This is the third and final instalment in this series about my sister’s death. If you want to read the earlier instalments, click for Part 1 or Part 2. However, I pulled all three posts together as a single essay, which I called, ‘Tribute to a Sister‘. (Click on the link to read.)
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 tunneling 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 seemed to still 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 emptied all my drawers onto the floor. So I 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 scrape 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.
After this series of posts, you probably need some light relief — you and me both. Therefore, I promise to keep the next few posts light and frivolous!
It’s a beautiful post. And reassuring in a way. I felt my father’s presence after he passed away too, and a sense of his joy. I know what you mean by this kind of presence feeling tangible, while the rational part of the mind is questioning.
Thanks, Iris. It defies rational explanation, doesn’t it? Both times someone very close to me has died, I’ve felt them around me and dreamt about them for a couple of months. After my father died I had a dream in which I asked him, ‘Why did you have to get unhealthy?’ (which I know is a strange way of asking that question!). He said, ‘Oh, you can’t blame anyone for that.’ It was exactly what Dad would have said. When I told my atheist-and-will-only-believe-something-written-in-a-scientific-journal husband, he said, ‘So it was him then!’ I like to think it is them, staying with us until we’re able to cope on our own, but my rational mind says it’s our desire to keep them with us. Whichever it is, it helps …
Louise- You have written about it so beautifully. Lots of love.
Thanks so much, Helene! Love to you and your family, too. xx
Thank you, beautifully told, heart wrenching, heart healing story. xxx Rae
Thanks, Rae. I hope it is a ‘heart-healing’ story — that’s what it’s meant to be.
Louise, I’ve never had a sister but after reading your posts about Fran, it has given me an insight into the very special relationship and love for one another which you had. What a terrible loss you experienced but her spirit, to my mind, seems very much alive in your writing. Beautiful …
Thanks, Carol, for reading and commenting. I think that there is something special about a sister. You can have the biggest cat fights, but ultimately, you’re on the same team, especially when it really matters! I think, too, that as long as someone is around to remember another, their spirit does live on. I’ll have to make sure these stories outlive me. A little bit of immortality, perhaps …
Dear Lousie ,
after reading your beautiful post – And Life Goes On – I’m reminded of W.H. Auden’s poem, Musee des Beaux Arts, About suffering they were never wrong…and yes Auden was right, very right, in that life goes on…but still those we have lost remain with us, some bonds are never broken.
I just read the poem and looked up the Brueghel painting. Beautiful, both of them. And I agree with the Auden and the Masters and the Greeks: we are here only fleetingly; there is no point in thinking we can defeat that, no matter how great we are.
And I agree, too, that those we’ve lost do remain with us, and live on through us, as long as we remember them.
Wonderfully written, your love and connection to your sister transcends time…
Thanks, Penny. As Marlish said, some bonds are never broken. x
Thank you Lou. For sharing your stories and bringing some of my memories of Fran back to the surface. You filled in some gaps and, as always, wrote so beautifully about it all. I think that in addition to this being a healing story it also demonstrates how far you have come in your new career that you feel able to write and share the story with us all. Bravo!
Thanks, T. I’m glad you see it as a healing story — that’s how I see it, too. And as a beautiful story in a way — about Fran and the people who loved her. I sat down to write it after reading ‘The Value of Suffering’ by Pico Iyer. There must be a reason why tragedies like this happen, there has to be some good in it.
It wasn’t hard to write — the words gushed onto the page, 4,000 of them, and it felt good! I think it was a lot to do with the timing — after more than twenty-five years, it was time to write about Fran.
I think that you are right – there must be good in a tragedy. I also think that time doesn’t necessarily heal, but it does give you space to realise what the good was. Not wanting to sound condescending but I need to say ‘well done’. Not just for writing about Fran, but for all that you have made of your life since then. Your choices could have been so different and so destructive but they weren’t.
Yes, I don’t know that ‘heal’ is the right word — it just finds its place.
And thanks for the ‘well done’. I didn’t always make the right choices, but I eventually got there! How I got there is another blog series or ten — maybe one day I’ll be able to tackle that. Writing about the death of a sister is easy compared to writing about your own mistakes …
Thank you, Louise. This has been a beautifully written series. Heartbreaking, but in some way, life-affirming. xox
Thanks, Kristen. I’m glad you found it life-affirming. x