him.
That evening, after they’d gone, my Australia-brother, Andrew and I went to one of the pubs in the village.
We had a really nice time, putting the world to rights.
We spoke about my Mum’s memory problems, and it felt like a huge relief to talk about it. My brother had noticed problems with my Mum’s memory when they visited Australia back in 2015. In some ways, it felt like a relief to think it had been developing so gradually.
The next day, it was Andrew’s last day. We went over to my parent’s house, and played some games, like hide and seek.
I’ve got such happy memories of hiding under some coats with the 4-year-old, giggling.
Andrew was the best at hiding, which we thought must be a police thing.
We were playing Snakes and Ladders before lunch, and the 4-year-old turned to Andrew and said, “I love Policemans.”
Soon I had to drop Andrew off at the station. I stood on the platform and waited until the train moved and he was out of sight before returning to my car.
That afternoon, it was my England-brother’s last full day, so he and his girlfriend arranged children’s party at our holiday home.
My brother’s girlfriend made party food and arranged party games.
The day before, they brought over invitations and had given them to the boys.
Later that afternoon, the oldest nephew, who used to hate me, was looking at his invitation.
“Did you get an invitation?” He asked me.
“No, but I’m going to be there!” I said.
“OK. I think I will go then,” he said.
The party was a great success.
There was a game where the boys had to find little Lego men that had been hidden in the living room.
There was “pass the parcel” (or “parcel parcel” as the 4-year-old thought it was called) and “Pin the tail on the sheep”.
When we were eating dinner, the 8-year-old asked when Andrew was coming back.
I explained he was with his family in another part of England now.
They started taking about Detective Pikachu, which they had watched on the plane.
“Kind of like Andrew, as he’s a detective!” I said.
“Oh yeah! Does he have a magnifying glass?” the 8-year-old asked.
I didn’t like to say he didn’t, and spent most of his time looking at CCTV and phone records.
On the Saturday, we checked out of our holiday home.
My England-brother and girlfriend set off home, after lunch. (I was staying for one more night, sleeping in my parents’ living room.)
The boys had been given new Lego by my England-brother, before he left. On Saturday afternoon, the boys played with their new Lego.
The 4-year-old had more of an administrative role in the construction of his Lego; he just played Snakes and Ladders with me while his Dad built the Lego toy, but every 5 minutes he went to ask if it was finished yet.
He turned to me and said, “I love you when I’m a storm trooper.”
I think this was because he’d pieced together that I was the same Aunt who had sent him a storm trooper outfit last Christmas.
The Sunday was my last day. When I was getting dressed in my parents’ bedroom, after sleeping on a fold-up bed in the living room, my Mum came in and was a bit tearful.
She said, “I don’t feel like the same person I used to be, because I can’t remember things.”
She was tired after we’d been so busy, and her memory is worse when she’s tired. She had got a bit confused over breakfast when setting the table.
I had thought the main problem was her mild cognitive impairment, and that the mini-strokes she’s had were a separate issue that were largely resolved.
However, I realised that the mini-strokes could have had more of an impact.
My understanding is that a mini-stroke, or TIA, doesn’t have any lasting effect, but is an important warning sign that the person could be at risk of having an actual stroke.
However, I’m now wondering if she did have a small stroke, as I think a part of her brain related to language might have been affected.
I think that problems like forgetting what she has said and repeating herself, and forgetting people’s names and certain words is a memory problem.
However, when we talked about this, I realised sometimes she has trouble saying a word, and accidentally says a word with similar letters.
For example, she was trying to say she had put something “on hold”, but she said, “on cold” and then “on told.”
This seems like more of a speech problem than a memory problem.
Anyway, she has always been renowned for being talkative and being good at getting to know people. For example, last time they were visiting me, we went to a garden centre and she disappeared. When I found her, she was buying some plants and had uncovered the life story of the ‘lovely young man from Hungary’ who had served her on the till.
When they were at my flat and a man from Virgin came to fix my internet, by the time I’d put the kettle on, she knew how he finds the shift patterns, whether he liked being an engineer and his career aspirations.
But now, she forgets what she has said and struggles to get the words out, and she feels like she isn’t the same person anymore.
We hugged and both cried a bit, and I tried to give some advice about adjusting to long term conditions which I would give someone at work.
Then my Dad came in and chivvied us, as we were supposed to be going out to Beatrix Potter’s house. I finished getting dressed.
“I feel better now! and my headache has gone!” My mum said cheerily.
We had a nice time looking around Beatrix Potter’s house in Hawkshead (home of Peter Rabbit and Miss Tiggywinkle).
After we had lunch, I thought I’d better set off driving back to London.
We said goodbye in the car park, and I couldn’t hold back tears when hugging my brother.
“We won’t see Aunty Dater Analysis for a long time now,” he explained to the boys.
“That’s why I’m sad,” I said cheerily. “I think you kids are the best children I know.”
We did a kind of embarrassing family tradition in the car park, and had a ‘Family Hug’.
This involves all getting into a big huddle, and saying “Family Hug! Family Hug! Family Family Family Hug!” while kind of half-jumping up and down.
Then we say, “without a…” and then we list the family members who aren’t there.
Then, I got into my car to drive off.
It took an annoying amount of reversing to get out of my parking space, and every time I looked in the mirror, I saw the 8-year-old who used to hate me, earnestly waving.