It was Thursday July 1st 1993, my 10th birthday, when the phone rang. It was Uncle Charlie, my dad’s slightly older brother and best man.
After a few minutes on the phone with Dad, I was called to come to the phone as Charlie wanted to say ‘hello’.
Charlie wished me a ‘Happy Birthday’, and asked me if I wanted to go to Chessington World of Adventures theme park at the weekend for my birthday present, like we did the summer before.
But this year I was busy on the Saturday, and my parents had arranged a football party for me and my friends on the Sunday. So I told Charlie that I had my party coming up and that he could come to that instead. After a few more seconds of chat, I was quickly told, “no worries, I have got to go now, see ya soon,” and after saying good bye, I hung up the phone. I soon went back to my Sonic the Hedgehog, not knowing that this would be our final conversation.
Sunday afternoon finally arrived. July 4th, party day! I was sitting in my living room, full of excitement and anticipation. My sister was upstairs, Mum was in the kitchen, and Dad was in their bedroom directly above the living room. The phone rang. Mum answered it from the kitchen and you could tell there was immediately something wrong. At that moment the house was silent. I can’t recall if the TV was on, but if it was, I couldn’t hear it.
Mum rushed upstairs to the bedroom and said for my sister to go downstairs immediately. Mum closed her bedroom door shut behind her, something that had never happened before or again after. The house had never been so quiet.
From the living room my sister and I could hear muffled talk from inside Mum and Dad’s room above us, and within a few seconds I could hear the moment Dad broke down after being informed that his brother and best friend was no longer with us.
I am not sure how much time passed, but Mum came down with tears in her eyes and rushed me and my sister to the car, ready to go to the party. I got my stuff ready and, as I was leaving the living room, Dad appeared in the door way: “Have you heard?” he said to me, with tears in his eyes and cracks in his voice. The man who had been He-Man to me my whole life stood in front of me distraught. This was the first time I had seen him vulnerable, the first time I had seen negative emotion from him. I hadn’t heard the news that he had just been given, but I immediately started to cry, as I knew it was something life changing that had happened. I didn’t even know who that phone call had been about, and to this day I do not know who was on the other end of that phone.
But I knew life was about to change.
Mum took me and my sister to my party. I can’t remember the journey at all. I do remember that football match clearly though, and the goals that I scored that day. Mum went ahead with the party, giving fourteen rowdy ten years olds party food, party games and birthday cake after the match had ended. She made that day so special for me. Photos from that day show the fun that was had by us kids, but also show the pain and despair behind my mum’s eyes, as she tried to project a sense of normality for her son. All the while she was trying to come to terms with the loss of her brother in law, and the fact that her husband and my dad’s world was caving in as the truth was revealed to him, of how his brother had been found earlier that morning.
As a 10 year old boy, I grieved for my uncle. As a 15 year old young man, when my grandmother passed away, we grieved again, however I was then part of more adult conversations about what had happened to my uncle. It was then that I was able to start to gain perspective on what had happened to Charlie. He had suffered from a run of serious bad luck, bad decisions, and heartbreak. This had led to the black dog of depression dragging him down. I often wonder if he had hoped to take me to Chessington as a way of cheering himself up, only for me to have plans. Perhaps he’d thought he couldn’t even do that right, adding yet another item to his list of things that had gone against him.
In reality he was probably just trying to do his duties as a loving uncle. But what he failed to think of that night when no doubt he had a hundred thoughts racing through his head, where he couldn’t see a way out, is that we needed him and still do. I only wish someone could have been with him so that he wasn’t drinking alone, with a pen in his hand writing a goodbye letter, and an idea in his head of ending his life. He was only 8 years older than I am now.
There is a huge hole in our family, and younger relatives who do not share the same loving memories that my sister and I have, do not share the grief that we feel when we talk about him. He was the uncle who would play with us kids as if he were a kid himself; he would wrestle with us, never really knowing his own strength; he would get us really worked up, and then leave our parents to calm us down. He was our friend and playmate as well as our uncle. He held a special place in my heart and I still think of him daily.
I wasn’t informed what had actually happened to Charlie until my teenage years, when for some reason I questioned the original story of ‘illness’ that I’d been told as an innocent ten year old. My mother wondered if I had been questioning it in the subsequent years. I hadn’t. I don’t even know where the question came from that day. Only now, in my early thirties, with a mortgage and family of my own, do I feel I can begin to understand what may have gone through his mind, and I think about it more and more.
I too can wallow in self-doubt and anxiety, and I know I can share my issues with those around me. But if things got that bad, as bad as it got for him, would I still be able to reach out for help? Could I? Would I be judged? Will Charlie’s suicide have a knock-on effect in my life?
I wish someone could have told Uncle Charlie that he was not alone. I wish someone could have told him that there were people who loved him eternally and would have always been there to help ease the burden, to ensure that he seeks support. My dad wishes that Charlie had decided to open up to him, to reach out to him and share his troubles. But that wasn’t Charlie. Apparently he decided that he didn’t want to ‘burden’ those around him. As far as we know he didn’t try to find help. I wonder if he was in my generation whether he would reach out to his friends and family. Times are changing, but not changing enough when you consider the alarming statistic that CALM is trying to change – suicide is the biggest killer of men my age.
I wish that the 10 year old me could have gone to Chessington on the Saturday, so that he’d had a great day, and the dark thoughts hadn’t appeared that fateful Saturday night. I wish he had agreed to come to the party on the Sunday. But he didn’t. Feb 15th would have been his 65th Birthday. I wish we could have had a pint to celebrate.
But life goes on, and I will teach my own son to open up and to express himself; to know that showing feelings and emotions does not make him weak; to know that should things go against him, should he encounter heartache, failure, and/or depression, there are people out there to help.
I saw a quote that said “suicide doesn’t just take away your own pain, it gives it to someone else” – I relate to that.
Uncle Charlie – left us aged 41 – forever in our hearts ’til we meet again.
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