We have my Mum with us for Christmas, for the first time. Mum and I get on well and we speak on the phone every week, but ever since my dad died in 1996, she has spent Christmas in Australia with my sister Karen and her family. But things have changed. We lost Karen this year.
I didn't write about it at the time -- it was difficult and not for public consumption. Karen, two years younger than me, was a breast cancer survivor. When her cancer returned a couple of years ago, it looked like she might beat it twice. She'd kept herself healthy and was an absolute trooper about chemotherapy.
But shortly after a family trip to California (she brought it forward, perhaps knowing what the rest of us didn't), that hope expired. It's hard to believe that only a couple of weeks after the photograph in this post was taken, she was on her deathbed. An infection had tipped her over. She was ravaged.
I rushed across the Tasman to be with her and her family and, in one of those occasions when farce mingles with grief, nearly sliced off the top of my left index finger while I was making dinner for everyone. The following morning, after the phone call came from the hospital, I had to go to the emergency department before I could join everyone else in mourning upstairs in her room.
There were just the two of us kids. My dad, for some reason, nicknamed us "Sid and Susie". She took after him, and always related more to our pateral grandmother, Nana Brown, where I was closer to my grandfather on my mother's side. There was a time when we were young when she had a speech problem and I was almost the only one who could translate for her. I found school fairly easy, she wasn't happy there and left early to work for the same bank that had been my father's only employer. When he got transferred to the Hutt Valley, she went with the family and I stayed in Christchurch with my new job in journalism.
"Why didn't anyone tell me?!" she would demand later when we looked at her snaps from that time -- all bad perm and big pants -- and laughed.
And then something happened to my sister. She left the Hutt, went out into the world and blossomed. Her first postcard, from Sydney, made it seem like someone had flicked the switch on her life. By the time she met me off the plane at Heathrow in 1986, she was confident, adventurous and adaptable. After taking her fill of Europe, she washed up back in Australia, where, among other things, she turned her hand to cooking on a yacht being sailed around the coast by some wealthy young guys.
But she didn't choose them. The love of her life, Greg, is a miner; a man built like like a brick shithouse, with a big, soft heart.
"I've been around a lot of flash guys," she told me once. "None of them have the qualities that Greg has."
They raised two bright, athletic daughters, Alessandra and Hannah, who are now teenagers, and Karen became well-known in Newcastle, first as a community relations manager with the Newcastle Permanent Building Society and then as development officer with the Hunter Medical Research Institute. In both roles, she raised funds for breast cancer care and research. Other women lived, and will live, because of her work. When she died, the Newcastle Herald called her a "champion".
One thing she was particularly good at was event management and more than once I've thought it would have been great to stage an event with her. We'd have been a dynamite team. Brother and sister.
I know this will be a tough Christmas for Greg and the girls. Mum and I will have a cry too. We'll talk. But through it, I'll stick close to this thought: I am so proud of my baby sister.
One of the special things about this place is that I feel I can share something as personal as the above. When so much online discourse (and I don't exclude myself) is bragging and bitching, it's a rare and valuable thing to have the community we have here. I'm particularly delighted this year that Public Address has been a place for the TwitterAunties to gather and for the wonderful Jackie Clark to organise for the mums and kids of the Te Whare Marama women's refuge. This morning's recognition of that work on Morning Report is both welcome and fitting. Jackie has set an example of kindness and purpose from which we can all learn. Thanks for being here, folks. Be good to each other.
Ak • Since May 2008 • 19745 posts Report
Sorry to hear about your loss Russell. A very touching to tribute to your sister who sounds like she was a lovely, warm person who will obviously be hugely missed. Best of wishes for the festive period.
Since Nov 2006 • 114 posts Report
I was sorry to hear about Karen, and glad that time has helped you get some words down. Thanks for sharing this, and Merry Christmas to you and your family.
Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10657 posts Report
Email Web Twitter
Oh darling heart. When I see you soon, you know there will be vast hugs and much love from me to you. In the meantime, enjoy your mum, and remember Karen with love (and tears are good too. "Tears are love" I would tell Carol).
Mt Eden, Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3136 posts Report
What a spunky lady! Thank you for sharing this with us, and big Christmas love to you all.
Since Nov 2006 • 1946 posts Report
Email Web Twitter
Thanks Russell. This is a time for remembering the empty spaces at the table. We have a few of our own, as I'm sure many here do.
I'm so pleased to be part of the goodness that is Public Address, and contribute my little bit.
Jackie, what you started is a wonderful thing. Long may it continue.
Arohanui one and all.
Auckland • Since Mar 2011 • 2450 posts Report
Thanks for sharing this, Russell.
Auckland • Since Dec 2013 • 3 posts Report
Arohanui to you and your family, Russell.
Christchurch • Since Jul 2007 • 719 posts Report
Great article and sister Russell. I can imagine how hard it will be without her when you celebrate Christmas with your mum for the first time.
As far as I'm concerned 2013 has been a real b**ch of a year, too many deaths of close friends and most dearest, my brother, who was my only close family member I had left. Thank God I still have my wife and her family.
Cromwell • Since Nov 2006 • 85 posts Report
Email Web Twitter
Thanks for sharing Russell - families are so important.
Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 368 posts Report
Lovely, heartfelt story Russell. What a lovely sister you have.
Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 385 posts Report
For you Russell. And for everyone whose Christmas time is coloured by pain, loss, grief and heartache. It's not always the easiest time.
Auckland • Since Dec 2011 • 2700 posts Report
Thank you for sharing that Russell and my heartfelt sympathies for the loss of your lovely sister. Today I'm remembering my little boy Jude who died before he was born on Christmas Eve.
It's definitely a mark if the integrity and respect inherent in this community that I post here at all ( not often :)
Merry Christmas everyone!
Auckland • Since Mar 2007 • 120 posts Report
Thank you Russell. A timely reminder to be kind. Hope it is a special holiday for you and your family.
Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 2 posts Report
Thank you for sharing, Russell, and so warmly. And thank you to all who share here. I don't often post, but believe me - this place has done, and still does, much to remind me that there are Good People out there.
Christchurch • Since Nov 2006 • 88 posts Report
Thanks Russell for sharing with us - over the years we have, become, I think, a bit of an extended whanau, because of you honesty and openess. - and this exemplifies why you have our support and loyalty.
Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 143 posts Report
I lost a friend this year as well as starting a new job - I had a rough year. Hugs* to all.
Auckland • Since Mar 2008 • 82 posts Report
Russell, thank you for sharing. Difficult to do, I'm sure, but a wonderful tribute. I'll raise a glass for you and your family and think of you tomorrow. They say the first is the hardest, but I think they'll all be difficult. Made only slightly less so by that final thought of yours. X
Auckland • Since Nov 2012 • 21 posts Report
Russell Brown, in reply to
Email Web Twitter
Amberleigh, the funny thing is that this year I encouraged you to do something I hadn't yet been able to do myself. And then Mum turned up yesterday with that photograph and I knew it was time. I'll be thinking of you and your mum tomorrow too. x
Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22850 posts Report
Email Web Twitter
Condolences. My eldest sister succumbed to a brain haemorrhage a little over 6 years ago now. The blow was softened by the fact that we knew it would happen eventually.
The southernmost capital … • Since Nov 2006 • 5446 posts Report
Emma Hart, in reply to
Email Web Twitter
I'm up to number three now, and talking to my boss/friend today, who is going through her first without her Dad.
My experience is that the first is worst, by miles. They get easier, but the sense of something missing never quite goes away.
Russell, your sister was obviously Quite Something, and she looks like one of those somethings was "a bunch of fun". We are lucky to have had such people in our lives, for however long.
Christchurch • Since Nov 2006 • 4651 posts Report
Thank you, Russell. The first few Xmases after Dad died were hard, and there's still a gap in proceedings, but it's got easier to bear.
Waikanae • Since Nov 2006 • 2937 posts Report
Russell, thank you for sharing this with us. Karen sounds amazing. And she would be, if she's anything like you. So sorry for your loss. Love and big hugs.
Dunedin • Since Jul 2010 • 3895 posts Report
Raymond A Francis,
It's not easy for most N Z men to share these sort of feelings, so once again thank you for some nice writing, unlike some/most bloggers you are a journalist and it shows
45' South • Since Nov 2006 • 578 posts Report
Thanks Russell and sorry to hear that. I know from personal experience that it's not easy. I lost my younger sister a few years ago to lung cancer (she never smoked). You have a gift for writing and when I read your story it bought tears to my eyes.
Since Mar 2010 • 51 posts Report