The Worst of Times: Michelle Roberts: It was goodbye. She was braver than me

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Indy Lifestyle Online
LOTS OF people I've been close to have died, so I thought I knew about grief; but all that hadn't prepared me for what I felt when my sister was dying.

Jackie was 43, she'd been taken into hospital for what turned out to be ovarian cancer. I remember sitting by her bedside when she came round. She looked incredible, her skin appeared completely transparent and flawless, and her eyes were like little monkey eyes, very bright. She looked very young, and at the same time she looked very old, you could see her as she would be at 60.

She had these very full lips, and I kissed her on the mouth, which is not something we normally did, because we weren't explicitly close.

Part of my great sadness was that we hadn't been close as adults. She left home at 18 to go to university and she married very young. Her politics were completely different from mine, she was a Tory and I was a leftie and a feminist, and we just couldn't meet on that terrain, we weren't even able to talk about it, to agree to disagree.

So we had drifted apart in some way, and yet deep down there was this fantastic love of sisters who shared a bedroom, who had grown up together.

I kept it to myself of course, but I knew from the beginning that she was going to die. And from that moment I could very openly express to her all the affection I had felt all the years I hadn't been expressing it. Now I felt able to express a much deeper level of love.

All the family took turns visiting Jackie. We tried to be what she needed: to be cheerful and brave, because she was trying to be cheerful and brave.

But I was frightened by the ferocity and aggression of my sorrow when I returned home, which involved letting out this very raw animal grief, which was very messy, loud and violent and angry.

I was this kind of grief-stricken lunatic, weeping and ranting, and writing poetry. Late at night I would just howl. I was scared that I would fall apart, have a breakdown or something. Meanwhile she visibly altered, and that was very terrible. As the cancer accelerated and spread to the stomach and into the bowels, she got much thinner: she was wasting away. Her hair fell out because of the chemotherapy.

Jackie was a very beautiful woman, but she had become this tiny, wizened, withered crone with claw-

like hands, and her hair was no more than a little reddish-brown fuzz.

I remember the very last time she came out of hospital, we went to collect her, and I didn't recognise my sister - this skeletal old woman who was creeping around the room, packing her bags to go home.

The following week I went to see Jackie at her home, and I suppose we both knew this was goodbye. She was braver than me. I remember kissing her goodbye and saying: 'Oh, you won't kick the bucket just yet.' I couldn't actually say: 'Please don't die.' I just couldn't say it.

She laughed and squeezed my hand and she said: 'Oh yes, I think I will.' That was the first time she admitted she was going to die. She then said something very sweet: 'You're a good girl.' That meant an awful lot to me.

Two days later, very early in the morning, I dreamt that I had gone to see Jackie. She was still ill in bed, but there was a party, all the family was there and Jackie was sitting up, looking very beautiful again, and she was kind of blessing everybody and waving.

I woke up. It was dawn. I stood on a chair, put my head through the skylight and watched the new day, and then I went back to bed and to sleep. The phone call at about 7 o'clock was my brother-in-law, ringing to say Jackie had died.

I felt very close to her then. I was very grateful that at the moment of her dying she'd communicated something. And I kept feeling grateful, because I kept having dreams about her.

Michele Roberts is a poet.

(Photograph omitted)

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