Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Tribute to my Sister

" .... joy and sorrow are inseparable. . . together they come and when one sits alone with you . . . remember that the other is asleep upon your bed."
... Kahlil Gibran

My younger sister Pam died of breast cancer 18 years ago today. It's been a long, long time without her and I still miss her terribly.

She was a twin, a golden haired child that everyone loved. Worries never seemed to reach her as they did her four siblings.

My mother suffered from a mental illness, and disappeared mysteriously for treatment in '63, to return three months later, changed forever. Her delusions and paranoia scarred us all, and that heavy weight rode on our shoulders far into adulthood leaving us insecure and unstable.

My father was a gentle, dutiful husband, who supported her through the ensuing years with stoic determination, only faltering in his last few years of life. His irritation finally began to mount
and he would offload regularly onto Pam and I when poor Mum went through a nutty phase.

Mum had bowel cancer in 1987 and surgery to remove a section, which proved a life saver for her. While in hospital, the medications affected her brain for a time, and she really got an attack of 'the crazies', accusing the doctors and nurses of all sorts of wrongdoings. This was too much for poor embarrassed Dad, and his anger at her finally boiled over, causing a rift between him and Pam, who was deeply empathetic with mother's issues. She did the unspeakable, and told our poor tired father off.

He was devastated, and withdrew in horror, thus setting loose a simmering lung cancer we didn't know was lurking deep inside him.

He died within the year, slowly and painfully, first with the agony of bone cancer and finally tumours in his brain which turned his speech into confused ramblings. It was a relief for him and us all when he gave up his battle.

He was cremated and his ashes were scattered from a Cessna high over his beloved Beaumaris Beach, where he spent so many years toasting his body in the sun, and leisurely swimming up and down through the waves.

I remember that sad day when Pammie burst into inconsolably guilty tears, believing her tirade the year before had set off his cancer. We all hugged her and reassured her it wasn't so, but she must have hung on to that unfair revelation, and the immediate past became her destiny.

A year on in February 1989, she had gone with her family to Fiji for Christmas, returning to discover a huge malevolent lump in her right breast. It was the size of a golf ball, sitting snugly against her rib cage. It was pronounced inoperable, and very aggressive. Our hearts sank with horror. We couldn't believe this glorious gentle lady of only 36 could find herself in such an horrific situation.

Sweet sixteen and in love

She had married her childhood sweetheart. They made a financially and emotionally comfortable life for themselves, running a successful business, living in beautiful, expensive surroundings and wanting for nothing. He had been reluctant to have children and she disagreed, so she left him for a year while he waited patiently for her to tire of the single life. After a few disappointing liaisons, she returned and they picked up where they left off, producing two blonde haired daughters.

Proud new mum

Perhaps she wasn't totally satisfied with a largely undemonstrative husband; she would have loved more cuddles, but she seemed content enough, and reveled in her privileged existence.

She seemed to possess a wisdom far beyond her years and experience, and her thoughtful generosity made her a magnet to many who warmed in her radiance.

She and I would take it in turns to check on our parents, defusing Dad's anger and explaining away our mother's confusions where we could. She would ring me regularly at 8 am, and ask who would it be, her or me, who would go down that week. Often we would go together and take that time to catch up on sisterly gossip.

Other times I would go across to her, and we would cruise the wealthy streets, sit over a coffee and buy cheeses and flowers. My life was not as easy as hers appeared, with a difficult marriage I was struggling over at the time. I was never consciously jealous, but I often wished life would be as gentle on me as it had been with her.

Then it all changed...............

Her daughters were only three and six, and she seemed well. Her determination to fight this fearsome threat off was always tangible. She had some sessions of chemotherapy, and her huge mane of hair merely thinned a little and then grew back redder and a little bristly. She sneaked a peek at an oncologist's prognosis and was devastated to read that her chances of survival were slim.

This only served to strengthen her resolve, so she changed her diet and booked herself in to Ian Gawler's retreat for cancer sufferers. She began to meditate and eat strange concoctions. Her terror rarely showed, though I do remember her eyes filling with tears one day when we were chewing over her different options. I regret now that I didn't draw her into my arms and cry desperately with her over our sadness and fear for her future. I was so locked into her determination to survive, I didn't dare dismantle it. She wore it like an armor, and we respected her need to keep it in place.

Her time for radiotherapy came and she went into hospital, only to discover that her small daughters couldn't visit her during that time. She packed her bags and went home, resorting back to her natural therapies to save her.

Her health held until August, then she began to complain of back pain, taking herself off to the chiropractor. My heart sank, believing her illness was probably preparing to overtake her. The pain slowly intensified and her face was often shadowed by the effort of 'fighting the good fight'.

She was passionate about Wilson's Promontory, a gloriously wild and spiritual place on the south coast of Victoria. She and I had taken our mother and daughters down for a week earlier in the year, where she breathed in the salty air, and walked the sandy cliff paths. We fed the tame Crimson Rosellas with seed bought from the Tidal River store and stayed in a cabin, cooking good food and talking heaps.

As September drew near, she expressed a need to go back, so the entire family congregated into linked apartments in the park. We cooked, ate, walked and laughed, bringing the family together for what was to be the final time we all behaved as one.
Performing on the beach

Although rapidly weakening, Pam would still rise early to walk the beach, swimming in the chilly September waves, and amazingly, walking up to Mt Oberon, a looming rocky monument which would become her final resting place.

She came back home for her final month, still determined to beat this overwhelming adversary. I remember ringing her one time and she laughed, saying she had just had a 'coffee enema'!

Her colour changed as her liver and other organs began to fail and the weight fell off her frail body. Scans showed nothing, and I remember her twin brother clinging to that fact, believing she still could survive. But no, she went reluctantly into palliative care and lay quietly there with her family around her, still complaining that her 'brain was fine but the body was letting her down.'

The phone finally rang at 6 one morning and we heard that it was all over. Our golden girl was no more...............

She fought until the very end, and never once acknowledged it would beat her. Sadly, it left us fighting the unwinable battle with her and we were not even allowed to say goodbye.

It was her life, and she lived it how she wanted. We had no right to insist otherwise.

Her funeral was huge and her ashes were then scattered on her beloved Mount Oberon. As she reached the top, a storm came over and the lightning struck overhead, leaving a fitting tribute to her spirit and courage.

We scrabbled around for the few photos we had of her as she had always been behind the camera, and I blew one up and had it framed.

Our family would never be the same again, revealing deep rifts in the weeks and months to come that I never knew existed. Pam had been the glue, the honey, that held us all together.

She would be 54 now, and I still miss her desperately 18 years later.

My 16 year old daughter composed this poem and read it out at Pam's funeral.......

Once in my lifetime
I met a kindred soul

Who loved freely and wholly
She was always near

I may no longer hear her voice

And I'll not see her face

But blessed am I

For I know her grace

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That was so beautiful mum... i have tears streaming down my face remembering just what an incredible woman she was and how very sad we all were when she died... big hugs to you... love Steph xox