I got the call from my mum on a friend's hen do. "It's really serious, Cheri. You need to come home." With a borrowed bag of clothes from my best friend, the next morning I travelled back to Norfolk from the sticky nightclubs of Birmingham.
Carly was (the past tense still gets me) my elder sister by 10 years. Growing up, I was in awe of her. She was the cool kid at school while I was painfully bookish and bullied. She was a party girl, a hedonistic dreamer and a huge music fan. Born to the anthemic sounds of "Bohemian Rhapsody", it seemed fitting that one of her biggest loves was Freddie Mercury. I bawled my eyes out watching the biopic in the cinema at the end of last year, partly because she wasn’t here to enjoy it and partly in the whimsical hope that they might both be out there somewhere doing an all-nighter.
On the way to the hospital, I had such grand visions of all the things I wanted to say to Carly because, at that point in my life, I'd only been faced with death in the movies. Teary-eyed viewings of The Notebook, watching an elderly couple say their last goodbyes together in a hospital ward. I would ask her about my niece and nephew, what she might want for their future without her in it. What I could do to look after them and to make sure they remember her. But when I arrived at the ward, her form was fading and she could only just accept the ice cube the nurse applied on her lips, let alone any last wise words. After arriving home on Sunday, we lost Carly the following Tuesday.
Chat turned from sentiment to money and how we would fund the funeral because, of course, she had nothing set aside. She was 38 and full of life.
There's so much of those few days that I don’t really recall. Time existing but all of us just sort of draped in this thick cloud of fog. Chat turned from sentiment to money and how we would fund the funeral because, of course, she had nothing set aside. She was 38 and full of life.
When I returned to work, I started to see the first of three therapists to talk through my experiences. The first therapist, though, was too motherly and my feelings too raw, holed up in some small studio in Bermondsey with a box of unused tissues.
In the summer of 2015, a year after losing Carly, I moved jobs from agency life into the not-for-profit sector in a bid to make something positive out of something so devastating. I began working in the digital department of Breast Cancer Care, the UK’s only support charity for people affected by breast cancer. Faced with stories of women affected by breast cancer every day, I felt spurred on to seek out therapist number two. Her name was Donna. Donna was far more direct and encouraged me to channel my feelings into a form I felt comfortable with: journalling.
I’d often write on my way back to Norfolk on a rickety National Express to see my family, an arduous and emotional journey. It was all a bit of a blur. My mum kept the curtains shut while I made copious cups of tea. At our first Christmas without Carly, we deliberated about setting a place for her at the table, which felt both obvious in a way so as not to exclude her but also strangely morbid to honour that gaping hole. Whenever I went out for supplies, I would catch the shop assistants staring at me and I’d know what they were thinking. It was a small place, news travelled fast and most of them probably had children in the same school as my niece and nephew.
For a long time after that, I channelled my energy into areas that needed it. I was overly conscious about my health, taking on weekly water workouts despite being the youngest attendee in my class by about 30 years. I started fundraising. I hosted, I baked, I walked in memory. I even started running, much to the hilarity of my mum who commented on one Facebook post about whether those were actually my trainers (I was notoriously terrible at sport growing up, especially cross country – I would often feign debilitating period cramps just to avoid the dreadful trek across the school pitch).
Some friends stopped texting or checking in. Others shone brighter and kept me going in the darkest of times.
When I posted my fundraising pages online, I felt vulnerable being so open about everything that had happened. But it also connected me to some incredible women who had faced similar heartache, particularly with ovarian cancer. I was ruthless with my time. After losing Carly, I didn’t have the energy for social drains – those kinds of friends who would suck from your positivity reserves without giving anything back when yours were low. Some people I thought would always be there faded away. Unsure of how to deal with the subject, they stopped texting or checking in. Others shone brighter and kept me going in the darkest of times, sending small memories of Carly from our teenage years that I could daydream over.
It was difficult dealing with something so intimate in a world where everything is immediately validated by sharing it online. On anniversary days – her birthday or another year without her – I would feel isolated from my family, not just because of the physical distance from Norwich to London but because I wasn’t acting in the same way as everyone else. While other family members, including my niece and nephew, were updating their status with milestones of grief, I was drawing into myself. Heading out into a wide open space with Queen’s A Night At The Opera in my headphones. Some people I meet nowadays will never know Carly existed and I think that’s the hardest realisation of all. But I know she's here.
At the end of last year, I moved to the seaside. I’d always wanted to and losing Carly at such a young age made me so desperate to live in the moment. None of us knows what’s around the corner and that thought is both terrifying and like a fire in my gut. I have so much I want to achieve, not only for me but for her. Over the next decade – all being well – I will move past the point that Carly got to in life. My rock and roll, rebel sister tactfully evaded ever getting old but for me now, ageing is a luxury.