I have two older sisters. But sometimes, if someone I don’t know very well asks me, I say I have one.
Because if I tell the truth, it leads to questions: where do they live, are they married, do they have children?
I will gladly answer those questions about one of my sisters. She lives nearby, is very happily married, and has two gorgeous children whom I adore.
But I can’t bear to answer them about my oldest sister. When you don’t know someone very well, or even if you do, it is a difficult story to share. Horrifying, even. And really, really sad…
When she turned 31, Megan was in the midst of a working holiday in Europe. She and her friend had just moved to Belfast to be closer to Megan’s boyfriend. I had hung out with them in London for a few days about a year earlier, and had a ball. She was whooping it up.
On her birthday in April 2001, my alarm went off at 6am. I contemplated rolling over and going back to sleep, but instead I stumbled downstairs to phone her. It was late the night before in her time, and her birthday was coming to a close. I was cutting it fine. But I was in luck – she had just returned home from a night out, and we chatted for quite a while. It was nice. Getting up when my alarm sounded turned out to be one of the best things I have done in my life…
Early the following Sunday morning, less than a week later, I received a call from my Mum and Dad. They were together, which was unusual. Information was hazy, but my sister had apparently become seriously ill. They had waited until morning to call me, but they had already booked flights to get to Belfast as soon as possible.
Over the course of the next week, my other sister and I spoke regularly on the phone with our parents. When my Dad suggested we both fly to Belfast too, the gravity of the situation hit me. It was a long, long trip and each time a flight attendant walked towards us I imagined she was coming to deliver bad news.
When we arrived, the situation was grim. Megan had suffered a cardiac arrest while at a cinema watching Bridget Jones’s Diary with her friend. She had apparently been laughing and nudging her friend during the embarrassing bits, but then she started to make strange sounds and her friend realised something was wrong. When the ambulance officers arrived, it took them several minutes to restart her heart. She was in intensive care for days. By the time we arrived she had stabilised, but she was unresponsive.
I remember being annoyed when my Dad speculated that she might not be better until Christmas. How could he be so pessimistic?
Megan didn’t get better by Christmas. In fact, she didn’t get better. My Mum spent months in Belfast at her bedside, until through the kindness of friends, strangers, and our local MP Kevin Rudd, we finally managed to fly her home to Brisbane…where she lived for 8 long years – conscious, but unable to talk, move, or eat.
It is hard to fathom what might happen to one’s spirit when forced to live in that way. I cannot think of anything worse. I actually found myself feeling envious of a friend who lost her sister to cancer, wishing Megan could be granted the same release.
Eventually, she was. And despite my having wished it for her, when my Mum called me at work on that day in May 2009, I crumpled. Intellectually I knew this was the best outcome for her, but my heart was broken.
We still don’t know what caused the cardiac arrest. It just happened. My biggest fear used to be that what happened to Megan would happen to me. Now my biggest fear is that what happened to my Mum could happen to me.
My Mum cared for my sister every day of those eight years. Her incredible strength and devotion must have given Megan such comfort during those interminable days of being trapped inside her broken body. My Mum showed Megan and everyone around her what true maternal love is. But please, God, let that not happen to me…
I have had lots of tests, and if I’m ok then hopefully our children are ok. But it doesn’t stop my stomach from churning whenever one of my them has a rare sleep in, or if they are downstairs playing and don’t answer when I call, or if they just zone out and stare into space for a second… But who can live like that? I just have to put it out of my mind.
So sometimes I say I have one sister. It’s too sad and painful and awkward to say anything else. But really, I have two. And even though I dream about her less and less, and the sound of her voice is getting harder and harder to remember, I really miss her. And I think about her every single day.