Behind the big red gate

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic
This has been written in memory of my sister Sylvia.

Submitted: November 23, 2011

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Submitted: November 23, 2011

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Behind the big red gate......

 

Where do I start, how can I begin....let’s go back in time.  I am the 6th daughter of Marie and John, the eldest is Dianne, who was followed by Phillip who sadly died aged 11 months.  Mum was pregnant with Sylvia at this time.  After Sylvia, came Marina, then Elaine, Amanda, myself and Caroline.

 

We had and still have quite crazy lives, we still all talk at once, understand each other and know  how each of us are feeling, even when the words are absent.  We are one of the most sarcastic families, but have some of the best times together and mostly appreciate that everyone is different.  We don’t always like each other, we often get on each other’s nerves and we all drive each other mad at times – sisters!

 

We all live near each other, a 15 minute drive at most, we get together for weddings, funerals, Christmas parties and regular cups of tea (we inherited our love of tea from our parents). 

 

Dad was an army man (29 years, man and boy) and Mum his beloved follower, a quiet girl (so they say!) from Aberdeen.  Dad was an over confident dashing soldier who swept her off her feet.But in my memory made her life very difficult at times with his “I’m never wrong attitude” and often unreasonable behaviour.  She tolerated him well and took all her babies to the many countries that Dad travelled with the army.  They certainly saw the world and the older sisters did too.  Caroline and I were only 6 and 7 when we became a civilian family and moved from Hampshire to Staines.  This happened at the same time as decimalisation, so I thought they used a different currency in Staines!

 

During some of my growing up, I didn’t always feel we had the best start, quarrels, older sister relationship problems and a life short of cuddles from our parents.  I appreciate now that this happens in a large family and not everyone is tactile!  I have reversed this on my children.

 

My sister Sylvia was a law unto herself.  A strong character, often in trouble at school and regularly in trouble with Dad!  Sadly this continued through her early adulthood.  She became a mum at 17 and her baby was like the brother we never had.  I think Dad was delighted to have some male company because even the animals were female!  My mum or Little Nanny as she became doted on her  first grandson.

 

Sylvia added to the stress I felt as a teenager, with her relationship problems and without a doubt she had it in for me at times.  Perhaps a little jealous of my new found independence and ever growing confidence.  I still liked her though and yes, felt sorry for her at times.

 

As she grew older her emotional issues became too much for her and she was diagnosed with bi-polar disease and depression.

 

This was made much worse by the death of our mother more than 22 years ago.  We all took part in nursing mum through her brain tumour, day by day watching a little bit more of her disappearing.  The mum  who was the centre of our universe was not going to recover.  Our whole world changed.  Her funeral was the first I attended and the saddest.  We were told by Dad to wear black, to wear hats and to be ourselves (funny that after his previous instructions)! 

 

Dad for the first time ever, needed our support, he needed us.  I am so glad I saw the side that mum had fallen in love with, the soppy side, the caring side, the one that loved so much.  He remained by her side until she died and we all too remained faithful to the mum we all loved.  We supported Dad, went out for drinks with him, cooked him dinner, invited him over to our houses.  In fact I had to have spare meals in my freezer as he often arrived unannounced.

 

Sadly three and half years later Dad died as a result of complications regarding his arteriosclerosis and diabetes.  We were all orphans and all too young, but I couldn’t find a family who wanted to adopt 7 sisters aged 29 – 42!

 

We would miss so much, our children would too.  Maybe that’s what has helped us develop into the family we are today.  All grown up, still annoying each other, still all talking all at once, still crazy!

 

But for Sylvia, her world fell apart; she didn’t cope as the rest of us had.  My parents were her rock, through good and bad they supported her, they were always there for her and her little boy.  Our home was theirs.  My nephew often came over as a small child of 6 or 7, just for breakfast and I think for company.  He was spoilt rotten!

 

Sylvia’s mental health deteriorated over the years and at times she would rather have not been here and sadly tried on several occasions to make that happen.  Her marriage also had problems and I think she felt very alone.  Sometimes I found her mental health issues a real challenge, sometimes I thought they were selfish, sometimes it infuriated me, but then I would remember that whatever she was suffering, she was unable to cope and needed  me.  I forgave her for giving me a hard time as a teenager and began to forge a relationship quite different from our earlier one.  This time it was an adult relationship.  I accepted you cannot change people, only support and be there for them, mop up some of the mess and if you feel brave, ask them how they feel and then tell them what you think! (if you know what I mean),I think I did all of that okay.

 

Years went by, we enjoyed her 40th and 50th birthdays, supported her through her divorce and cruelly as it sounds, we ‘tolerated’ her low moods, needs and emotions.She had a very strict regime of which sister was due her company on which day and she continued to grow in strength in terms of forging relationships and made a few very good friends.  She was very proud of her son, his wife and her two grandsons.  They were a big part of her life and always became one of the topics of her conversation.  Her grandsons made her laugh so much and she was the doting Grandma.  It gives me much pleasure now to think how much they let her into their lives.  Some families don’t and it’s so sad.

 

Don’t get me wrong, my sister could be crude and rude and sometimes she didn’t care where she was or who she was with...she could be a bit of a pest, but if you knew her like we did; you just let her get on with it.  If you challenged her, she would do it all the more!  She also knew how to behave and was quite the lady at times.  Fussy with her clothes, her furniture and her life.  She never forgot a birthday and cards always arrived ahead of time.  Her many nephews and nieces were never forgotten.

It was clear how many people’s lives she affected when she became very ill some 20 months before her death.  Complications following gallbladder surgery left her with a 5% chance of survival.  This was the worst Christmas ever.  She spent two months in intensive care, fighting for her life and fighting against her bowel failure, kidney failure, lung failure and septicaemia.  Boy could she fight.  I think the fact that she was a very determined lady got her through what became in total four and a half months in hospital.  She did it.  She fought and she won.  To this day, we are still unsure what went wrong, but I am convinced it compromised her health even more.  Her hospital bedside did not lay empty long, in a coma or not, she had an influx of family and friends visiting her.

She suffered with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (yes she smoked too much), diabetes type 2, and after the surgery, she needed to have blood removed and saline administered to avoid her having a blood clot.  It’s called a venesection. 

During her stay in hospital and when she came home, she had to learn to walk again and slowly build up her ability to eat and drink.  She was suffering severe malnutrition after 3 months in hospital and still only had a 50% chance of survival.  Her stomach could not absorb food and she was very weak.  Slowly but surely, she started to heal and I believe left many of her mental health issues on the ward to begin her new life.  I am proud she had another 17 months of life, spending her money, moving to a flat, smoking, eating poorly, because it made her happy and we will never know if changing her lifestyle would have prolonged her death.

 

So then, whey does it hurt so much that she has died?  Because it really does and it is all wrong.  Whilst she has had many hospital stays for mental health issues or physical issues (over the last few years), she always came home, she always got better.

 

On her last hospital admission (September 28th), my sister Dianne took her in as she could not breath properly (not unusual).  She was diagnosed as having high blood pressure, high blood sugar, low oxygen in her blood and a chest infection.  She was on a hospital trolley for about 17 hours and was very uncomfortable.  She asked the nurse if she would be coming home (at 4.30pm on 29th September) whilst still drawing on the oxygen mask and was told “no, not with those levels”.

 

She often didn’t tell people she was in hospital nor that she came home.  We would pick this information up the next day or off another sister or she herself would call one of us.  The hospital never called us to say she had been admitted, nor did they ever call to say she had been discharged.  So much for duty of care.

 

On September 30th on my daughters 14th birthday, I got up early to celebrate with Stef.  My husband had gone to work.  School started late that day at 9.45am, so we left home at 9.20.  We were oblivious that our lives were about to change. 

Every day, I’d drive past my sister’s flat and this day was no different.  It was obvious there had been an incident as there were so many police cars and the whole area was taped off.  My first thoughts were ‘oh my god, I hope Sylvia’s ok’, followed by ‘don’t be daft she’s in hospital’.  I carried about my day; I was helping a dear friend clean her house as she was moving that day.  They too had been grieving over the loss of their daughter’s 22 year old boyfriend two weeks earlier.  They had been through enough.

 

Suddenly my phone rang and I thought how strange, Sylvia’s son.  After the many calls we had when she was so ill in hospital last year, we hardly spoke on the phone now.  The phone kept cutting out and I could only just hear him.  I remember him saying “make sure you sit down, I have just had the CID around about Mum”.  I still didn’t twig.  I don’t remember how he told me she died, I do remember him saying “she was in her garden and found earlier that day”.  I mumbled something and said I would meet him at my older sister’s Dianne’s.  It’s a lovely trait in our family that we instantly need to be together when there is a crisis.  I called Elaine and she couldn’t believe it either as she announced Sylvia had been discharged from hospital sometime in the early evening, had dinner with Elaine and her husband Mark and then walked the 100 feet to her flat.  Elaine offered to take her home as she looked so poorly, but Sylvia refused.  Elaine lives with this guilt every day.  My sister Caroline called me to make sure I had heard the sad news, but between her words were falling tears.

After that I just kept repeating “we are seven, we were never meant to be six”.  I rang my husband and was hysterical; he was shocked by my reaction as I am normally so tough.  I’d never lost a sibling before and it was a bigger shock than my emotions could take.  When someone is ill so often and get better so often, you believe this will always be the case.

 

I thought Sylvia’s life was compromised, that she wouldn’t have a long life.  I accept that.  I had visions of her needing oxygen throughout the day, held in a little rucksack, eventually needing a scooter to get around and needing lots more support.  I didn’t expect to be arranging her funeral with her son and two of my sisters on what would have been her 56th birthday.

 

I didn’t think she would be found by a man walking his dog at 6.15am on the morning of 30th September and would later learn she had probably been there all night.  At the time, we all thought perhaps she had gone home after her meal as her bag was in her house; she’d had it at Elaine’s.  Days later when the Police spoke to her son, we decided they had put it in her house.Today was my youngest daughter’s 14th birthday; we were going to celebrate after school.  My husband and I decided to go and get her from school.It didn’t feel right, her thinking she was celebrating her birthday when she finished school.  She cried and cried.  She and my sister had a love/hate relationship, but this really rocked her world.  Why did it have to be on her birthday?

 

We all gathered at Dianne’s and a family friend made copious amounts of tea, whilst we tried to acknowledge the morning’s events.  All were shocked, none could believe and all wanted answers.  There were none.  She had gone and we would not learn for 3 more days, the cause of her death.  It was the longest weekend. 

 

The phone calls and conversations to people who needed to be told were made, while we had the strength.  All broke down in tears and I felt like a robot repeating the same story to all, a story I would rather never had heard.

 

On the day she died, I went to her flat alone.  I needed to be there.  Her hospital bag was by her front door, a prescription handed to her before she left hospital was also there.  She had left the bandage from the ‘drip’ on the kitchen side.  Everything was so weird really.  Never again would she sit on her lovely sofas, sleep in her bed, wear her clothes, call us on the phone or visit.  I took her handbag home, too worried to leave it in her flat.  In it was her mobile, with missed messages, her purse and of course her cigarettes and lighter!  I started to think, had she gone out in the night for help, tried to get back to Elaine’s?

 

I went to her communal gardens and tried to work out where she died.  There are two gates and I was informed everyone used the smaller one.  I half expected her to walk up the path and rid me of this awful dream I was having.  She didn’t.  It was the next day, I learnt from one of her neighbours that she had died in front of the ‘big red gate’.  He saw her body when he was informed at 7.30am.  He said it wasn’t very nice!  At least he could confirm she had a bag with her.  We didn’t know until 10.30am that Sylvia had died, as the Police had trouble finding her next of kin.  I am still confused by this as I had given all of her family details, names and phone numbers to the hospital, but then of course they never contacted us did they?  Even the day before she died, her son was listed as next of kin – don’t the police check? 

 

I wanted to know my sister had died much earlier than other people, why should all her neighbours know before us?  When I kept hearing there had been a murder and the story was rife on facebook, but it was actually my sister laying there dead, not murdered.  How insulting.  I soon put them right!

 

On the Monday (her 56th birthday), we got the post mortem results.  Cause of death i) broncho-pneumonia ii) as a result of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.  Or natural causes we were also told.

 

Okay, this happens, people die.  But not like this.  Every time we had a question answered, we had another 10 questions.  Even now nearly 7 weeks later, lots of things are not clear.

 

I didn’t envisage my sister being found dead, face down in her garden  age 55, dying alone,  no-one to hold her hand, no-one to cry with, no-one to hug and no-one to say goodbye to.  We may have had our differences, but she did not deserve this, does anyone?  I would have been more than happy to sit up night after night with her, holding her hand, looking after her until she died, we all would.  We may be crazy as said before, but we are very supportive, loving and usually quite strong, well we were.  Some of my strength seems to have been zapped out of me, I am still looking for it!

 

Just a phone call from the hospital would have helped, but would that be admitting there was nothing else they could do.  We would all have accepted that.  We had this pain 17 months earlier, we were fairly equipped to deal with this.  We loved her and would do whatever was in her best interest.  One phone call.  Why oh why.  The answers will come soon after the investigation, I hope.  But for now I continue as one of seven, because it’s too difficult to say I’m one of six.

 

I miss her; I wake up in the night and see her in my mind, sitting in my garden sipping tea, making crude comments, eating whatever was on offer!  I see her in hospital last year, fighting for her life for months, and how hard it must have been for her.  I see her walking up my drive arriving for a visit.  I see her at all the family events we’ve had. I see her moving her fingers in the funny way she did, I hear her laughing and sometimes being rude.  I see her smiling.  I see her in her coffin.  I imagine her lying there dead, alone.

 

I play her funeral music, the Royal Dragoon Guards – Band of Brothers and The Beautiful South – Dream a little Dream (she once borrowed all my Beautiful South CD’s and it took months to persuade her to give them back!).  The music takes me back to the church..  I see my husband and brother-in-laws carrying her coffin in the church.  All smart and shiny, shoulder to shoulder, carrying her with pride, even though she drove them nuts!  I see a crowded church with all those who loved her.  My children, so grown up, so many family and friends, I see the beautiful flowers, she would have loved those.  I see her grave, next to Mum and Dad’s, reunited.  What I don’t see is my sister.

 

We should be planning Christmas, I should be telling you I’ve just booked my holiday, about my job, what my three children are up to.  How many new phones Steven has had.  You should be telling me about your times with the Princess of Nottingham (Debbie), Sharon and Janet.  Telling me funny stories about ‘your’ boys!  You should be telling me you are giving up smoking, taking up exercise and watching your food.  You should be telling me you’re feeling better.

I am not in denial, I am a realist, but I don’t like the fact I won’t see you again.  I don’t like the fact you are gone.  I don’t like the fact you were deprived a dignified death and I don’t like the fact we never got to say goodbye.  In truth, I just don’t like it!

 

We will heal, we have to, other people have lost siblings and coped, we will too.  Perhaps some answers will help, perhaps not.  I know one thing for sure, Saturdays are not the same.  When will Sylvia call? Is she coming over? Shall we go to Notcutts?  Have we any cake for her?  Is there enough tea and coffee?  How will she be today, chatty? Quiet? What can I tell her about my week?  What will she tell me about hers?  I’d like to have told her how awful it was when she died, how she didn’t deserve it, how we loved her, I’d like to have that day again and hold her hand as she took her last breath, hug her and tell her everything would be fine and to tell her it’s okay to slip away, that we would look after Ryan and that she would never ever be forgotten.  Losing a sibling is so painful, like  nothing I have ever known. 


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