Books

Manni Coe: Repairing my brother, one drawing at a time

Manni Coe's brother, Reuben, has Down's syndrome and the pair have always been there for each other. When a shocking event left Reuben in crisis, it was his big brother who restored him back to happiness

Picture of the night sky by Rueben Coe

Illustration by Reuben Coe

I am one of four brothers. Reuben, the youngest, was born in Leeds in 1983 when I was 10. He soon became the centre of our world, with his gurgling smile and bright eyes. Mum and Dad explained to us that he had something called Down’s syndrome, that he had special needs and that his learning process might be slower than ours. With three older brothers to bring him up to speed, Reuben soon flourished into a talkative, happy young man who grabbed life with both hands and had lots of fun in the process.  

Illustration by Rueben Coe
Illustration by Rueben Coe

He became much more than a brother to me. He became a friend, someone I could share my secrets with, someone who caught me when I took a life tumble, picked me up and hugged me while repeating one of his favourite catchphrases: “You’ve got me, brother.” And he was right. I knew we would always have each other, whatever happened. 

Reuben eventually came to live with me in Spain and we enjoyed many happy adventures together, eating well and enjoying the Spanish sunshine. But one night when Reuben was in the house all by himself, something happened that frightened him. A huge storm shook our house for hours and he spent the entire night petrified, internalising the fear. And then something totally shocking happened; he lost his voice. He became locked in and suffered what is called a regression. We moved him back to the UK and with the help of my partner and my parents, sought professional help.

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When Reubs was feeling a little stronger, we took the decision to move him into a care home, and then a few weeks later the pandemic hit. He remained cut off from us all for several months. Unable to visit him, we were concerned about his mental health. An army of friends sent him cards and gifts to keep him buoyant but I think, in his heart of hearts, he felt like we had abandoned him. He spent hours, days and weeks staring out of his bedroom window, wondering what had happened to his happy life. It is no wonder that he spiralled into a deep depression. Stuck in Spain, my frustrations were growing by the day, and I agonised over his predicament. Then one morning, out of the blue, a text message from Reuben pinged into my phone. It read, ‘brother. do. you. love. me.’   

In the spaces between the words and the full-stops I found Reuben’s true meaning: SOS. Come and get me. Please. Help.

That text message changed my life. It changed all of our lives. Leaving behind my partner Jack, I boarded a plane and removed Reuben from care. We called it the ‘bronap’. In that message, he wasn’t really asking me if I love him. He knows I do. In the spaces between the words and the full-stops I found Reuben’s true meaning: SOS. Come and get me. Please. Help. 

Together, we spent 26 weeks in a cottage in the Dorset countryside. We had to keep each other safe. I held the broken pieces of my brother’s shattered life and slowly, very slowly, we began to repair our lives. In the safety of a warm embrace, as winter retreated and spring began to push its way through the icy crust, Reuben’s fear began to dissipate. We started to glimpse home. We started to live again. I took Reubs into my arms and as difficult as he found it, I made him hold my gaze and told him, “You’ve got me, brother.”  

Illustration by Rueben Coe
Illustration by Rueben Coe

Little by little, his voice began to return, first as a whisper and then as a quiet murmur. I used different techniques to engage his senses and trigger his memory. There was always a scented candle lit as we ate together in silence. I played his favourite music in the background. We watched DVDs and went for walks through the icy fields of Dorset’s stunning countryside. Gradually, Reuben began to remember his earlier, happier life. Every morning, I’d wake early and spend hours writing what would become our memoir. By the time Reuben got out of bed, I had written thousands of words as they poured onto the page. For me, it was a way of processing the pain and carving a way through to hope. I refused to believe I had lost my brother. I struggled every day to get him back.

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Each afternoon, Reuben would sit on his bed drawing in his art pad. Before he went to bed each evening, he would hand me the drawing and plant a tender kiss on my cheek. Every single day for 26 weeks he drew, and those illustrations tell the same story as my words. Our publisher Little Toller were adamant that Reuben’s drawings needed to be in the final version of the book. They are his voice when he didn’t have one. They were his expression and his emotional outlet.  

brother. do. you. love. me by Manni Coe & Reuben Coe
brother. do. you. love. me by Manni Coe & Reuben Coe is out on October 4 (Little Toller, £22)

Creating this book with Reuben has been a beautiful experience. Writing and drawing was part of our coping mechanism and before our eyes, a book began to emerge. It was pure magic. 

You can buy brother. do. you. love. me. by Manni Coe and Rueben Coe from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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