Sisters by Jill Waters

A story of two girls, born to the same parents, never to meet, their lives intertwined, ivy twisted around a branch.

Both have different tales to tell…

I was born in early 1944. IN common with the rest of the World, my parent's lives had been torn apart by war. My mother gave birth in a nursing home far from home and would later tell how my breach delivery had been so difficult, the pain relief so inadequate that she had almost bitten through an auxiliary nurse's hand. My father waited in his barracks for news of my birth. He would travel from Scotland to visit me for the day, yet only be allowed to peer at me through a glass window, not holding me in his arms until his next leave, several weeks later.

They called me Pamela - my parent's cherished firstborn. My father, as a member of the Army Medical Corps, would go on to land in Normandy on D-Day and witness the horrors of what had happened in the concentration camps before returning home to his family which, three years later, welcomed another baby girl.

Every day was full of fun, sunshine and music. We moved to a bigger house and, when I was seven years old, we became a family of five with the arrival of my new baby brother.

He had just learned to walk when I started to get pains in my ankle. At first, it was dismissed as attention-seeking. After all, I had to go to school while my baby brother stayed at home. But when strange bruises started to appear on my legs, I was taken to the doctors. I endured endless tests while my parents looked on, sometimes not even allowed to hold my hand. Eventually, the doctors decided what was wrong. It was very rare, they said. My parents would probably never hear of another case. Leukaemia. For me, it was a death sentence, although no-one ever told me that. There was no treatment. Everyone waited for the disease to run its toxic course. I spent lots of time in hospital and couldn't see my sister and brother. That made me sadder than anything. I missed the fun we had and the way they always made me laugh. As I got weaker, my parents were told that the end was near. My father, thinking he would have one day more, stayed home because my mother was inconsolable, and couldn't leave my sister and brother. “One day more” was not to be, and I died alone in a children's hospital, a train journey away. I hope my parents knew I didn't mind. I just wanted to go to sleep.

It was 17th February, 1954. I was ten years old.

My father would visit me one more time but said that the empty shell that he saw on that day was not his beloved firstborn. He knew then that I had gone. Destroyed, my family closed in on itself.

Two years passed. Exactly two years. I came into the world, a third daughter, on 17th February, 1956.

What were the chances? Three weeks early and my parents were horrified. How would they ever be able to celebrate? Have birthday parties? Buy me presents? As a baby and toddler, I was oblivious to the trouble and upset I had caused, but in the years that followed I would occasionally hear my mum tell people that, of all the days, it was the one day that she hadn't wanted me to be born.

While I in no way replaced Pamela, I somehow restored a kind of balance to family life. My siblings were glad of the distraction and mum and dad almost allowed themselves to be happy again. I was showered with love and affection and, despite their initial fears, my parents threw me amazing and memorable birthday parties. Another baby, my younger brother, arrived two years later. Five had become four, then five and now six.

Yet the shadow of the lost child hung over us, darkening even the happiest of times. The grief manifested itself in different ways. When I was very young, my dad cycled off to work one day and never arrived. He was eventually found thirty miles away, outside my dead sister's hospital window, crying like a baby. Having only just recovered from his wartime experiences, the loss of a child had pushed him over the edge. It took him years to recover any sort of equilibrium.

My mum made a supreme effort to carry on, busying herself with family life. It was only later we realised she was finding it increasingly difficult to let things go. Calendars, wrapping paper, greetings cards - by the time she had reached her eighties, her four-bedroom house was filled to the rafters with things she couldn't bear to part with. Nowadays she would be diagnosed with a pathological hoarding disorder - at the time we just thought it was quirky and, quite frankly, embarrassing.

My older sister told me how, for years after Pamela's death, she would lie in bed, imagining she had a pain in her ankle and convincing herself she was going to die. Too scared to talk about it, this sense of impending doom has remained with her throughout her adult life. My older brother would say that he can barely remember his oldest sister, but the trauma undoubtedly took its toll on him, colouring his early experiences of family life grey and replacing trips to the park with trips to the cemetery.

A fixture of our Sunday afternoons, we would walk through the Gothic grounds, past ornate, Victorian memorials, carrying whatever flowers were in season. I would look at the headstone and see my birthdate carved there. It was a strange feeling that, over time became more intense, a stone weighing me down. The sense that I had been awkward from the very moment I'd been born had an impact on how I felt about myself as a person.

At home, Pamela was everywhere and nowhere. A never-mentioned ghost, haunting the family. There was one framed photograph, but otherwise few reminders. I garnered more information from my sister and older brother than I ever did from my parents. They found it too painful.

Sometimes I felt as if I had been born guilty. Guilty of upsetting my parents. Guilty of turning the anniversary of Pamela's death into something that could not be observed in the usual way. In my heart, I knew I was loved, and I had a wonderful childhood full of rich and colourful experiences, but those feelings of guilt have never gone away.

After we lost Mum, we found a collection of things hidden at the bottom of a wardrobe. It was all the letters and cards my parents had been sent after Pamela had died, along with other mementoes of her life - stories she had written, pictures she had drawn. We christened it 'the Pamela box'. None of us had ever seen it before. I wish my parent’s had felt able to share it with us.

It would be different now. We've moved from a world where things happened behind closed doors, to a place that is much more open, from a world where men peered at their babies through a glass window, to one where they cut their baby's cords. There are programmes to support children in coming to terms with the death of a sibling. My sister and brother would have made memory books that they would have shared with me and my younger brother. My parents would have been encouraged to talk about the happy times they spent after Pamela was born, a time that coincided with the whole World emerging from the darkness of war. My sister would have been a real person that had lived a real life, and not a shadow to haunt me.

Nothing can change the date of my birth and I am fated to spend a moment each year, thinking about what my parents went through on that day, two years before I was born. But maybe, with the proper support, it could have been seen as a means of celebrating not only another year on the planet for me but also my other sister's much shorter life.

If she could speak to me now, what would my sister say? She would probably tell me to stop feeling this way. That it isn’t, and never has been my fault. She would also tell me to be thankful for the number of birthdays I have had, and to make sure that I enjoy them for the both of us.

Sixty-six years later, I find myself listening to her voice as it reaches through time. My eldest sister. No longer ivy to choke me, but a protective arm around my shoulder.

A story of two girls, born to the same parents, never to meet, their lives intertwined, ivy twisted around a branch.

Selected: March Short Story Contest
Published in Issue #28

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