My Little Sister

Heather came home from hospital in early November, 1955. It was a really exciting time, because Mum and Dad had been building us up for the event for ages; Anne and I were all agog with this new friend we were going to have to play with. We couldn’t wait for her to grow up.

The next few years are a confused blur; I have various fragmentary recollections of the gang of three of us playing cowboys, climbing the apple tree, going to Sunday school together etc. But one thing that stands out very clearly was Heather’s huge tolerance, when her swotty brother got enthusiastic about some new aspect of history or science, to join in the enthusiasm. I think she has continued this trait throughout her life – she has always been a good listener, interested and intuitive. I also recall teaching her chess when she was maybe six years old – and promptly getting fools-mated!

But even so, the six years’ difference in our ages limited our interactions, and once I went off to university, and then to England, I had very limited contact with Heather. So it was a really big surprise, when I came back to Australia in 1976 and stayed with her for a few weeks, to find a mature young woman with her own views on life, deeply held convictions, and a love of intellectual and practical discussion. It was at that time she stopped being just my little sister, and became as well a dearly loved friend. Heather was always adventurous, and she introduced me to a wide range of new experiences, from yoga to folk music, both of which have subsequently helped to form my life.

Soon after, she met Roy, and I vividly recall my first introduction to the long-haired, truck-driving, toolkit-wielding doctor, and wondering what my parents were going to make of him. I also recall wonderful camping weekends with Heather and Roy down on Long Plain Rd, Roy’s bushland retreat (and a weekend of mixing concrete for a floor pour – I don’t think my muscles have ever been so sore). During that time, we learnt to ski together, and one of my clearest memories is of Heather learning a cross-country-ski step turn (a complicated manoeuvre, requiring one ski to be lifted high in the air, a 180 degree body twist, and the ski brought back down). Heather did the classic beginner mistake, lifting and turning the wrong leg. This normally leads to a rapid loss of dignity through the body’s attempts to avoid the twist by falling face-first into the snow. Heather’s remarkable flexibility made light of it, she stood there for a few moments enjoying the twist, then nonchalantly lifted her ski and untwisted herself; anyone who has ever been in this predicament will know just how difficult this is.

Heather and Roy moved to Adelaide, and my contacts became more episodic and concentrated, though at that time we started having relatively infrequent, but always enjoyable, three-hour phone chats, and perhaps really came to know each other properly. These came into special focus a few years later on my marriage breakdown, when Heather’s warm concern, combined with her deep insights into human relationships, helped me to make sense of my own life and to work out where I was going. This always seemed to me one of Heather’s most remarkable qualities – the way she combined warmth and sympathy with a rational, structured approach to relationships.

Heather and Roy’s wedding was a truly romantic occasion, pledging their vows at dawn hundreds of metres out to sea on a jetty, in the presence of their friends and a group of shark fishermen, and sharing the champagne with the fishermen. They were supposed to arrive at the wedding in a tri-shaw, but the tri-shaw was stolen the night before; characteristically, it didn’t faze them, they accepted such matters with good humour, and adapted so quickly others barely realised there had been a change.

After that, the story becomes partly Heather and Roy as a couple, sharing their lives with Dylan, their succession of wonderful houses, each of which became a haven of warmth and love – the Military Rd sandstone cottage, the ocean views from Northhaven, and then their wonderful old farm house on the beach at Tennyson. I always loved visiting, and came away refreshed, and usually with my perspectives on life broadened, by spending time with them.

Around 1990, Heather came along on a ski trip to Falls Creek I organised with my folk music friends; it stunned me how rapidly Heather was able to join a tight group of friends and become one of them, my friends always asking after her when we meet.

In the last few years, Heather has been working hard on her PhD, facing and overcoming both academic and political hurdles. She spent two months in Nambour resettling my parents, a task that took a big toll on her, but also helped the three of us to become closer together. The courage with which she faced this task was truly impressive.

Most of all, Heather was adventurous. I think this grew slowly, I don’t recall her as enormously courageous when she was a child, but as an adult, no place was too obscure for Heather to go visit. Roy has more detailed stories about this, but from my perspective, it was just so amazing to hear about all the places they had been, or were going soon.

Characteristically, Heather’s last email barely a week ago, was about helping me to get tamiflu in case bird flu hit Korea, and about taking Roy to see more of Singapore because he was working too hard. That’s Heather – making sure that things work out for everyone, and doing something about it. Concern plus efficiency.

It will take a while to stop thinking “Oh, I’ll just call Heather about that”, but she’ll always be there in my heart, inspiring me to think more deeply about assumptions and about personal relationships, and about courage. I’m missing you, little sister, more than words can say.