Death Sentences


Dear Reader,

Eight years later and I can finally meet the gaze of the page that stares up at me blankly, expectantly. Words squirm beneath the surface, clamouring to become visible, hungry to be seen. Everything shimmers with the start of so many simultaneous sentences.

I am both terrified and excited about the birth of these wet and inky creatures, as they emerge through the papery membrane into this bright new page. My pen is pregnant with paragraphs, so their birth is a release – but it is also a death, since their very articulation turns them to fiction. In this murder, they cease to be the “truth”, becoming just a partial account, a biased narrative. And the scariest part of all, is that their bodies will be pinned up for all to see – my darkest days drying out before your eyes.

These are the shadowy moments between Patrick’s accident and his funeral – so hard to recall because the very events themselves seemed to happen to someone else. Now, peering back through the grubby lens of time, I watch a reel of film, broken and surreal. Stuck in fast-forward it moves past in a blur, but every so often it comes to a juddering halt at a random scene that bursts into focus with a sharpness that makes my brain ache. I’m tossed back in time, and suddenly I find myself clutching frosty fingers, spilling tears over a cold body, shuffling down the aisle in a church, throwing a handful of earth into a hole in the ground.

“Dead.” The very word itself echoes with its harsh finality – somehow, in that one word, in that one syllable, a whole lifetime is negated. In passing my most terrifying memories through this verbal prism, I am searching for a vocabulary to make sense of the life lost in those four little letters.

Reader, this is the story of how my brother died and every word is true.


There’s nothing quite like the quiet hush of an alpine town. Especially when your brother has just had five cardiac arrests. It’s as if the very mountains themselves are holding their breath. They know we are poised on the brink of something far larger than we could possibly imagine.

Grenoble, where Patrick is flown to, is ghostly, respiring with a soft rush of trams. Everything is quiet and muffled, like that moment just after snow has fallen, when silence buzzes inside your eardrums. As we stumble through the streets, I wonder if people can see the tragedy that hovers above us like some big balloon. I wonder if they notice how the air changes as we walk past, crackling with a static buzz. We don’t belong here; we stick out – it is stamped across our foreheads. Life unfolds as normal around us, but we are in stasis. Every movement we make is jarring and ugly, clashing with this sleepy mountain stillness.

Everything is coated with a thick, glossy layer of tragedy. It drips from the walls of the strange hotel room; it oozes from the food we eat. Can no one else see it? A buffet of fresh fruit and pastries, a cheese fondue – everything seems too shiny, sickening, repulsive.


We wait for the doctor’s report in a meeting room of the hospital, a purgatory where we hang suspended. Blissfully unaware of the severity of what we face, tiny flowers of hope sprout in the pit of my stomach, digging their roots in deep – he will be okay.

But when the doctor finally speaks to us, his words are thick and heavy and hang in the air after he has spoken them, swimming before my eyes. It’s not good news. It’s unlikely that he will survive, and if he does, he will be brain-damaged. I turn to my mum and with all the innocence and naivety of my thirteen-year-old self, ask, ‘What’s brain-damaged?’

Then we are taken to see him. In the vignette of my memory, the outer edges of the room are soft and blurred, coming into focus as I draw towards the centre. There, harsh and vivid in the lurid light, is a hospital bed. And there, in the hospital bed, is my brother.

I am surprised by how peaceful he seems. Despite being tangled in tubes; he is volcanic – there is some sort of dormant power alive beneath the surface of his skin. I feel the tentative tendrils of hope tighten in my gut. He will wake up soon. He will erupt into consciousness.

When we return to the hospital the next day, the building flashes and beeps, pulsing with a strange energy. It feels like we are bacteria, passing along the corridors of some huge organism. Everything is frenetic and purposeful, but we seem out of place – moving against the tide, we cling to life, to hope, but it is desperate to get us out of its system.

By the time we arrive, Patrick has had a brain scan. He is brain-dead.

How do you make sense of the fact that someone is brain-dead? How can the lights have gone out in the galaxy that swirls inside his skull? He was achingly alive, fizzing with life and colour – how can it now be so cold and dark and still inside his head? Silence at the synapses; they no longer snap with electrical energy – all that celestial matter doesn’t matter anymore.

He just looks like he is on standby – warm to the touch, his heart still beating, his chest still rising and falling. How can he possibly have been shut down forever? I remember asking my mum if he could have a brain transplant – but how could the crucible of his identity, the very substance of his self, ever be replaced?

Then they switch the life-support machine off.

And with that flick of the switch, everything implodes. My life shrinks to the four walls of this room with a dizzying rush. The clock is ticking, but its hands move sluggishly, whilst Patrick’s heart beats into oblivion. This can’t be happening. We watch the monitor as the spikes are crushed, compressed, beaten flat. And then it’s done. 14:05. The clock stops. Flatline. Zero. Dead.


Morgues are every bit as ugly as they sound. The stench of death burns the hairs inside my nostrils and I feel as muted and numb as the walls.

He is cold now, his body glistening with a glacial sheen. I clutch his hands, squeezing hard – but they are unresponsive, the fingers locked in position. He feels waxy and artificial, a manikin wheeled out for a sad family. This is not my brother. We cluster around, desperately trying to press life into him – stroking him, speaking to him, splashing him with tears. But he remains rigid and unmoving. Who knew cuddling a corpse could be so difficult?

It seems impossible to describe a dead body without resorting to the clichés which suggest something beautiful and peaceful – he is frozen, asleep. But death is ugly and harsh. It’s not just that he wont speak again, but that his mouth has been sown shut from the inside. It’s not just that he wont see again, but that plastic caps have been placed under his eyelids to keep their shape. It’s not just that he wont breathe again, but that his throat and nose are packed with cotton wool to stop fluid leakage.


It felt right to bring his body home, so he could spend his last night above ground in the house where he grew up, where, somewhere through the cracks of time, younger versions of him still leave their shoes in the hall and play football in the garden.

His coffin was placed on the dining room table and I wonder if people realise that when they come round for dinner. I can feel it there still, heavy and solid, a wedge driven through dinner – now a ritual conducted over over his dead body. My words are strained – they have further to travel, across a table, across a coffin, across a whole life. I can feel the china tremulous under its dead weight and sometimes I wish it would all give way. I wish the plates would crack. I wish the glasses would shatter. I wish people could see how this brutal freight train ploughed through our lives. I hear the sharp intakes of breath as hands cover mouths and wine clots there, redly.


Funerals are strange events because it feels odd to throw a party for someone who’s not there. The first three letters drip with irony – there’s no fun in a funeral.

I’m not sure if it is hard to breathe because the day is crisp in my lungs or because my throat is tight with pain. The air hums with pale sunlight and bright sadness. The builders on our road tilt their hats to the hearse as it goes by. I feel strangely calm as I start to walk down the aisle behind his coffin. Then I catch sight of a familiar face, distorted in pain, red with tears. And that’s when I snap.

When the priest calls me up to do my reading I’m not nervous, because as I stand at the lectern and look out, there is no one there. The mass of tear-streaked faces rises and swells into one. The voice of some other thirteen-year-old is speaking – words that are branded onto my brain, etched into me. For a long time, I do not stand at his grave and cry, because he is not there, he did not die.

The smell of soil and loss. The handful of earth that trickles through my fingers as I let it tumble into his tomb. As it hits the wood of his casket with a soft thud, I am cleaved by two different kinds of pain: the shock of all that has happened, and the ache for all that never will.

Whilst we had his body, we had something to hold onto. But now that he has no physical presence, the fact that he is gone, forever, suddenly drops through my stomach like a stone. His absence becomes painfully and palpably present in all the spaces he leaves behind – an unworn coat in the hall, an empty seat at the table, a cold bed up the stairs. All of his things are hollow without him, echoing with their own emptiness. Forever a mid-air mountain moment, I tiptoe round the cracks of him, the gaps of him, the fissures that trail in his wake.

You will always be a trick of the light, a leap into the blue, the knuckles of the mountainside. But you will always be more than a death sentence, because, no matter how hard time tries to smudge your memory, you will always be my brother.

And as that last dark circle emerges onto the page – a full stop, a teardrop – I sit back and shut my eyes really tight. I’m thirteen again. I’m running towards my biggest brother, who scoops me off the ground into a hug. I’m slightly squished, but safe, secure. Everything is exactly as it should be. Nothing will ever change, no one will ever die.


9 thoughts on “Death Sentences

  1. Beautiful words Hugo on such a sad anniversary. A tragic loss for all of us and a devastating experience for anyone, let alone a 13 year old. So awful what we all lost that day and what Patrick has missed and continues to miss.
    Love as always Mum xxx


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