*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.’