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Donkin's World: I Remember My Mother Crying Out

"Writing this now has been the hardest thing.'' writes Richard Donkin, telling of a great loss on a never-to-be-forgotten day.

Forty-four years ago today my sister Janet died. She was twenty years old. I remember my mother crying out when she found her in the morning on the bedroom floor. Someone, my father or mother, picked her up and put her back in bed. She must have died in the early hours. It was Ascension Day.

My brother drove our blue Ford Popular around to Auntie Joyce’s house. We gave my auntie back the puppy she thought we needed and which she'd given to us a few days earlier. That pup was blamed for everything. Janet had not wanted it but she’d been overruled and now she was dead.

When we returned my father was sobbing in a chair by the door, crying out loud, saying there was no God. Repeating it over and over. My mother was always the strongest. People, neighbours, came calling but I was sent to school. I sat at my desk and could not speak to anyone.

It was the day that the eleven plus results were announced in my school year. The teacher, Mrs Tattersfield, sat at the front of the class and children went to her individually to get their results. I did not.

This was the biggest day in my school life. The day when I would be told whether I was on the secondary modern scrap heap or whether I’d won the chance to better myself in grammar school.

In time Mrs Tattersfield came to my desk and bent over me. “Don’t you want to know your result?” she said. I nodded, yes. “You’ve passed for grammar school. Well done,” she said.

I’m not sure when it was the school heard about Janet or when I returned home. It should have been a day for celebration. But the one person I wanted to tell, the one who would have been most proud, wasn’t there.

Janet too had been to grammar school. She understood its importance in a way that escaped my parents’ understanding. I didn’t blame them. They’d made their way in life through the depression and then the war years when money was tight and education was a luxury their parents couldn’t afford for their children.

“She’d have been so happy,” said mum.

I’m not a religious person. I don’t think Janet is up there looking down. But I like to think some part of her is alive in me. It’s not something I’ve discussed with my brother. It’s not something we can discuss. But I know he carries her torch just the same. That thought is what keeps me striving creatively, always trying to improve, not for me, but for her.

I don’t miss her now so much. I have her photograph by me on my table and the odd memento such as her pencil case. I have those and just a few sparsely furnished memories – like the way she would stand behind the couch resting on her elbows. Sitting for her was uncomfortable. She wore steel callipers to strengthen her legs and a leather jacket to support her curved spine. That’s what polio can do to a person.

She and Philip, my brother, would fight. She would fight with my mother. I think Janet was clever but I can’t remember the things she would say and I no longer have my mother or father to remind me.

For twenty years or more my memories of her were buried and not shared. I could not share them. When, finally, I did, some, even close friends, would often be surprised to find I’d had a sister. Writing this now has been the hardest thing.

She was just three-years-old, on holiday in Bridlington with mum and dad when she contracted polio, a water-born disease. It was touch and go but she survived. She was in an iron lung for a while. I had no idea that the disease had left her with just the one lung. She died when her surviving lung collapsed.

Exactly when or how it happened, we didn't know. The doctor said it was always going to happen one day. But my mum fretted over the way that Janet had been found. “She must have been trying to call out to us,” she said.

Janet was severely disabled and yet I did not notice her disabilities as anything odd or anything to stare at. She was Janet. Sometimes since, I’ve wondered how it must have been for her at art college, living the life of a teenager in the swinging sixties. I know she had a Beatle cut.

She had good friends too and a good employer in the West Riding Building Society. Janet was a gifted artist and qualified for a career in art and design. But there wasn’t much call for that in Dewsbury where we lived, and leaving home for Leeds or London was out of the question.

I admire my parents for giving her the life she had. Mum and dad were heroes, real heroes. They were heroes because they brought up a happy household where we all felt special. It was tougher, I know, for my brother who was closer to Janet in age. But Philip did all right. We all did.

I wish our children had known her. She had a wisdom beyond her years. But she's the aunt they never knew.

All lives start and end in dates on the calendar. This one, May 23rd, is Janet's.


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