“Does Reuben have a learning disability or do we have an understanding difficulty? We pathologise the condition but are too busy to listen.”
brother. do. you. love. me., by Manni Coe and Reuben Coe, is a memoir of the brothers’ struggles to move forward with their lives following the stringent Covid Lockdowns. While incredibly moving it is also eye-opening, offering a window into the challenges faced by a loving family who are dealing with the needs of a child born with Down’s Syndrome. Aged 38, Reuben had only recently moved into a care facility for adults with learning difficulties when he was required to confine himself to his room, all outside visitors banned. The care staff were overstretched and bound by rules. In his loneliness, Reuben grew depressed and stopped talking. For a time he stopped eating. The title of the book is taken from a text he sent his brother when at his lowest ebb. It prompted Manni to leave his home in Spain and move with his brother into the rural farm cottage owned by his partner. Over the months that followed Manni worked relentlessly to find ways to bring Reuben back to something like his former self.
Reuben was the fourth son born to a couple whose Christian faith was a vital part of their lives – something that caused a rift when Manni came out as gay. Reuben grew up valued by all his family for what he was but often pitied by wider society. There was a desire to mould him into what was regarded as normal rather than build on his individuality. As the memoir unfolds it becomes clear that the Covid restrictions did not trigger his first crisis.
“this is what life must be like for my brother: he meets people, casts his nets of friendship, full of love and aspirations, only for those nets to be hauled back empty. People simply cannot or do not want to slow down enough to get to know him”
When Manni received the text, he had been living in Spain for the previous 19 years. He had a business as a tour guide and, since 2015, had lived on an olive farm in Andalusia with his partner, Jack. For a time Reuben had lived with them, a cherished member of their family. He moved back to England following a violent storm that badly affected him in the summer of 2018. It is this incident that opens the book. Both Manni and Jack were away from home that night and Manni ponders if this trigger forced Reuben to face his loneliness and mortality.
Manni writes with his heart on his sleeve as he recounts the brothers’ backstories alongside the struggle of helping bring Reuben back from the brink. There is an honesty and an intimacy, an admission that Manni has needs as well as Reuben. Alongside the recollections are colourful pictures, drawn by Reuben and bringing to life his needs and fears. The book truly is a collaboration and more powerful for the inclusion of what is effectively Reuben’s diary of their time together.
The months spent in the cottage are exhausting for Manni even if precious. As Reuben slowly improves his brother comes to realise that this cannot be a long term solution. He misses Jack. The ongoing stresses of the situation affect his ability to stay constantly calm and collected, as Reuben requires if he is not to regress. Manni recognises that Reuben’s continuing improvement depends on him feeling capable and useful, even if his first reaction is to allow others to do everything for him. Reuben finds any change scary. Manni is aware that if he is to return to Spain and his work there, he must place his brother back into a care system that previously failed him. Jack disagrees.
The guilt and concern felt are well portrayed. The brothers find an impressive support network, but professionals move on with their lives and careers and cannot be relied upon forever. From his drawings it is clear that Reuben understands much of what is happening, the nuance if not the detail. He still fears losing his family again and being unable to communicate his complex needs to carers.
A beautifully written account of a bond between brothers and the positive impact it has on both of them. Manni never glosses over the difficulties but the love felt is clear, along with its cost.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Toller.