This essay was first published as a series on my blog in September, 2013. I’ve edited it a little, so if you want to read the original, you can click here.
Ever since my sister died in 1987, I’d wanted to write about her and her death, but it took me over 25 years. I wanted to write a tribute to her as my sister, as the person who’d shared my childhood and who’d known me better than anyone else at the time. I wanted to pay homage to her chirpy, bubbly nature, so she wouldn’t be forgotten. And I wanted to honour someone who’d deserved longer on this earth.
I also wanted to write about her death because it was such a pivotal event for me. Apart from grandparents, this was my first close encounter with death, and certainly with premature death. It was the first time I’d felt penetrating grief.
Yet, despite the tragedy and the loss, there were moments of beauty and joy. Let me explain …
On Friday, 13th November, 1987, my sister, Fran, and I were in the thick of end-of-year exams at the University of Tasmania in Hobart: she was nineteen and studying Pharmacy, and I was twenty and studying Medicine. We both had exams in the morning, and that afternoon, Fran drove home, to the north of the state, to attend a wedding the next day.
As the wiser, older sister (that I wasn’t), I advised her against taking a weekend off in the middle of exams. She shrugged and packed her bags anyway.
We said goodbye and I returned to my desk—at least one of us was studying. A few moments later, I heard a tap outside my window. I turned and there was Fran, blonde curls and smiles, bag over her shoulder, blowing me a kiss and mouthing the words, ‘I love you’. I laughed and shook my head at her, blew her a kiss back and said ‘I love you, too’. And off she went.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully and I went to bed. Around 11:30pm, I was woken by the phone ringing. It was our flatmate’s mother and she wanted to speak to him. No cordless phones in those days, so he sat in the hall, while his girlfriend and I hovered in the doorway, listening to the conversation, and worried for why his mother would be ringing at such an hour.
He hung up. ‘There’s been an accident,’ he said. ‘With Fran and her boyfriend, and we have to go home.’ She hadn’t told him anything more.
With Fran? If it involved Fran, why was his mother ringing him, and not mine ringing me.
I picked up the phone and dialed my parents’ house, and my flatmate’s mother answered. Why was she answering my parents’ phone?
I asked to speak to my parents, and my father came on the line.
‘You need to come home,’ was all he’d say.
‘What’s happened? Is Fran all right?’
‘I’ll tell you when you get here.’
‘But is she all right?’
‘Just come home.’
‘If there’s been an accident, why aren’t you in at the hospital?’
‘Just come home.’
‘Is she alive?’
He hesitated. ‘Just come home.’
The three of us climbed into the car around half-past-midnight and drove home, a two-hour trip. I sat in the back, worried for what had happened, replaying the conversation with Dad, too frightened to guess at why he hadn’t answered my questions. I wasn’t going to think about anything like that. I wasn’t.
The road was quiet and the night still. We barely passed another car. I sat back, then forward, then back again. I couldn’t get comfortable, and I was shivering although it wasn’t cold.
Towards three o’clock in the morning, we drove down my parents’ driveway. Lights glowed from windows that should have been dark and through the kitchen windows, I saw people, too many people for that hour of the night. Some were sitting around the table, others standing, cups in their hands.
I don’t think the car had completely stopped before I was out and striding across the gravel. I could see my mother inside by the kitchen sink. When I reached the door, I pushed it open, calling out, ‘Where is she? Where is she?’
I remember it all in slow motion—my mother coming towards me, shaking her head and repeating, ‘She’s dead, Lou. She’s dead … She’s dead.’ Everything blurred and became dream-like, and my legs felt as if they’d lost their bones and began to shake. Someone grabbed me under my arm and set me on a stool. I wanted to say, ‘I’m all right. You can leave me’, but I couldn’t speak. My legs were still wobbling even as I sat and someone stood by my side, one hand still in my armpit. I wanted them to leave, to give me space, to let me collapse, but they didn’t.
I sat on the stool at the end of the bench while everyone talked around me.
My sister was dead.
Just over twelve hours earlier, I’d been with her. She was smiling and blowing kisses. She was alive.
Now she was dead.
A car accident. Her boyfriend had survived. No one knew much more.
We moved into the family room—friends, uncles and aunts, and I think my grandmother was there, too—and sat on the cushioned chairs and couches. I took the seat on the couch next to my silent father.
No one knew what to say but talked anyway. About my brother’s cricket match the next day and whether he would play. About who else had to be notified. About when the funeral might be. About anything. About nothing. Punctuated every now and then by a sigh and a shake of the head. Someone would stand and ask if anyone wanted another cuppa, and someone else would offer to help, and out they’d go, probably relieved to have something to do.
One-by-one they left and, finally, we closed the door on the last car churning up the gravel. With the sky now light, we set about our first day without Fran.
My sister’s boyfriend’s parents arrived early the next morning. They were on their way to Hobart where their son had been flown via Air Ambulance. They were crying. For Fran. For their son. They listed his injuries, how much of him had been broken—jaw, arm, pelvis, and more.
They had spoken with the Police who told them that alcohol was involved. The other driver. And he was on the wrong side of the road.
I felt better, somehow, knowing that it wasn’t my sister or her boyfriend’s fault; that it was someone else’s wrongdoing. I had someone to blame, someone to whom I could direct my anger.
As we were waving goodbye to them, my parents said, ‘Thank God both of them weren’t killed.’
Yes, thank God, I thought. But I was jealous. How I wished I was them, on my way to Hobart to see my sister—no matter how broken she was, at least she would have been alive.
Shock set in. Shock, for me, was like a safety switch for my brain, switching off the part that couldn’t cope with the depth of the loss while keeping the autopilot part functioning so I could still shower and dress and go about my daily business.
I remember buying milk from a shop the next day and as the girl at the counter handed me my change I wanted to tell her, ‘My sister died last night and I’m not normal, you know. I might look it, but I’m not …’
Back at home people visited. Their cars filled the space at the front of our house, and their bodies and chatter filled the living room and kitchen. Someone kept the kettle boiling, pouring cups of tea and coffee and offering cake and biscuits. The room always seemed full and people introduced themselves to each other and talked about how terrible it was.
They were nice, genuine people, who had come to express their sorrow and show us that they cared. But I just wanted to be alone; I needed to be alone. I retreated to my room whenever I could. Inevitably, someone would tap on my door as a new visitor arrived. I’d haul myself off my bed and go down and sit on the chair and listen to their expressions of grief and tell the story again of what had happened.
‘Yes, the other driver was drunk and on the wrong side of the road.’
‘Yes, it is a blessing that she died instantly.’
‘Yes, it would have been worse if she’d survived and been a quadriplegic …’ What? If she’d been a quadriplegic, at least she would have been alive. And don’t you think we would have looked after her?
I was polite and sat with them and tried to talk, knowing they’d come to see my parents anyway and neither of us really wanted to talk to each other.
At some stage, we went through Fran’s overnight bag. I pulled her underwear out of a side pocket and I remember finding a pair of stockings that she’d worn. I brought them to my nose and smelled her on them, thinking as I did, This is it. Once these are washed, we won’t be able to smell her any longer.
Over the next few days, the curtain of shock began to part allowing tiny pieces of the cold, hard reality in, a little at a time. It happened sometimes when I was driving, and I’d think, I must remember to tell that to Fran, then I’d remember that she was dead and I’d have to pull over …
She is dead.
Fran is dead.
D. E. A. D.
You’re never going to see her again. This is how it is now. This is your new life.
It hit as hard as being thrown against a wall.
At first, navigating my new life without her in it felt weird. It didn’t feel like my life; it felt as if I was living someone else’s. I went about my normal duties, my day-to-day business, but it was as if a huge and tangible part of me was missing, as if I had a gaping, bleeding wound right in the middle of my belly, open for all to see.
Sometimes, I couldn’t stop that hole from bleeding and I just had to go with it and let it rip. I’d wrap my arms around my abdomen and curl up, crying and moaning and rocking until it passed.
The hardest was when I watched it do the same to my father. I remember hearing a soft, high-pitched whine and turning to see my father standing at the kitchen bench, his face twisted and his head lowering until he lay doubled over against the wood of the bench. His shoulders shook as he sobbed. I stood for a moment, unsure if I should intrude on such raw pain. Eventually, I went to him and lay my hand on his shoulder, knowing there was nothing I could do to help him and worrying that he’d feel embarrassed because I’d seen him so exposed.
The night before Fran’s funeral, we went in to the Funeral Directors to see her. In the chapel, I waited in the pew until others had been up to the coffin, said their prayer and left. Then I walked slowly towards her, worried about how bruised and broken she might be, fearful of how she might look now she was dead. That she might not look like my sister. That she might not look like Fran.
But when I reached her, she still looked the same. She wasn’t a dead person: she was Fran. Of course. How could I have ever thought Fran—soft, cuddly, bouncy Fran—could be frightening, even in death?
She looked as if she was sleeping; as if she could wake and be alive again. She wore an ivory silk dress and her blonde curls were brushed. A drop of blood in the shape of a teardrop lay on her cheek just below her left eye.
I lingered at the side of her coffin—others came and went but I didn’t want to leave. I knew this was it, my last chance to be with her. Finally, I leaned in, kissed her cheek, and dragged myself away.
But once outside, I decided to go back in again. A group of us returned, and this time, we weren’t frightened. We chatted to her, stroked her hair, her cheeks, her hands, and cut a lock of her hair with nail scissors.
As long as I stood by her and she lay where she was, I felt as if she was still with us. I wanted to stay with her all night. I wanted to pack her up, take her home and prop her up in the lounge. Dead or alive, I didn’t care. I just wanted her with us anyway I could have her.
My sister’s boyfriend was allowed out of hospital, on a stretcher and accompanied by a paramedic, to attend her funeral. He wanted to see her, so the ambulance detoured via the funeral directors. We went in as well, so it turned out that we were able to see her again.
They’d moved her into a smaller room to wait for the hearse. As we entered, I saw the two of them lying side-by-side—both white and pale, one dead, one broken. She was in her coffin, unmoving and still. He was on a stretcher alongside her, swathed in white bandages and sheets, his jaw wired, his face puffy and bruised, and his plastered arm resting on her in the coffin.
My father was the first to go to him, and as he reached him, he leaned down and kissed him.
At Fran’s funeral, I sat in the front pew with my family. The choir sang as her coffin was brought up the aisle, and just as she reached the altar, they began the chorus: ‘Here I Am, Lord’.
I felt my heart soar. In that dark church at that bleak time, still my heart could lift. Because at this saddest of times, there was beauty and there was joy. Even at the time, I felt it. Joy. Fleeting glimpses of it. Moments of it amongst all the grief.
Because throughout all of this, I felt myself expanding. As if the depth of the grief tunnelling down inside me was also pushing upwards, giving me a greater capacity for joy. A greater capacity to feel, a greater amplitude of emotion on both sides of the spectrum. Yes, it was a depth of sadness I’d never before experienced, but at the same time, there were moments of exquisite joy, almost euphoria.
I felt it when I heard the voices of the choir. I felt it again when I turned and saw all the people crowded into the church. I felt it when I saw the carpet of flowers over her grave. I felt it later in the week as we sat down to a lonely dinner, only for friends to pull up outside, their arms laden with pizzas.
It was as if in order to experience true happiness, I’d needed to taste true sadness. As if I couldn’t have one without the other — I needed the dark in order to appreciate the light; winter, in order to appreciate summer.
For a few months afterwards, I felt Fran around me, as a presence in the room and tantalisingly close. When I looked at her bed, I could see her lying in it. The chair by her desk still seemed to hold her. It was dream-like, yet almost tangible. And it wasn’t frightening. I wanted her there; I wanted to feel her.
At night, she sometimes visited. I had a dream in which I was back in the Church, crying because she was dead. When I looked up, she was sitting next to me, wearing the navy blue and white dress that she’d worn to our Uncle’s wedding. I hugged her and cried, overjoyed to see her, and then asked her if she was all right. She told me that she was and not to worry about her. I asked her what Heaven was like. She told me it was good and she was happy, but not a happiness that I would understand. She couldn’t explain it to me so that I would understand, she said, I would just have to wait.
Most of the time, though, I felt as if I had a gaping hole inside me. She wasn’t there: her bed was empty; her chair was vacant. She was dead. And I wondered whether feeling her presence was my own desire dreaming her up.
After a couple of weeks, I said, Okay universe, I’ve tasted sadness now, real sadness, and I know what it’s like. You can bring her back now …
How would I cope without her? I’d never envisaged life without Fran. She’d been around since I was sixteen months’ old – I couldn’t remember the time before she was born.
We’d shared baths together and taken turns sucking the facewasher.
We’d played in the cubby for hours, dressing our dolls and breastfeeding them.
We’d lain under our sheets late on Christmas Eve, excited and wondering what Santa would bring.
We’d sat on each other’s beds and whispered our secrets.
We’d sneaked cigarettes behind Dad’s workshop.
We’d fought over whose turn it was to sit in the front seat or wear the pale blue windcheater.
We’d fought because she was playing music too loudly and I’d unplugged the stereo and taken the cord. Then, in searching for the cord, she’d emptied all my drawers onto the floor. So I’d yanked her leg of lamb out of the frying pan and tossed it in the sink under the cold tap.
Yep, we’d fought over the big issues. And maturely. But I needed her, dammit, and I didn’t want a life without her.
Because we were so close in age, we did a lot of things together. People knew of us together. I’d always been the more serious, aloof one, while Fran was the friendlier, warmer one. Subconsciously, we’d played our roles. When we were out, I stood back, letting her break the ice with people. I watched her, surrounded by friends, chatting and giggling away – it came so naturally to her. Not to me. I found making friends difficult. I was awkward socially, preferring to be on my own or with a small group of people I knew well. At times, I tried to copy Fran, and gossiped and made jokes, only to look around and see I was the only one laughing.
How would I make friends without her?
Somehow, I did. I was no longer the serious side of a duo. I was one whole. Myself. Slowly, tentatively, the not-so-serious and warmer side came out of hiding, and the real me started to emerge.
The first Christmas was hard.
So was her birthday.
And the first anniversary of her death.
And the next Christmas.
I was still thinking of her everyday and waking from bizarre dreams of her. I cried and often. I no longer wondered when it would get easier, but if it ever would.
Then sometime during the third year after her death, I realised that it was easier: I no longer felt that searing, doubling-over pain at the thought of her. I no longer felt like I was living a stranger’s life. I had a new one that felt normal.
She was still gone and I would never have a sister again, but it was no longer an open wound. The skin was growing over it.
A new skin.
A new life.
I had made a new life, one without Fran in it. And it was okay, my new life. I would survive.
There are times, very seldom now, when I feel sad that Fran isn’t here. I want her around; I want a sister again. Even a single visit from her, so she could meet my husband. And my kids.
After her funeral, I returned to Uni and finished my exams. I passed, just, then failed the following year. I took time off and fled the country for a year with a backpack. When I returned, I finished my degree.
When the time came to sit at my doctor’s desk, sometimes delivering bad news, sometimes listening to stories of grief and sadness, I had an insight into my patients’ worlds.
And now, as I write stories about the experiences of fictional characters, I only have to scratch the surface of my own.
I can still see her. I see her in my daughter’s lips. I see her in my cousin’s eyes. I see her when my daughter asks for more nail polish.
And I see her when I close my lids.
I know death and the fear is gone.
I know grief and I accept it.
I know deep sadness and, through it, great happiness.
And while I wish, wish, wish that Fran could have lived, I cherish the experience of her death. It was a gift, too.
Most of all, I appreciate what a gift it was to have shared her life.
I have these stories tucked away inside my heart where I’ve kept them all this time, sheltered and shielded. Now I unwrap them, one-by-one, these pieces of me.