*I’ve combined the three blog posts about my sister’s death into a single essay, which might be easier to read and which you can find here.
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 meet up with her boyfriend and 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 she was, blonde curls and smiles, bag over her shoulder. She blew me a kiss and mouthed 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.
I shook him awake. ‘It must be important for your Mum to ring at this hour.’
No cordless phones in those days, so he sat in the hall, while his girlfriend and I hovered in the doorway, worried for what had happened.
He hung up. ‘There’s been an accident,’ he said. ‘With Fran and her boyfriend, and we have to go home.’
‘With Fran?’ If it involved Fran, why was his mother ringing him, and not mine ringing me.
‘Are they okay?’ I said.
‘Her boyfriend’s in hospital …’
‘Don’t know …’
I picked up the phone and dialed my parents’ house. Dad answered.
‘What’s going on?’ I said.
‘You need to come home,’ he said.
‘Is she all right?’
‘I’ll tell you when you get here.’
‘But is she all right?’
‘Just get in the car and come home …’
I was becoming annoyed. ‘Are you going to answer my questions?’
‘Just get in the car …’ He was sounding annoyed, too.
‘Why aren’t you in at the hospital?’
‘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 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. As we pulled up outside the kitchen, through the windows I saw people, lots of 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?’
My mother started coming towards me, and everything slowed and went quiet. The other people in the room faded.
‘Where is she?’ I kept saying, my eyes on my mother.
She came closer, then started shaking her head, and finally, she reached me. ‘She’s dead, Lou,’ she said. ‘She’s dead … She’s dead …’
My legs felt like they’d lost their bones and began to shake.
‘She’s going to faint,’ cried my mother. ‘Lou … Lou …’
I couldn’t answer. My legs wouldn’t stop wobbling and my mind fuzzed.
‘She’s going to faint …’
I wanted to say, ‘I’m all right. I’m not going to faint,’ but I couldn’t.
People grabbed me under each arm.
‘Lou … Lou …’
They shoved a stool under me.
‘Lou … Lou … Can you hear me?’
I could, but I was unable to speak. And my legs were still wobbling, even as I sat.
Someone was by my side, one hand in my armpit, holding me up. I didn’t want them there. I wanted to collapse. I wanted my mind to blank. I wanted it to go away.
Eventually, I said, ‘I’ll be all right,’ and they let go, but didn’t move away. I wanted to tell them to leave, to give me space — space and blankness.
I stayed where I was, sitting 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 father, and we sat without touching. He was silent.
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. The kettle boiled on and off for the rest of the night, and we sat holding one steaming cup after another.
One-by-one the people left until we closed the door on the last car churning up the gravel and, with the sky now light, we set about our first day without Fran.
I’ve wanted to write about Fran ever since she died, and, finally, I have. This piece on her death was too long to post in its entirety, so I’ve made it into a series. I wanted to write about this period because it was such an important time in my life, being my first close encounter with death. I mean no disrespect to anyone and therefore haven’t named most of the people, given how much their lives, all our lives, have moved on in the intervening two-and-a-half decades. I hope that I’ve done justice to Fran in this series and to everyone who shared it with us.
Coming up: Part 2 – The next few days
‘At some stage, we went through Fran’s overnight bag. I pulled her underwear out of a side pocket. I remember there was a pair of stockings that she’d worn, and 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.’
She had a lovely face, Louise. Still missed, I’m sure…
Always, Glen. But forever grateful for the time we did have with her.
Yes, write, that’s how you’ll work through everything and remember what you need to. This is beautiful and sad and necessary…sending you love x
Rashida, It’s your fault I wrote this! After reading that powerful essay you posted by Pico Iyer on ‘The Value of Suffering’. It’s something I’ve long thought about — things happening for a reason that you don’t see at the time; accepting grief, accepting sadness. So, I started writing about my sister, and 4,000 words later … I did eventually get to the point! And Barbara would be pleased — I basically wrote it Freefall!
Dearest Louise, I’m happy to accept the blame, and the best things are written when the writing takes over anyway…that Barbara has a lot to answer for! Showing us/allowing us to go fearwards xx
Oh good! I’m glad you are prepared to accept responsibility, and I’ll blame the rest on Barbara. More and more I’m appreciating what I learnt from that course.
Oh Louise, bless you xxx.
You too, Rae. And thank you xx
So sorry about this, Louise. xo
It was a long time ago, Kristen. It’s nice to write about it now, when 25 years have washed the raw grief away. It has its special place in my heart and life now.
Thank you for caring. xx
Oh Louise, you must miss your darling sister so very much. xx
I do, but her death is nestled in amongst more than 25 years of other life now.
Thanks for your care and your comments. As always! xx
Thank you for writing about Fran. After all this time, with so much that has happened, being able to share your memories about her means that I am remembering her all over again, which is lovely. It was such a different time – the phone in the hall, no mobiles, no texts, so our news was so often delivered in person. My memory of being told that Fran had died is faded, but I remember that someone came to my flat to tell me, because we didn’t have a phone.
Thank you for sharing with us after all this time.
Thanks. It’s a trip down memory lane in more ways than one — a time for reflecting on the changes in telecommunications, too!
I’m glad you’re enjoying remembering Fran all over again. I feel the same. Like you, some of my memories have faded, but others remain so vivid even after all this time.
Heartbreaking to read this. What an awful few hours to bear. A precious sister lost too soon
Yes, Jan. Poor Dad, trying to do the right thing and not tell me over the phone. I could hear it in his voice, wishing I’d shut up and get in the car! And me, determined I was going to get the information from him so I didn’t have to wait two hours to learn what in my heart I already knew …
Oh Louise, how heartbreaking. What a terrible and shocking loss. How brave of you to share it here.
Thanks, Annabel, thank you so much for visiting and commenting. Everyone keeps saying how ‘brave’ it is, but I really don’t feel that it is. It actually feels really good, not just to be able to write it, but for people to be able to read it, too! Such a long time has passed that I can (hopefully) tell it with tenderness, and without the raw grief that was all I could feel at the time. I also want to show how the experience helped shape me, and why I think grief isn’t all bad.
Sorrowful reading, Louise, but an honouring of your precious sister’s memory.
Thank you, Amanda. Thank you.
Louise I found this so moving, that I have tried to comment a couple of times, but found myself lost for words. She sounds like a lovely person. What a difficult thing for all of you to endure and reminds us of all the people that lose someone in this way. And to drive mindfully.
Thanks, Iris. I’m really moved that so many people want to comment. And yes, she was a lovely person — very warm and bubbly.
It’s true, grief shapes us. It’s like a grain of sand we build a pearl around. I write an essay recently for a book on complicated grief. It’s not an illness, it’s a part of our selves. Thank you for this lovely piece.
I would love to read the book for which you wrote the essay. The pearl analogy is exactly what I was trying to say in these pieces. Death and grief, like any of life’s experiences, become a part of us. We just have to go with it until it finds its place, which it eventually does, very close to our core.
Thanks for dropping by, Christina.
I’ll let you know when it is published; should be this year. They promised it for early this year, but the year is nearly over.
The slow wheels of publishing … But do let me know when it is out.