Let me tell you about Bill.
Bill was a genius. I met him soon after I was born. I don’t remember it, but my mum assures me I was there when the meeting took place. No-one took minutes, so I don’t know what was said. He was my brother.
I have a much loved sister Vikki, in between us in age, making me the unplanned number three. I owe Bill so much, for so many things, including my name. Bill was 5 & 1/2 years old when he named me. My parents couldn’t agree on a name until he came home from school and said he’d told all his friends about his new baby brother, Christopher. And so, I was christened.
Bill is responsible for more than just my name, also moulding my sense of humour, my love of irony, feeding his little brother a steady diet of the Goon Show, Monty Python and Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy. He introduced me to 2JJ, ABC’s new youth radio station, that became 2JJJ. Music by the Animals, Skyhooks, Tangerine Dream. I stole his tape of War of the Worlds, and played it until it died. He also taught me how to blow shit up, though I taught him a thing or two, I suspect. I gave him the formula for a highly unstable rocket fuel that I learned from a friend named Stephan Elliot, (Yes that Stephan Elliot). He and my step brother were mixing it on an old dishwasher my mother had hoped to sell as we were broke. The subsequent explosion destroyed the resale value of the appliance. The boys pleaded to mum, “Chris gave us the formula.”
Her reply sticks with me, “Well if you two are silly enough to listen to what your 11 year old brother tells you, you deserve what you get.”
Thing’s were tough at that time, and by Christmas we left my childhood home and my childhood behind.
He was 15 when my father (Bill senior) left, and the anger and bitterness hit my brother hard, as he knew of the abuse that our mum endured.
He’d spent my first 10 years, along with my mother and sister, protecting me from the awful things going on behind closed doors. My brother bore the burden and he bore it well.
He would prank me, from the first time I could understand April Fools, to trying to convince me bananas grow straight, but in Queensland, they have a machine that bends them, “And that’s why we call Queenslanders, Banana Benders.” Even now, his disinformation campaign bears fruit, as facts he gave me are disproven.
By age 18, he’d cut dad off completely, and my father, in-turn cut us off soon after. When I was 12, Bill senior sent us back home with an angry rant about things I didn’t understand. I still don’t.
It’s 6 month’s later when I next heard his voice, over the the phone. Mum had enough of his absent father shit and said, “Don’t you want to wish your son a happy birthday?” Restraint was in her voice. I believed it was a phone call for my birthday, protected from the hard truth again. He’d really rung to plead with mum for money. His new wife had left him, he was bankrupt, drunk and full of empty promises.
For the brief time we spoke he ticked the boxes, Happy Birthday, talk soon, get together later, bullshit, bullshit. See you soon was the last thing he said to me. It was the best thing he ever did.
Living with mum, sister and future Father inlaw in a unit in Artarmon, brother Bill and I shared a room. He put up with my somnambulism and I got to absorb his interests. We did science, abseiling and bushwalking together, though on hikes he would say sternly, “Keep up or get left behind.” Along the way he introduced me to the wonder of nature, as a rock hound and a lover of the Australian landscape he taught me a lot, some of it true. In every sense he was the father figure in my life, even after my mum remarried.
Did I mention Bill was a genius. After blitzing high school, he went to the Australian National University to study computer sciences, proudly declaring “I’m an ANUS (Australian National University Student)“. It sounded all very exciting, the stories he shared of Bush Week in Canberra and the pranks the students did, . There was a quiet, thoughtful rebellion in the things he said and did. His humour was shaped by the great British absurdists, and semester breaks, he would share them with me, his annoying little brother. I remember him bringing home Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy on cassettes, the original radio play, each episode stolen from the radio. We listened to the whole thing in the dark of our shared room, he on the top bunk, me on the bottom, both of us laughing at Douglas Adams’ genius.
The humour took a darker turn in the summer of 1976-1977. Having done so well in his first year, Bill was offered a bursary from the Commonwealth Bank, who saw the potential of his gift for programming. All he had to do was pass a medical and his uni costs would be covered for the next 3 years.
They took an X-ray. They found a shadow.
What did that even mean? To my 13 year old brain, shadows were the stuff nightmares were made of, but he reassured me with stories of x-ray errors. It was probably just something in his pocket. It’d all be okay.
Non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The words may as well have been Latin for me, and I can only imagine what went through Bill’s head. The choices were radiotherapy, which was a hard no, a school mate with Hodgkin’s Disease got leukaemia from radiotherapy and died from that. Option two was experimental. Chemotherapy. Jungle juice, he used to call it, owing to it’s lurid colour.
All through the ordeal he maintained his wit, sharpening it to a razors edge. When a surgeon accidentally pierced Bill’s lungs 3 times during minor exploratory surgery, a semi conscious Bill said, “Why don’t you get someone really qualified in here, like the janitor.”
For two years he endured being the guinea pig for the cancer researchers and he did go into remission for a while, but at a terrible cost to his health. Come 1980, he had a relapse and when they suggested radiation again he told them to take their isotopes and the chemo and shove it as far as they could into their orifice of choice, (or words to that effect.) The specialist gave him 2 weeks to live. The prognosis was dire.
The prognosis was wrong.
During the hell of chemo, he married his fiancee, changed his diet and continued his degree, this time in Sydney. In that time he built a computer from scratch, wrote a lunar lander game for me and developed really interesting AI software working with a linguist for voice recognition.
Even through the shit storm that hit his life, he kept going and kept laughing. Even when smoke would rise from his fingertips as he soldered a circuit, the chemo having killed the nerves in his fingers, he’d joke about it.
He also knew how to cut to the core. He spoke the truth when the truth needed to be said. After I left home, in 1983, I was not looking after myself, smoking, drinking, smoking, sleeping around, sex and drugs and rock and roll. One day he said to me, “I don’t get it. I’m fighting to stay alive and you’re trying to kill yourself.” Those words stick with me to this day.
I learnt so much from him, at least 40 percent of it bullshit, but he never misled me in malice. If there was one phrase he beat me over the head with, whenever I would ask some stupid question he would say, “Look it up.” I spent hours with my head buried in an encyclopaedia, learning to learn for myself. Still, his lies come back to bite me, as I state a factoid and my eldest shoots it down. Thanks Bill, apples don’t get picked early and then get dyed red,
By the late 80’s Bill’s health began to deteriorate again, not from the lymphoma, but from the damage the chemo had done to his lungs. By then, I was living my own life, deep in a religious sect and afraid for his mortal soul. He was dying, and I wanted to preach to him. It did not go over well. “I don’t let atheists preach to me either,” he said.
The last time I saw him, he was seated on the lounge with an oxygen mask, exchanging quips and political opinion with our step father K. To watch the two of them debate was a thing of beauty, both masters of words and able to take on an argument from any side. Sometimes, you would listen and realise that they had swapped sides, now arguing for the opposition. His mind was sharp to the end and whilst he allowed his GP to track the decline, he refused all attempts by the cancer specialist to get anywhere near him. He’d survived ten years without them, 9 years and 50 weeks longer than they gave him credit for.
In 6th January 1990, William Kenneth Kneipp died of respiratory failure. He went out on his terms and when he was ready. He left an indelible mark on my life and I like to think, the way computer code is copied and replicated, that out there, in a million voice recognition apps, is a little piece of his code. Like graffiti scrawled on the virtual world for as long as we have computers.
He haunts me in so many ways. I see him in my eldest, in my nephew, and in myself. His life ripples on through others and I take comfort in that.
Sometimes, I dream he is alive, from time to time. We talk, discuss things going on in my life, things in the world, stories.
It’s been 30 years.
I miss him.