In my last post, I detailed the day of my sister Rachel’s stroke. What I didn’t explain is that, for many years, my sister has neatly doubled up as my best friend. She’s the older one, so I’ve never lived without her (and I never wish to). But we weren’t always close. As teenagers, we struggled to find common ground. We couldn’t agree on anything. We irritated one another. We walked past each other at school without acknowledging that we were acquainted, let alone related.
I remember one argument very clearly. She was standing on the stairs of our house, looking down, and I was standing in the hallway, shouting up. ‘You got to be clever,’ she shouted. ‘But you got to be pretty,’ I shouted back. Her: ‘You got to be tall.’ Me: ‘You got to be thin.’ I imagine how we’d continue that argument now. Her: ‘But you didn’t have a stroke.’ Me: ‘But you didn’t get cancer.’
And then, when I was sixteen and she was eighteen, our family moved from Cheshire to Worcestershire and we knew no-one but each other, and we spent a long, hot summer lying in the garden, becoming friends. We’re still very different. She is gentler and easier to love than I am. But over the past couple of decades, we’ve discovered what we mean to each other. Me moving to New York for a time helped with that. Both of us becoming mothers did, too.
And so, what happened next was enough to make me want to curl up in bed and not get out for days and days. But I had a baby and a toddler to feed and care for. And I had a battle with cancer to win.
The morning after Elodie’s homecoming and Rachel’s stroke, Mum called and asked whether I could take Louie to nursery. ‘I’m at Rachel and Scott’s with both boys,’ she said. ‘I’ll explain when I see you.’ I was a bit dazed from tiredness after our first night with Elodie, so I just agreed, pulled on some clothes and headed over there in the car. When I got there, Mum tried to fill me in without letting Louie hear. Rachel had deteriorated overnight. She’d been moved to a different hospital in Nottingham. She’d had another bleed. They were going to operate. Scott and Dad were with her.
I dropped Louie at nursery and went home, but Paul said he could look after Elodie and that I should go to be with Mum and Jay. Mum had asked her friend Lyn to come over because she didn’t want to be on her own. Lyn has known Rach and me since we were born, and when she arrived and I answered the door, she gave me a long, comforting hug. Jay slept well that morning, and Mum, Lyn and I waited for news.
Eventually, Dad phoned. They hadn’t cleared all the blood with the first surgery so they were going to have to operate a second time. Dad said that him and Scott were going to come back to pick me and Mum up, if we could leave the babies. ‘Have they said anything about her prognosis?’ I asked. ‘They have,’ Dad told me. ‘It’s very serious. I think you should come.’
Lyn agreed to look after Jay, and we all went to my house, so that Paul and Lyn could look after the two babies together and have some company. When Dad and Scott arrived, Dad told us more about what the surgeon had said. The only part I remember clearly is that they didn’t know whether or not they could save her. A couple of minutes passed with us all there in the lounge, some of us sitting, some standing. We hugged each other. We cried. And then we went to the hospital and waited for strangers to tell us whether they’d managed to save her life.
Time stretched and stalled in that intensive care waiting room. I messaged a group of close friends, told them I didn’t know whether I could bear it. When someone switched on the TV to watch Wimbledon, I wanted to scream. We came and went, going to the toilet, getting hot drinks, pacing.
My parents and I spoke to a nurse called Lauren who had been looking after Rachel. She explained how serious Rachel’s situation was and said that paralysis of the left side was almost certainly the best we could hope for. Mum said ‘She’ll never be our Rach again’. And Dad said ‘She’ll always be our Rach.’ And both were true, somehow.
Eventually, we were told she was out of theatre and we could see her. I stood up and Dad took hold of my arm. ‘She doesn’t look much like herself,’ he told me. ‘Don’t be alarmed.’ It would have taken me a while to recognise her if we hadn’t been led to her bed. Half of her head had been shaved for the surgery, and her breathing tube pushed her mouth wide open and changed the shape of her face. There were tubes and wires everywhere. ‘I was supposed to be the one who lost my hair,’ I said, holding her hand.
Rachel’s nurse, Lauren, gave me a hug as we were leaving. She promised to take care of her. ‘She’s the best one of us,’ I said.
A month earlier, I’d never set foot in an intensive care unit. And now, two of the people I loved most in the world had ended up in one. I started crying and I couldn’t stop.
And I couldn’t see how I would ever stop. Time and again, I’d believed that things couldn’t get any worse, and yet they had. What was next for our family? How would we manage it all, both physically and emotionally? We had two newborn babies to look after, as well as two energetic boys. Chemo. Hospital visits. And alongside all the practical stuff, there was this boundless sorrow to carry. And all the time, it was getting heavier.