To the outside world we all grow old. But not to brothers and sisters. We know each other as we always were. We know each other’s hearts. We share private family jokes. We remember family feuds and secrets, family griefs and joys. We live outside the touch of time.
My sister, Judith, died the day after the Queen.
Judith had not been in good health for some years. Problems began with a heavy fall while on a charity bike ride in Switzerland. Fortunately for her, the group with whom she was cycling were colleagues from Bedford Hospital. The combination of neurosurgeons, ER consultants and senior nurses acted quickly on her severe head injury. She eventually recovered, besides suffering from a ‘lazy eye’ and some lack of balance.
Sadly, that lack of balance some years after the cycling accident led to a fall down the stairs at her home. Her injuries confined Judith to a wheelchair and with limited powers of speech, although her mental faculties were unimpaired.
I wrote earlier that Judith was my sister, but to be accurate, she was my half-sister. Judith’s mum, Bette, had passed away in tragic circumstances when Judith was only four. In my later life, I mused that I would not be here if it hadn’t been for Bette’s death. Life and death’s irony. However, it was not something I ever discussed with Judith, even though through to my late teenage years, she and I were close.
Judith taught me to read before I started primary school, and she taught me a love of reading. Something for which I will be eternally grateful.
I recall one incident when Judith was a young teenager. My father had hired a car for a few days, and the family went off to Yorkshire on a day trip. Judith was in her early teenage years and of an adolescent mood, so she saw no joy in a walk in the country with her parents. Instead, she opted to stay in the car while my parents and I ventured off. We returned to find the vehicle that dad had parked in a field, surrounded by a large group of inquisitive cows. Inside was an overwrought Judith. And, not surprisingly, she decided to join us when we next went for a walk.
I was eight when Judith left home at sixteen to join the Army. I missed my ‘big sister’ and looked forward to her times at home on leave, especially when she took me to the sweet shop and bought me a ‘bag of treats’, as she called them. Flying saucers, pink shrimps, Spanish (liquorice outside the northeast) etc.
Judith married young, and she and Chris, her husband, spent the next fifty-three years together. I often visited and stayed with them in their first years of married life. In Catterick, in my early teenage years, Chris and I would go off orienteering for the day. Then in 1971, after Chris’ posting to Germany, I made my first overseas foray. Early tentative steps in understanding a ‘foreign’ culture. I’ve lost count of how many journeys I've made since that first at the age of fifteen.
After I left the northeast to live and work in London, the first people I visited were Judith and Chris. By then, Chris had left the Army and worked for the Foreign Office in a role that would see them and their children living and working around the world.
Sadly, a family schism happened after the death of our father a few years later. A division that would last close to thirty years and see no contact between Judith, my brother Andy or me. However, time eventually healed perceived hurts, and the family reconciled. But for the explosion and fire at Buncefield, my first meeting with Judith for thirty years would have been in a motorway service station near Hemel Hempstead in early December 2005. But we’d waited decades, so a couple more months was no hardship. In meeting again, all the warmth we’d know for each other when younger returned. No discussion or even thought of schisms arose.
A few years after our reconciliation, Judith received the MBE for her services to nursing. I recall how delighted she felt to have the honour bestowed by Queen Elizabeth. I can imagine how proud our father would have been of Judith.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that “family quarrels are bitter things. They don’t go according to any rules. They’re not like aches or wounds, they’re more like splits in the skin that won’t heal because there’s not enough material.”
I am so glad that Judith and I were able to heal our ‘split skins’. And I’m comforted that she has now escaped from the physical trauma she experienced in more recent years. The photograph is of her aged nineteen. It captures her spirit perfectly.
Judith, my big sister, thanks for everything