Twenty eight years ago today, I saw my sister for the last time. I have no recollection of that last day, only that she had not slept well the night before and had, as on so many nights, got into my bed with me so I could protect her. She had a funny little fear of being the last person awake in the world, and I would promise her each time that I’d lie awake until she was asleep so she wouldn’t be. She was a funny girl, my sister, so brave and strong and feisty and fearless during the day, and so defenceless and frightened at night. She was tired that evening, so on a coach journey returning from a day out with our family, I encouraged her to go to sleep and said I’d wake her when we arrived. I sat with her and watched her fall asleep, that little girl with long legs and long brown hair falling into her face, and her pure, sweet smile, and then I went off to play with our sisters, happy in the knowledge that she was getting the sleep she needed. When I went to wake her as promised, I couldn’t. She never woke up.
It seems trite and meaningless to say now that the experience and horror of losing my sister that day was cataclysmic. Of course it was. All those times people have said, in horror, ‘it’s just the most terrible thing’ and all those times people have said ‘I just can’t imagine’ – they were right. It is an unimaginable horror. It is the event around which my whole life has been shaped. All of our lives – my parents, my sisters, my grandparents, my cousins and aunt, the rest of our family. And now that I’m a mother, I look back and I cannot fathom the blackness and bleakness that my parents had to live for ever afterwards.
And now that I’m a mother, those scars are deep and far reaching. The knowledge that sometimes, without apparent meaning or reason, the most terrible things happen, is embedded deep within me. Sometimes it paralyses me, that knowledge, looking at the faces of my own children, their little faces turned towards me with so much love and so much trust. They rely on me to keep them safe.
It’s been much, much worse, this fear, since the littlest one has been admitted to hospital several times with chest infections and breathing issues. One hour he can be fine, running, laughing, playing, and the next he can be struggling for breath. My fears over them used to be irrational: a baby slipping from my hands beneath the bath water, a toddler flying into the road, a car accident. But now those fears have a base in reality where I’ve watched him struggle for breath. I’ve laid in hospital beds with him lying on me, his big eyes beseeching me to make him feel better. I’ve listened to doctors tell me their worries and I’ve held him down, screaming, while they put catheters and antibiotics into him. I’ve held him in my arms and told him I would keep him safe, that he would be fine, that soon he would be better because I would make it so.
Most of all, perhaps, I’ve laid beside him at night listening for each breath and tried to make the right judgement calls on whether he needs to go to hospital.
When managed, what he has isn’t serious on a daily basis. When he gets a cold, his airways swell and his chest doesn’t manage to clear it so well. Maybe eventually he’ll be asthmatic, but a high percentage of children grow out of it by age five or six. Meanwhile, the children’s ward is filled with children like him and grey faced, frightened parents like me. ‘It’s winter,’ the nurse told me cheerfully once the first, most frightening period was out of the way and he was breathing well again, as she gave him his thirteenth nebuliser of the day and night. ‘This is all I do.’ And it does make me feel better, that matter of factness, that safety in numbers, but lurking behind it always is the knowledge that at times it is very serious indeed. When we’re in an ambulance or when the doctor sees us within five minutes of our arrival in A and E, or when I’m lying in the darkness listening to him wheeze and wondering when is it a perfectly normal reaction to a cold and when will he be struggling for breath, or when I’m at work and the nursery says he’s a bit wheezy and I’m torn, so torn, because he’s probably totally fine and tomorrow it might be worse, it isn’t matter of fact. It’s a little boy, our little boy with his sweet smile and cackling laugh and his obsession with Alexa and his lying his head gently on my shoulder and saying ‘mama.’ It’s a child who, like his brother and sister, are our whole world. They’re my heart beating outside of my body. They make up the precious, fragile landscape of my whole life. They make me frightened and vulnerable. Then it isn’t matter of fact. Then it’s a fear, a dark, uncontainable, swelling fear that threatens, in those moments, to drown me.
And perhaps the roots, not all the roots, but some of the roots, of the darkness of my fear lie in that day, twenty eight years ago today, that I told my sister to go to sleep and that I would keep her safe.