It’s coming up to the first anniversary of my sister’s death. I feel it more than ever. I am functioning and no one would know. Except my husband. "Oh, Jo's burst into tears again. I went in the other room and she was laughing, two minutes later, crying. Really must get a divorce”.
It hits you like a wave and floors you.
My sister used to send me emails if we hadn't seen each other for a while and the subject would be, "Wah!!! Where's my sister??”
That's how I feel. It's as though you have to learn over and over again that the person has died and you will never see them again.
Instead of looking at it as 11 months since she died , I can't help looking at it as one month till she dies, again.
I think I am only just beginning to realise what it means. The permanence of it. I know. What a dumb-ass. Did I really think that was it? That I could lose my big sister and it not feel this bad. How do other people feel? Do you go over the timeline again? When she told you she was diagnosed with cancer. The time when it all seemed to be working, the tumour in the lung had shrunk. She was strong and went to Cambodia to finish a book she was writing. Then the brain tumour.
Annie loved her brain. Like an acrobat might love their body, because of all the amazing things it could do.
We’re getting into, what were, her final weeks. The time when the doctors told us they couldn’t do any more. She was too weak for more treatment. Annie told me that she just had to get her strength back and then she would get another course of chemo. But she wasn’t going to get her strength back. The doctors knew that.
I was reading ‘Purity’ by Jonathan Franzen lately. I find it hard to be interested in a lot of fiction but I was really enjoying it. I wanted to talk to her about it.
I’ll never be able to talk about books with you again.
That thought made me think of a song, The Pet Shop Boys with Liza Minnelli, I’ve a horrible nagging feeling it's from an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical.
‘The sun comes up, I think about you, the coffee cup, I think about you, I something, something and think about you…”
Crooked teeth, lovely legs, no ice in drinks, blue and white stripey tops, the look of her hands - different to my hands – her smell.
The ‘Cancer Ads’ on TV aren’t honest. Being bald and chatting with a friend while you have your chemo. It’s so much worse than that. To know that your body is being destroyed slowly - despite chemo, radiation and surgery. The cancer just goes on. And, contrary to what the advert depicts, you don’t necessarily have a cough with lung cancer. Cancer is often a pain somewhere, like a muscle pain, it’s the tumour pushing on something. Get checked.
How scared she must have been. It’s awful to think about that. She wasn’t finished. My Mum is 87, she could, and should, have had 30 more years. I know that plenty of people get even less time – I constantly have another voice telling me that somehow my grief is indulgent.
What else might she have written? What works were forming in her brain that we’ll never read or listen to on the radio?
Most of the time she pretended to herself and us that she was getting better. But I can’t bear to think of how angry and frightened she must have been at times. Those moments when she couldn’t escape the thoughts in her head, couldn’t push away the truth of her situation. That is what is truly awful. To lie alone at night in a hospice - trying to fight with your own brain - to not let it tell you you’re dying.
An old friend of mine lost her brother around the same time. He died suddenly in an accident at work. He was about ten years younger than my sister. A tragedy. My friend said, “At least you got to say goodbye”. And I know she meant me to take comfort from that. But it’s not like that. Not when someone dies before they’re ready, not when they’re 57. You don’t say goodbye. That’s not what they want. We talked of plans for the future, what she would do when she was better.
In her last days she was on huge doses of morphine. You might have views on whether people should be given morphine when they’re dying. I say - YES. As much as will help get them through it.
One night in the hospice. I stroked her hand and told her what a good sister she had been. But I only did it because she was high as a kite on morphine. It made me feel better and it's a sweet memory that I will keep with me forever. But it was for me. It did nothing for her.
That is a very personal thing to write. I feel conflicted. I don't enjoy drama or tragedy, I am not ‘modern’ in that I don't pour my every problem out on social media. I would say I was stoic. But her death is important. As is whoever you, who are reading this, might have lost. It's huge. They are no longer here.
No one else knows about the “Homeless Man, Sugar” in Maison Bertaux in Soho. We would meet there for tea. Both of us always early. We have the punctuality gene. One time I was first and I watched a homeless man spooning heaps of sugar from the bowls on the tables outside, straight into his mouth. He did it with such glee. Relishing it so much that in his excitement half the sugar was falling out of his mouth back into the bowl.
“I wouldn’t have sugar, dear” I said.
She decided we must tell Madame Bertaux at the counter. We always called her Madame Bertaux, I doubt very much that was her name. We both thought, she thought, we were weird. I doubt she ever noticed us. The waiters were then sent round to change the sugar bowls. They looked at me with disgust.
“Yes, they think it was you.” She said laughing. “I told them in French, it may have got a bit confused but hey they should be grateful - if it wasn’t for you, all these people would be eating “Homeless man Sugar”.
My Mum says that Annie would run off into the town as soon as she could walk. She would be found in various shops, chatting away to whoever was there, age 3. Luckily Newcastle, County Down was a small town and everyone knew who she belonged to. She reprimanded my Grandmother for giving her baby food when she was a year and a half. She wasn’t a baby!
She was so much more advanced as a teenager than I was - crazy for boys and cigarettes and adventure. Devouring books that the nuns thought immoral. This will sound so weird and hippy dippy but I think - did her DNA know? Is that why she was so precocious? Why she hated to waste a day? Why she was greedy for a “big life”? Because somehow her body knew that she only had 57 years. Some people think about God when they lose someone - I thought about that.
Who will I go to for advice now? I miss her wisdom. She could be so wise at the same time as being a fuck up - her January tax bill was always a surprise. I miss having someone who knows why I am the way I am.
And god was she funny! Funny as fuck! No one made mundane things more fun. A trip to the supermarket was an adventure, knees weak with laughter. And nothing was so funny as when she “took against” someone. We are all the poorer for her not being here. And I know I was lucky to have had her blah, blah, blah but that is no comfort. I too am greedy. I wanted her for longer.
If this piece struck a chord you may like to donate to Macmillan Cancer. I have set up a fund in Annie Caulfield’s name. Just a pound or two would make a big difference: macmillan.tributefunds.com/annie-caulfield
To find out about her work visit www.Anniecaulfield.com