Since Connie Johnson died of cancer just over a week ago, a lot of people have been worrying about her brother Sam. How is he coping? Is he OK? What will he do now that she’s gone? In the past few years, while Sam and Connie were the public faces of Love Your Sister, Sam has become like Australia’s little brother. Women feel protective of him and never more so than right now in the days after Connie’s death.
Of course, Sam isn’t the only one who is grieving. There is a much larger family and, indeed, an entire village of half a million supporters behind the scenes who loved – and still love – Connie as fiercely as he did and feel just as gutted by her loss. Connie had a husband, two sons, a sister, another brother, three nephews and a best friend who was also her carer. All of these people have forged the tightest of bonds around Australia’s most famous cancer patient – as Sam has often referred to Connie.
Yesterday, as her family and closest friends prepared for Connie’s private funeral that will be held today in Canberra and the public service this coming Saturday in Melbourne, Sam invited me over to the house in Canberra where he was staying for a chat and to meet some of the women in Connie’s too-short life.
I was nervous about intruding at a really painful and emotional time for the family. But Sam, once he's decided he trusts you and he's going to bring you into his circle, he's all in. And so he was. He looks exhausted. How could he not. But his signature energy is undimmed. His light is not out. In fact, he's more fired up than I've ever seen him. The laughter, the tears, the passion.....it's all on display because Sam knows no other way to be. And he has work to do.
My producer Elissa and I sat around a table with Sam and with Connie's best friend Em and another close friend, Lucy, and we spoke about Connie for hours. About her life, her death, what those last days and final moments were like and what the world feels like now, without Connie in it.
They schooled me on what not to say: "If one more person says, 'I'm sorry for your loss...." Sam and Em said. But why is that bad? I asked. "Because she's not gone!" they both insisted. “Just because I can’t do another midnight phone-call, doesn’t mean I have lost her,” Sam said. “I feel like she’s in me now…I know it sounds weird but…I feel stronger.”
And please don't call Connie a warrior. “It’s not a journey. It’s not a battle. She wasn’t a warrior,” Sam told me. “She used to say ‘I’m not a fucking warrior Sam, I didn’t choose this battle. How can you be a warrior if you didn’t select? If you’ve been conscripted?" And later, "Don't mythologise her, she would have hated it."
It was a riveting rollercoaster of an afternoon. Sam showed me the video of Connie accepting her Order of Australia from the Governor General in an incredibly moving bedside ceremony just hours before she died and we all cried.
Sam and Em told me stories about how stubborn Connie could be and we laughed. Sam has one of those deep, infectious laughs and actually throws his head back when he does it. He told me about the unknown toll on Connie's family, the less than pretty parts of what goes on behind the scenes when someone is fighting cancer, the tricks her family used to keep her motivated and looking to the future and what his future might look like after the death of his beloved Connie Cottonsocks.
Throughout our time together, Sam was raw - he’s always raw, that’s just him - but as usual, he was incredibly articulate and passionate and generous with sharing how he’s feeling.
He had a lot to say and you’re going to want to hear it.
If you want to hear more about Sam’s life, you can listen to the original No Filter I did with him in May.
If you’re feeling a bit sad and you want to maybe boost your spirits Mamamia Out Loud is doing a live show.
The award-winning podcast Mamamia Out Loud is doing their first live show. There will be laughs, disagreements and you can meet the hosts afterwards! We’re also donating $5 of every ticket price to Share The Dignity so grab your friends and come along to share the love and laughs, get your tickets here.