My Little Sister

My very first memory of Heather is about being taken to the hospital by Dad. Children were not allowed in the maternity ward in those days, so he sneaked us up to the window at the back of the hospital, and an obliging nurse let us take a peek. Being 2 foot nothing I strained and strained to see through the window, but in truth, all I could see was a shadowy figure holding up a bundle of swaddling clothes.  However, from that moment on, I knew that someone pretty important was coming into my life. For the next week or so I remember hearing lots of discussion and debate about names. Would Heather be OK? It was nice and Scottish, so that was a big plus. Yes, Heather Lynne McKay it would be!

My next memory is of the “Big Day” when my little sister came home from hospital, and really entered into my life. I remember straining to peek at her over the side of the bassinet, and I guess that from the perspective of the adults around me, am almost 3 year old trying to reach up and take a peek was likely to cause a small catastrophe, with the bassinet toppling and landing on top of me, so I was gently prised away. However, this time, not before I had time to get a glimpse of the cutest little face I’d ever seen.

Heather was the sweetest little baby possible. She never seemed to cry, and she was always smiling and adventurous…but unlike me, she knew which adventures were worth the risk, and which ones were better left alone. She had a tiny shock of blonde hair that Mum was always treating with “Curly Pet”. This was meant to produce masses of Shirley Temple curls that every mother in those days thought was the desired look for little girls. Secretly I thought this was a bit odd….the little girl up the road had curls, and she was dead ugly, whereas Heather looked like a little Angel no matter what hairstyle she sported. Curled or straight hair, scruffy or brushed and manicured, she was always was, my very beautiful little blonde angel.

Our childhood together was a really close one. We played many games together, with Heather tolerating my ambition to be a teacher through a series of play “classrooms” from the time when she could barely sit in our little wooden play chairs. She and all the teddies and dollies would be lined up learning about everything I’d learned at school the day before. She was so smart, she had no trouble learning at 3 what big sister was learning at 6! Playing school went really well UNTIL: one Christmas we both received new dolls. They were very special dolls because you could wash their hair, and they were made of soft plastic: not like our other dolls that were made from hard, breakable stuff. As usual, everyone who was “good” got a stamp on their forehead.  Usually these stamps would be washed off (well smeared off with a bit of spit if you really want to know the truth), but horror of horrors, the stamp ink soaked into the soft plastic, and there it stayed forever. Heather told me recently that that was the only thing she ever held against me…I guess I can live with not being forgiven for that one.

Other childhood things I remember are the many weddings we held of Heather and Johnnie Flett, the little boy down the road. She was so cute, we always made her the bride, and the “game” would go on sometimes for days. Heather and I recently tried to email “Johnnie”, who is now the Deputy Principal of our old High School.  Heather told me she didn’t get a reply, but I’m not really surprised, as the address we had was for replying about a school reunion, and was possibly not actually being read by John.  I guess his staff may have been a little too embarrassed to tell John that he had an email asking him for a divorce! Heather and I had a good giggle over that one.

I remember summer cricket with Bob, Heather and I using a fruit crate (wickets), a fence paling (bat), and a tennis ball. I remember the three of us digging an enormous hole in the backyard because we thought we could make our very own swimming pool. I remember us conning some visitors we weren’t that comfortable with into eating rotten apples dipped in mud as a treat. We were so amazed that they really ate them that we laughed for weeks afterwards. We had clubs in the shed and made perfume out of squashed roses….it astonished us that the neighbours weren’t keen when we tried to peddle our wares. That was also the day we got into lots of trouble because we discovered that if you rubbed bright red rose petals on the front verandah you could be quite an artist. The scrubbing brushes and Mum’s wrath weren’t quite so much fun afterwards.

There was bonfire night, but for the weeks that lead up to it there were lots of highly dangerous games that Bob lead us into, involving 1/2d, then penny, then 2d and 3d bungers. Heather was officially only allowed to “play” with tom thumbs and sparklers, but she got just as involved as Bob and I in devising ways to explode things into the air, make the biggest bangs possible, or see how much you lift with a rocket without it spinning sideways. In those days these were all considered “safe” things for us to play with, especially when we had the responsible guidance of Bob.

Until Heather was 10 years old, we shared a bedroom. . It was lovely to chat away after lights out, but we had to whisper very quietly in case we got sprung for staying awake. Sometimes the door would mysteriously glide open, and quick as a flash our heads would be under the covers.  Often before going to bed we would stand in front of the mirror and I would tell her stories about the two girls in there, and how they just copied us and weren’t a reflection at all. Sometimes when we weren’t looking they would have quite exceptional adventures. I’m sure she never really believed me, but she always humoured me and pretended. One of our favourite games was to see who could be the last one to say “good night”. This could go on for hours, because we would leave an increasing gap each time between saying it, just so the other one would fall asleep. Because Mum had devised and ingenious setup in the room so that we each had our own space…also known as the wardrobe down the middle trick…we couldn’t see one another, so we never actually knew if we had won….the other person could just be out-waiting us!

Heather was always incredibly smart. She learned to quote her notebooks books off by heart for exams in primary school; something I just seemed impossible to me.  Even though she was 6 years younger than Bob she could be relied upon to sit and listen as he excitedly told her about his new astronomical discoveries well after my own eyes had glazed over in trying to keep up.  Same with chess…I wouldn’t play him, because it was a foregone conclusion that I’d lose, but little Heather wasn’t so intimidated!

As we grew older, Heather blossomed into a very beautiful teenager.  She was confident and outgoing. I was so proud that my little sister had the confidence to do things that I could never do: she got involved in things like debating and public speaking, yet she was also accepted by the “cool” set at school. She had loads of friends, and knew how to make every one of them feel like they were special to her.

Heather was the perfect sixties teenager. She was built like Twiggy and looked wonderful in a mini-skirt, fabulous in a bikini, and sensational in a caftan. She had long blonde hair, and gorgeous blue eyes, but she was more than a pretty picture; she was smart and sassy and lots of fun to be with. We shared many secrets and many dreams in those teenage years. One secret revolved around a bottle of Bacardi Gold, some quick thinking by my friends and I, and a successful arrival home without anyone being the wiser. It also involved me wanting to shoot some of Heather’s teenage “friends” who had convinced her that Bacardi Gold wasn’t very potent, and should be drunk neat. Yeah, right!

When I married in 1972, one thing I was sad about was that Heather would not be moving with me. However, I should not have worried. She managed to befriend everyone in our (group) house and even though she was much younger, she managed to find herself staying over on regular occasions.  She was everyone’s little sister in that household, and now had 3 new “big brothers”. 

As life moved on, Heather became a caring auntie to my 3 children, Benny, Emma and Jarrad. There is lots to tell about that, but those are their stories, so I will leave it for them to write in their own ways.

And then….the greatest romance  of her lifetime began to unfold: her relationship with Roy. The first time I met Roy I understood why Heather found him so refreshing. Who else would turn up to my home in a boiler suit, with grease all over his hands, take one look at my heavily pregnant tummy and gleefully announce “Oh goodie. A baby! Can I have a feel?” Heather was in stitches, as she has been so many times since she met Roy. A perfect match was formed.

Over the following years, Heather and I have both lived in different cities, and often we would not see each other from year to year. However, in 1984, when I really needed a best friend, a minor miracle occurred, and who should turn up in Darwin for a 12 month contract, but Heather and Roy. Heather was there to listen and to support. She never judged, and was always supportive. It was just lovely to have her and Roy around me.

The following year Heather and Roy took off on the grand overseas trip, finally returning to Adelaide. Although we were a long way apart, and much time was spent between contacts, whenever there was a need to ring, the call could go on for hours. What school should Dylan go to? What do you think about this or that? And then off we would go on a long and involved catch up.

As some of you will know, last year our Mum became unwell. This was a time when Heather, Bob and I needed to keep in constant communication. Suddenly I was in daily contact with Heather. It was such a positive thing to have her there as we worked out how to be there for Mum and Dad, at the same time trying not to be any more intrusive than we needed to be. During this difficult time I realized once again how strong the bonds were between the 3 of us. Hard decisions and negotiations were shared and we fell back into working in a team as if we had never been apart. I realized how lucky I was to have Heather as a sister (and Bob as a brother). Even though many of our discussions were very serious, we always found easy agreement, and on the way remembered why we cared so much for one another.  We had lived different lives, but we shared the same essential values, and a commitment to bringing humour and common sense to even the most difficult of tasks.

In November last year Heather visited me in Cairns. It was such a delight to spend a few days with her, sharing my passion for the reef, and talking half the night about our memories, and the things that make us who we are. It was a joyful time for us both, full of humour, laughter and reminiscing. We met up again in December/January when, along with Bob (and partners Ian and Pilar) we tackled the difficult task of helping Mum and Dad downsize into a home that met their emerging health needs. Again we shared many memories as we packed, cleaned and sorted, and yet again we realized how much we gained from one another.

On Saturday I spoke with Heather for the very last time. Strangely, I remember that we spoke for exactly 38 minutes. She sounded so happy, as we chatted about life in general. She was looking forward to many things: her new job, travel, supporting Dylan through Year 12, and the special evening she had planned for Roy that night.

Somewhere along the line we also spoke about death, and about how she didn’t ever want to become afraid of dying.  There is something that the events that unfolded early Sunday morning that make me believe that her passing was at least how she would have wanted it to be.

Well, little sister, the game of saying goodnight is over. I said my last goodnight to you as you gently passed from this world on Wednesday morning. I was so glad I could be there to say goodnight just one more time.
Love forever,