Today is my sister’s 50th birthday. Well, it would have been if things had worked out differently and she hadn’t got that dreaded diagnosis 11 years ago.
I recently watched a documentary on writer Nora Ephron called Everything is Copy, a phrase relating to the recycling of life’s stories for movies or books. Ironically, Nora — wordy Nora — managed to keep her battle with myeloid leukaemia secret from almost everyone in her life until her final few weeks. For a woman who was renowned for using everyone’s stories — private or not — for writing material, this secrecy was doubly intriguing. But her family understood.
Nora was comfortable using only material she could control and mould into the stories she wanted to tell. She realised quickly that with her cancer she had little control. No artillery of witty asides and biting quips was going to change anything. With cancer there is rarely a redeeming punchline or a romantic ending. The script is ruthlessly predictable.
I can relate to Nora. I am a woman of words — some may say too many. Words are my thing. I love the look and feel and weight of them. I like the way they can transport and transcend. Yet when my older sister Nicki died they were nothing.
That’s not to say I didn’t try. I wrote a piece once in which I likened my sister’s last moment of life, with me and Mum holding her, to Michelangelo’s Pieta. I toiled for days on this imagery, manipulating rhythms and structures, trying hard to honour the golden rule of writing: show don’t tell. I thought I was being so clever. But in the end I printed off the piece of writing and hid it in the drawer with the wonky handle.
My speechlessness said the most. Like when I see two sisters bantering, or when my daughter does a comical (and highly unusual) jig, not realising it is a complete replica of her aunt’s trademark “happy dance”.
On this year’s anniversary, I decided to try to do something uplifting. I resolved to take a packet of Nicki’s favourite chocolate teddy bear biscuits in to work to share. I didn’t plan to let anyone know the background, I wanted only to share the teddies and remember Nicki. When I told my teenage daughter my plan, she looked incredulous. Her eyes rolled at such a pace that she looked just like my childhood doll.
“Oh no, Mum. Just no. That’s just too weird. They don’t even know Nicki. They’ll just think you’re some creepy weirdo.”
She might as well have done the happy dance right then. Her words were the exact words — with the exact delivery — that my sister would’ve used. I couldn’t have plotted the scene any better if I’d tried.
welcomes submissions to This Life. To be considered for publication, the work must be original and between 450 and 500 words. Submissions may be edited for clarity. Send emails to Which two drivers won this year’s Bathurst 1000? What type of pastry is used to make traditional Greek tiropita? Which Olympics are featured in Daniel James Brown’s book