"That someone had been living, who now was dead"
Kenneth Slessor - 5 Bells
I had a sister once, for six months. I was two years old when she died. My whole life I have thought about her and wondered what she would have been like. I can't explain why, but it matters to me. I have a need to know her. The doctors described her as determined, with a strong heart and will to live. The nurses called her an angel, with jet black hair and big dewy brown eyes. It has always been said, that of their three children, Doone was the most like our father from birth.
I wish I could remember something of her, but I don't. I can't even remember the funeral, although I was there. She would have been 44 years old now. We talk about her still, and our parents share their loss with us, something I have only come to truly appreciate since becoming a parent myself. Such a personal sense of tragedy is difficult to fathom, since losing a child is every parents worse nightmare. Mum and dad talking lovingly of a beautiful baby, taken all too soon from their arms. They have dealt with the grief by turning their attention to the living and by not dwelling on things they couldn't change. I don't know if I have ever told them, but I admire my parents for their strength and respect them for all they have endured.
With only two years between us, I speculate that Doone and I would have been close, just as my brother and I are now. But the reality is, that given her medical condition, had she lived, her life would never have been ordinary, it would have been extra-ordinary.
Growing up my brother didn't share my intense curiosity for a sister we never had the chance to know. Born after Doone, I understood his indifference and knew it was only natural. However, now as an adult and father himself, he too wonders what may have been.
Six months is such a short time, especially in the life of an infant. Knowing this, what then do I expect my quest for knowledge to bring? The answer is, I really don't know. Perhaps I am trying to justify so short a life and therefore reconcile death, just as poet Kenneth Slessor tried to do in his lament for his friend Joe in 5 Bells, "If only I could find an answer, could only find your meaning or could say why you were here, who now are gone, what purpose gave you breath, or seized it back, might I not hear your voice?"
Although my mother suspected problems during her pregnancy, the doctors reassured her that all was well and that she was most likely carrying twins, which accounted for her extra large pregnant belly and obsession with milkshakes. It wasn't until Mum was labouring that Doone was diagnosed as having hydrocephalus and spina bifida. The prognosis was grim. The doctors prepared my parents for a stillbirth. I think about the doctors delivering this news, and I consider how every expectant parent prays for a strong and healthy child, so I can only imagine that the news after the end of a long and difficult labour, and that you have neither would be incredibly painful. Monica Doone came into the world in February 1970. To the surprise of everyone, she was alive, but the prognosis didn't change, she was never expected to leave the hospital.
The miracle of Doone was that she continued to live. Each day was expected to be her last, but as the days came and went, her heart refused to stop beating and so new decisions had to be made for her day to day care. No parent wants to be separated from their newborn, so choosing a suitable care facility for a terminally ill neonate was incredibly difficult and a decision my parents struggled to make. In consultation with the doctors and maternal grandparents, Mum and dad chose a hospice in the Blue Mountains for Doone, where the clean mountain air was considered best for her.
Six months later, in August 1970, Monica Doone was laid to rest in a cemetery in the heart of the Blue Mountains. The location is pretty and peaceful. Standing by her gravesite, the majestic mountains enfold the cemetery in its bosom. I have travelled there a number of times over the years to be close to her. It is where I think about her and the duality of life; an infant born terminally ill and yet, whose heart refused to stop beating. Is this why she came to us and was take away so abruptly? "If only I could find an answer". I have always believed that life is about learning lessons borne from the choices we make. In relation to Doone, I wonder if the lesson we are being taught is about determination and tenacity against all odds? Or whether it is about how we each, individually, square up to adversity? My parents have certainly faced the challenges of their lives with a united front. It hasn't always been pretty or easy, but they have come through some very dark hours together.
I strain to hear her voice, "if only I could find an answer", but decide that maybe it is about all those things, or none of them at all. The only thing I can say for certain, is that family has always given us the strength and courage to explore the tapestries of our individual lives, and our parents have ensured we have grown up understanding it and valuing it. Through the loss of Monica Doone, we have learned that life can be a fragile and transient thing, not to be taken for granted. Although we carry Doone in our hearts, she will always be an enigma, a part of us, but just that little bit out of reach. Unlike Slessor, to whom Joe was lost forever, I know that if I listen to my heart, I won't have to strain to hear anything at all.
(quotes are from poet Kenneth Slessor's 5 Bells)
# Infant mortality
# Self reflection