This is Part 2 in a series I’ve written about the death of my sister. If you wish to read Part 1, click here. I have made it easier to read by pulling all three parts together as a single essay, ‘Tribute to a Sister‘.
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 my brain’s safety switch. It switched off the part that couldn’t cope with the depth of the loss and kept the autopilot part functioning, so I could still shower and dress and go about my daily activities.
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, we’re thankful it was quick and that she didn’t feel any pain.’
‘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. 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.
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. Sometimes when I was driving I’d think, I must remember to tell that to Fran, then I’d remember that she was dead and I couldn’t. 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, feeling 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.
Sometimes, 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 into 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.
I stood with a group of her friends on the lawn outside the chapel. We talked about how nice she had looked and how we hadn’t wanted to leave her.
‘I want to go back in,’ I said.
‘Me, too,’ said someone.
‘And me,’ said another.
Back in we went and stood around her coffin. 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, 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 had moved her into a smaller room to wait for the hearse. As we entered, I saw the two of them lying side-by-side — one dead, one broken. She was in her coffin, unmoving and still. He was lying on a stretcher alongside her, swathed in white bandages and sheets, his jaw wired, his face puffy and bruised. His plastered arm rested against her in the coffin.
My father was the first to go to him, and as he reached him, he leaned down and kissed him.
Coming up: Part 3 – The funeral and afterwards …
‘At her 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.’