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Writing My Sister

My sister died suddenly on 5 April. This blog was going to be about the ways I get myself writing. The analogies I find helpful. Tech, for example: harder to reboot, better to keep it going all the time, in any way you can. Remind yourself you are writing a lot of the time. Remind yourself that doing a bit is easier than worrying about not doing it. ‘Chip away’, I tell myself, or ‘just sketch’.

Then this terror. Losing my glorious Helen. 40 years old. Playwright, actor, reader, political thinker; Film, TV, History buff, to name but a few aspects of her.

I think (I can’t be certain of much at the moment) the training helped. I began writing my grief almost immediately. As a test, at first, to see if it was still what I’d always needed: a way to reach clarity. A way to turn the bad, sad stuff into art. Someone said ‘Words don’t cover it’ but highly intelligent friends said things that were so exact, so perfect, I wrote them down. Still, if not enjoying, called by the hardworking writer in me to record the exquisite language, often metaphorical, people have been giving to me, helping me to define.

Helen wrote and wrote and wrote. Her flatmate James told me that six to eight months ago Helen was writing a new play. That she had strutted through the flat, turned to announce ‘James, I’ve just killed three people’, having written out three characters. Proud of her power.

At her memorial, her college drama teacher spoke of her elaborate imagination relishing the challenge of inventing backstories for even the smaller roles. James Peries, her theatre writing mentor, read extracts of speeches from two of her plays.

Her characters were troubled, earthy, wild. A soldier with PTSD who becomes a hoarder and finds a child among the milk bottles. A hermit growing all her own food—a part James read from, including her stage directions:

A plot of tilled land. Birdsong. Rustling of trees. In the centre is an ancient and gnarled tree. The land is covered in potato plants, half of them upturned for harvest.

VOICE: The old Gods didn’t die… They hid… Took solace in the forests where they were born… In the minds of man… Where old fears create new monsters… and new masters… But an immortal thing has no death to comfort it.

And later in the play:

There is a large basket of apples in the foreground. The HERMIT is digging up potatoes. She talks to them as she works. 

HERMIT: See you here my spirits? See these good works? Here’s a harvest of rewards and no mistaking. Into the earth we go, and back from it we come. Life reorganised, rejuvenated and reformed. Look you, you are born again.

Two darting starlings have just landed in our garden. I can see them through the knackered French doors we really need to replace. I am still confused about what we will do with my sister’s wealth of plays, several of which were put on in venues in Bristol and Bath, some performed by the St Paul’s Players, of which Helen was a member. Her words, the quality of which I wish I’d enjoyed and celebrated more (she sent me play scripts and I didn’t read them, told her I wanted to see them on stage) need to be heard, watched; those elaborate, poetic, sometimes fantastical stage directions realised.

We thought the starlings had abandoned the street after a loft conversion in one of the houses where they nested in the eaves. Today, I will continue to chip away, to sketch the long poem I’ve been writing about my father, who has late-stage dementia. He and Helen were mad about each other. Like Helen, he has (had? We are between tenses) a magnificent mind. I was grieving for my dad. My partner said people find relief in work. My grief for my dad filled me, was all over me. Now, my poem about him feels like a separate space. Somewhere I can go to, to get away from this.

I will write a collection about my darling sister. I am already sketching. But I’m not ready to compose the poems yet. She soaked up more culture in 40 years than most do in lifetimes. Passionate about nature. Always over-excited. Her riches greet me everywhere. That’s enough–painful enough–for now.

In June, I teach my course with the Poetry School: ‘Playing With Fire’. One of the collections I draw from for example poems is Christina Thatcher’s poetry collection How To Carry Fire, which depicts her brother’s addiction. I reviewed the collection for the journal Poetry Wales and Christina will be one of the first poets I send my new collection Cormorant to.

Cormorant will not include poems about Helen. She will be a collection—nothing less will do. Cormorant celebrates both Bristol and the gorgeous garden centre in The Forest of Dean where we grew up and where we held Helen’s memorial. There are lockdown poems and poems about my father. As I finish the last few poems, as I edit and edit again, the loss of Helen will be there. In an increased boldness, I hope. Some experimental lineation. A greater trust in the strength of my words, the strength of white space.

Christina’s collection contains some of the most poignant lines of poetry I’ve ever read and felt, lines I reach for when I need to bring my grief to the surface. ‘What If’ is a poem I reached for soon after it happened, and reach for still:

What if you forget the fires we’ve seen,
how we fought them, and I am left
here to remember it all
on my own?

My youngest sister Clare and I were distraught at Helen’s cremation. We both cried out as the Eurythmics song ‘The Miracle of Love’ was played, while photos of an exuberant Helen were shown on a large screen. The one with her in tinted shades and army cap, her hand on a pint on a pub table, her expression – the open-mouthed grin she did when both shocked and delighted – hit me every time it appeared. We grew up listening to Queen, Elvis Costello, The Beatles, Eurythmics Greatest Hits, Dire Straits, The Lovers compilation album, to name but a few. At the might of Annie Lennox’s voice, Clare doubled over and I held her. Then came the poignant delicacy of David Gray’s ‘This Year’s Love’, which Helen sang in her college concert, and which, again, drew it up and out of us.

I will reach for these songs. I will reach for Christina’s lines. I will reach for Shakespeare, who, like me, Helen has (had?) always loved and can (could?) quote.

I will reach for Helen, in all the things she loved. I will reach for her with words, which, like me, she revelled in.

Elizabeth Parker is teaching ‘Playing with Fire’ this Summer term, which consists of 2 Half-day Zoom sessions, running 10.30am–1pm (BST), on 1 & 8 July 2023. Find out more and sign up here.

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