real life

A letter to my sister on the birthday she never had

Francesca and Isabella

Francesca died of inexplicable heart failure at the age of 19. She was fit and healthy but she died in her sleep after a hike with her school group in Wales where she was a GAP student. The coroner found that it was likely it was owing to myocarditis plus possible underlying cardiomyopathy. This is a letter to her from her sister Isabella on her 21st birthday which would have been today…..

My darling Francesca,

Today you would be twenty-one years old, and you can’t be here to see just how thrilled and proud I am for my little sister.

Today I am loving you with every fibre of love I have in me. I want to hold you close, press you into me, and whisper in your wavy brown hair that I am so happy you’re in my life. I want most of all for you to be here to feel everything everyone has felt for since you died.


You deserve to be celebrated today, Frannie, because you would hate to see us all in tears. You deserve to be celebrated today, Frannie, because you deserved so much.

Every day we ache for you. For nearly two years, wherever I am, at parties, train carriages, restaurants, airports, music festivals and the kitchen at work I have glanced around and wondered who else might be aching inside and concealing their tangible grief with a learned veneer.  Maybe they are going through something that weighs heavily on them too. Life can be sharp and wretched, fraught with illness, break ups, evictions and loss. When someone is rude or spiteful to me, in between the part where I think they are being a total wanker and where I want to walk away, I remind myself to be more forgiving because of you. Because despite all of it, you remind me that life has once been, and can be all over again, just so beautiful, comfortable and happy.

Frannie, you were the best someone a someone could ever wish for. Your unwavering kindness, generosity, palpable love and happiness burst out of you for nineteen years, relentlessly pushing everything good into our lives. I want to tell you what we would do for you today if you were here, I want to illustrate in only the brightest colours what your twenty-first birthday would have looked like today.

You would have woken up in your college at uni, to a room filled with balloons, sequins and glitter strewn everywhere, with your laughing friends, shrieking and clambering all over you in bed. Poached eggs, stewed fruit on creamy porridge and all that follows would be on the menu for breakfast with these friends, where you would sit back from and say, ‘Do you taste vanilla bean in this? What about this? Coriander?’ wondering how you could recreate that dish at home.

Throughout the afternoon you would be fielding loving phone calls from your doting school friends, your family and our Dad, concreting further celebrations. Your lectures would be skipped and you would come home to our house in Geelong. Would you catch the train from Southern Cross or would you have a car? Would you drive? I think you’d have borrowed a friend’s car. You were casual like that.


As you would pull at the house our dog Romy would come bouncing down the driveway, leaping up to the car wagging her tail to see the birthday girl inside laughing. Once you had turned off the ignition you would slowly open the driver’s door ajar, until Romy, whining, would push her honeyed muzzle in and press her wet nose against your dress, licking away. She’d scramble up on the seat and we would watch you up at the house, laughing in the car and yelling out something we couldn’t quite hear. Slowly you would pull yourself out of the car, we would see your legs first – everyone saw those first – stretching lazily out in their lengthy wonder with a pair of ankle boots affixed to your long feet. Then your willowy figure would follow, a bright dress billowing against your body, clutching your Arabella Ramsay jacket bringing your whole birthday outfit together. We would walk towards you, arms outstretched, grinning and say ‘Happy Birthday, Birthday girl!’ as we hugged you tightly and take whatever you are carrying off you, Romy rolling around in utter joy at our feet. As we would draw near the house, the smell of lamb roast would catch the warm air from the kitchen where mum has been preparing a feast for your special day. You would begin hopping into the homemade pumpkin dip mum has laid out with cheeses, fig paste, toasted flat bread, olives, dolmades and grilled eggplant.

And as you would be eagerly eating, just as mum would be saying ‘just remember, there’s loads for dinner, so don’t eat too much,’ just as I would be watching you smiling giddily at being back home with so much to celebrate, Salvador would pour you a glass of champagne. Mum would say, ‘I think it is time for a toast,’ and through our outstretched smiles she would raise a glass.

‘A very happy birthday to you darling, we are so lucky to have you.’

So for the rest of your day and my life I hold you in my heart and remember that you were the greatest gift of all. We are so lucky to have had you, Frannie. Happy Birthday.

Isabella has just moved to Sydney to be a bit braver. She keeps herself busy working in television production, writing away and eating nutella out of the jar.

How do you celebrate the life of someone who is no longer here ?

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