(speech­less)

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Michelle Atkins Re­view this­life@theaus­tralian.com.au

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.

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