YOU Magazine December 2008

by Cathie van Rooyen last modified 2010-05-18 12:07

A tribute to my late sister, Joanne. They renamed the story 'Goodbye, big sister'

My sister’s cancer taught me to live.

Three years ago, I was sitting on a British train paging through a glossy magazine in between sister’s visits. I read some inspiring stories and looked at the scars of breast cancer survivors and noticed their courage shining through from the pages. I didn’t know that in a matter of hours, those stories would become so pertinent to me and my clan. The middle child of seven, Joanne, the classy, beautiful, aloof sister had received her own diagnosis that day, in the middle of breast cancer awareness month. Her life sentence sent shock waves through our family, both near and far and as quickly as our minds filled with questions, our voices were silenced as we waited for Joanne to lead us through how she wanted us to handle her. Her diagnosis was immediate, no waiting for biopsy results, only to wait for a specialist to see her. The shock continued to reverberate in my head, like a loud gong that had gone off and I couldn’t silence it.

After an awkward, terrified family visit, I left her at the Glasgow Airport to return home to South Africa, not knowing if I would see my sister ever again. As a healer in the energy field, I was surprised and dismayed to find that I was totally helpless. I couldn’t do anything for neither myself nor Joanne, but simply hold this initial space. My feeling was very, very dark and that surprised my usual positive self. This didn’t feel like it was going to have a happy ending, like those ladies in the magazine, and sadly almost exactly two years later to the day of diagnosis, she died.

Her life with cancer catapulted me on the other side of the globe and I found myself looking surprisingly inward. Instead of wanting to ‘fix’ her and the world, which would be my usual behaviour, I looked within. Shocked, I realized that I hadn’t paid attention to my own physical being, and I began to make small changes that grew into big life changes. The first thing that I did was make the decision to grow my hair. I had realized many years before that I was not a ‘hair’ person and usually kept it short, in fact the shorter the better, so this change was unusual. The war between my hair and I began to cease, and I found myself beginning to like it longer on me!

I started jogging. Joining my Comrades-marathon- running sister on her races,  I ran the 5km fun runs, and watched the hive of activity afterwards while I waited for her to finish her longer distance. This was another surprise, but not only for my sister, and my exercise addict hubby, but mostly for me as I enjoyed the running! I acknowledged my body, the physical feelings, the aches and pains and after every race I experienced a sense of gratitude for my body, that I never felt all those years rooted to the couch.

Joanne’s treatment progressed and I continued my own ‘treatment’. I started going for regular massages and reflexology treatments all the while acknowledging my own body, and silently hoping that Joanne would get through this using ‘outside help’. Part of me expected to have a rush of selfish guilt, I was experiencing my physicality in all its glory for the first time, while my sister was buckling under the weight of chemo and the fear for her life. In some ways I could feel her cheering me on, and celebrated my achievements as a distraction from her own pain. She showed a lot of interest in my activities while on the phone, perhaps quietening the reality of her own situation for a brief moment.

On the regular phone calls, and with the rest of the family grapevine, we talked around the real pain, her fears and avoided long term questions that she did not want any answers to. She hated the fuss, and being the centre of attention in this way was awful for her, and for the most part would try not to talk about it unless asked directly.

I was blessed to be able to become part of her daily life for four months, the British summer of 2007. Her last. Daily life gave us morning TV, breakfast in bed, drives to hospital, arguments with her 9 year old son over school shoes and wedding plans for our niece. All these daily things kept a feeling of normalcy, as if this was all part of an ugly dream and any moment we would wake up and laugh about it. Getting to know Joanne all over again, even though she remained proud and fiercely private was a privilege that I feel deep in my heart. She held her head up and would not surrender, and she rooted for me every time I escaped for a short run. She ironed for hours when she felt good, insisting that she be of some use. She happily made us tea and gladly made us a family dinner. She teased me incessantly about the young GP who called in weekly to see her and called him my friend, be cause I had bombarded him with answer-less questions quietly downstairs one morning when she was too weak to get out of bed. She insisted us sisters continue with the planned 100 mile walk that she was instrumental in planning. She had been so looking forward to doing it, but the spread of illness had prevented her from walking. Joanne determined as ever, overnighted with us in some of the hotels and had willed herself well enough to be released from hospital for the weekend and gave us some bittersweet memories to share with her.

Leaving her that final Saturday morning as I headed south was a moment I had been dreading. By this time, we both silently knew it would certainly be the last time we were together. A very quick goodbye, blocked with salty eyes, she tried to give me words of encouragement, where I for once, had none. Then I left.

As a youngster, life growing up with Joanne in the house, was always so exciting. The older sisters and their friends would go out to disco’s in the small town we were living in, and watching them get ready, was fun. Make-up, hair-do’s and outfits turned our small house, into a beauty salon, and the music would be blaring, and laughter would fill the rooms, leaving behind an empty silence when they left to go dancing. Joanne, was the forward one, and would always be the one to ask our brother for a lift to the disco, and in those days would even be the one sticking her thumb out to hitch-hike. She would have ardent admirers buzz around her, while she took no notice of them, and would casually chase them away. The morning after their glamorous nights out, we would hear all their stories and gossip, while munching toast and tea in bed.  

Joanne was the one who managed to coax out brand new coats from our mum, and always looked glamorous with seemingly very little effort. She would always be helping everyone else with their hair, and make up, and end up looking like she had just stepped out of the fashion magazines.   She loved to sing, even though she couldn’t keep a tune, and would screech around the house while everyone else would try to get her to stop!

At the age of 16 she somehow managed to convince our parents to let her go back to Scotland on her own to live. She packed her bags and went to stay with one of our aunts for 3 months, leaving behind an un-easy quiet in our home. This was long before the days of internet, or fax machines, so we eagerly waited for her letters to arrive to let us know how she was getting on. Luckily for us, she missed us all too much and one day our life brightened up again, when we got the phone call from our aunt, that Joanne was coming home.   She slipped back easily into family life, except now she had an added air of independence and worldliness that impressed me even more. After leaving matric, she returned to Scotland, this time for good, and settled down with her little family and became a teacher. She remained the glamorous, elusive sister, and made an impression on everybody wherever she went.

Just after breast cancer month, and a few days after her husband’s birthday, she had a long painful end to her 46 years on the planet. The planet is better for her having been here. My heart is a better place for having known her for 41 years. Thank you for your life Joanne, I am honoured to be your sister.