Tara J Lal recalls her brother’s death while he was an Oxford student

I stood within the grounds of Balliol College, Oxford, outside staircase 22. Tentatively, I looked up feeling my heart fracture once more, releasing tears of sadness.

I closed my eyes and pictured my brother Adam in his room, all those years ago. I could see his handsome face, his silky dark hair and his slim muscular frame.

I imagined his desk, even the essay that sat upon it, with his tutor’s appraisal on the front: “This is possibly one of the finest essays I have ever read written by a first year student at Oxford.”

I could see the scrawls of unfinished letters strewn around him, the empty Marlboro packets stuck on the wall.

I pictured him scribbling fervently. I sensed him shaking, his hand barely able to hold the pen and etch the words on to the paper before him.

I am so listless. I am so banal. Every thought that falls upon my mind, has been thought before, and rethought again… My brother was brilliant. But being brilliant came at a cost, for with it came the curse of perfectionism.

I recalled my mother’s words scrawled with love in a letter to her son as she had lain dying four years before.

“I have always nursed a dream that my son should go to Oxbridge, specifically, I think because it is something that nobody in our family has yet achieved. Perhaps you shall be the first to do so…”

I thought of the poisoned chalice our mother had unwittingly passed to her son with her words so full of love, pride and expectation.

Adam wrote: “The obligation of love wears upon me. I know now I want to be at home, but I cannot return, as to do that is to admit defeat. I know that within myself I am defeated. What help can I receive? All help is an admittance of defeat. All defeat makes life more unbearable. Dear family, be near me, I am almost dead.”

Adam never made it to the appointment he had made to see a counsellor at the university that very week.

On November 21, 1988, he jumped from his study window. The very same day I had sat paper one of the Oxford entrance examination, scribbling my answer to the question: Can someone else be a better judge of my character than I am myself?

I didn’t write about me. I wrote about Adam, about his inability to see the beautiful person that he was. How he only saw his flaws, not his gifts, not his endless compassion or his pure soul.

Instead of sitting paper two, I found myself in my sister’s car asking for directions to the Radcliffe Infirmary.

We were led to the intensive care unit, a kind nurse explaining that Adam was on life support, that even if he woke up he may never be the same again.

I just wanted him to live, whatever the cost. He would wake up for me, I was sure. If I could just touch his soul with my words, with my voice, with my love… He didn’t wake up and my world was obliterated in an instant.

Twenty-one years later I stood in Oxford once more, a grown woman, a firefighter.

It had taken me this long to build the strength to face the past, to make my peace with Balliol and with Oxford. I stood holding my brother tightly in my heart, comforting him gently, cradling him.

Twenty-seven years after his death, I dedicated my book to him. Coincidentally, today is also World Suicide Prevention Day.

Standing on My Brother’s Shoulders: Making Peace with Grief and Suicide by Tara J Lal is published by Watkins, priced £8.99.