Twenty years ago today my eldest sister and her newborn daughter died in a car accident. In the space of a little over a week we went from celebrating the joy of new life to the horror of sudden death. We were a family not so much ‘touched by the road toll’ as slapped, kicked and punched by it.
As we each struggled to recalibrate our lives in this new reality, the family fractured. In time, most of those fractures have healed, some forming a bond stronger than before, but some have never mended and remain a constant reminder of the scar of family tragedy.
Nine years older than me, Keryn was my Big Sister. The most alike of all our siblings, in looks and interests, we had a unique bond. It began as that of small child and substitute mother. She was always the one to care for us when our parents were out or away, particularly when we lived overseas in my earliest years and there was no other family to help. When my mother was hospitalised for several weeks when I was three, it was Keryn who dropped me off at childcare on her way to school as my father had to be at work very early.
I have a scar on my forehead. As a recalcitrant five year old, refusing to get in the bath, I was dragged to the bathroom where my head accidentally connected with the door frame. I needed three stitches. For many years I blamed this incident on a sibling with whom I had a fractious relationship. It was not until after Keryn died I discovered that it had in fact been my beloved eldest sister who had inflicted the damage. It’s interesting how our childish brain can rearrange an historical event to fit the more obvious narrative. I wish I had learned of it before she died. I would have apologised for my behaviour.
It was Keryn who introduced me to theatre, specifically musical theatre. She had been a member of the local Gilbert and Sullivan company for a number of years and when I was sixteen, she took me along to join the chorus. We spent nine years sharing the stage. After she died, I couldn’t bring myself to perform with the company without her. I didn’t join another theatre company for 15 years but when I did, I joined one that had known and loved my sister and that still honoured her memory.
In my late teens, it became my turn to play babysitter as I took the role of occasional carer of her children. After I married, our lives met on more equal terms and our relationship grew to that of friends. Then, just as it seemed our lives had synced, she was gone.
When my husband and I decided to start a family, we always planned to give a daughter my sister’s name as a middle name. We had three boys. But in the way of the universe sometimes, for our third and last child, we had chosen the name Kieran if the baby was a boy. We chose it just because we liked it. It wasn’t until he arrived and I had to accept I would never have a girl that I realised how similar the name we had chosen was to my sister’s name. It became a way to remember her in the only way we could.
When Kieran was five years old, he was at a well-known fast food restaurant for a birthday party. The young man running the party was asking each child their name and what they wanted to order. When I asked to see his list to check what my son had ordered, the young man had spelt my son’s name ‘Keryn’.
She is never far away.
Grief takes an unusual and sometimes confusing path. As one would expect, for the first few years birthdays and anniversaries were highly emotional days to be confronted and endured. As time passed, these seemed to become easier. Sometimes the day would pass barely noticed. Then, a few years ago, so many years after the event, these days became difficult again. Perhaps it was the realisation that she really wasn’t ever coming back. Perhaps it was my own arrival at significant life moments that triggered memories of what I had lost. Perhaps it was the signs that life had moved on and I secretly yearned for it all to return to ‘normal’.
So now I sit simultaneously in a state of acceptance and denial. I accept that she is gone and our lives have adjusted accordingly and yet I still find myself wanting things to be as they were even whilst knowing they cannot.
All I can do, in light of the unimaginable, is remember the time that we did have together, hold on to the memories that last and continue to miss her every single day.
(I felt a very strong need to write a song to remember my sister this year. It wasn’t easy but this is my song for Keryn.)