Connie Johnson passed away on September 8th, 2017, after years plagued by a love-hate relationship with breast cancer.
“I hate cancer, but cancer loves me,” she said before her passing.
Her brother, Sam, told Mia Freedman on the day before her funeral that he didn’t want us to remember her as a hero. According to him, she wasn’t one. She was a normal human, who had breast cancer, which eventually overcame her.
She wasn’t a fighter, he said. Because the fight against cancer is never a fair one. She never stood a chance.
While we are more than willing to argue Connie’s ‘hero’ status with Sam, what’s inarguable is the legacy she’s left behind – a legacy encouraging mums and daughters and neighbours and work-mates all over Australia to check their boobs; a legacy being maintained by all the beautiful villagers at Love Your Sister.
Emma Rooke, Lucy Freeman, and Hilde Johnson are three of those Villagers. They made the difficult, yet professional, decision to remain entirely behind-the-scenes during Sam and Connie’s campaign to raise both money and awareness for breast cancer; entirely behind-the-scenes during the final days and weeks of her life, despite being three of the most important women in it.
Emma Rooke summarises Connie Johnson in three words: “Force of nature.”
Em’s been best friends with Connie since the age of 12, when she had her first run-in with cancer. Connie and Emma met directly after Connie’s final round of childhood chemotherapy treatment.
Listen: Emma Rooke speaks beautifully of her time with Connie with Mia Freedman below. Post continues after audio…
“It [cancer] has always been our life. Even after the last chemo had happened she was still a cancer kid,” Rooke says.
“All of the appointments, we would do them together. All the treats that cancer kids get… I got them all too.”
They worked together at the local IGA, earning $50 each week, before building a small second-hand book empire from the Johnson family business. They had a shop called Flinders Books, on Flinders Street in Melbourne, and Em lived above the store.
Then, however, came Connie’s final cancer diagnosis. Em remembers it well.
“Right from the start, they were going to treat to cure… she’d beaten it twice. It was like, ‘we’ve been down this road before, here we go again’.”
Em goes on, “She went to her final chemo appointment, and they said ‘You’re all good, you’ve completed your chemo, congratulations. Off you go, you’ve done it again’.”
“She reminded them that they’d planned to do one final body scan on her to check a spot on her lung… the results of that scan were, ‘It’s metastasised. You’re terminal’.”
According to Em, Connie always regretted reminding the pathologists about that final scan. If she hadn’t, her final years may have been cancer free. At least, psychologically so.
Emma Rooke, as well as being Connie's best friend, was also her carer in the final months of her life. She'd take Connie out in her wheelchair, and sit by her bedside.
"We had two halves of a brain between us, and she [Connie] had the good half. I'm stuffed, now."
No one is closer to the Johnson family in a business sense than Lucy Freeman.
We use the term 'business' loosely, of course, because Love Your Sister is in fact a charity. It's growth and development, however, from bubbling idea to international brand, is far from charity-like. Lucy is one of the brains behind it, and knew Sam long before she met Connie.
"I met Connie at a dinner, at her place," Lucy says. "There were other people there... slowly people started to leave until it was just Connie and I on the patio, doing one of those chats you do until three in the morning."
"What struck me about that night... was her ability to listen. I was sharing a personal, sad story from my life... she actually inspired you to confide in her, and she would confide in you."
Lucy goes on, "She's actually very intense... as much as she's visionary, and funny, and fun, and witty... she's also very deep."
Connie, according to Lucy, struggled with being so sick during Love Your Sister's exponential growth. She struggled being the source of ideas and strategies and innovations while being bed-ridden, unable to help execute them.
Lucy says her relationship with Sam was, sometimes, a coarse one. They had very similar ideas, according to Lucy, but very different ways of executing them. "They could really thrash things out, like any brother and sister who really communicate."
"All of our relationships transcend that."
Listen: Mia also interviewed Sam Johnson the day prior to the funeral. Listen below. Post continues after audio...
Hilde is the most interesting Johnson sibling. Almost 10 years older than Sam and Connie, she took on somewhat of a 'motherly' role to both of them growing up.
"We didn't have a TV growing up, so it was all board games and bike rides." They were incredibly close, according to Hilde. So much so that Connie decided to move out of home and live with her for a while during her teenage years.
Except when Connie chose to go public with her terminal cancer diagnosis... Hilde was more or less hidden behind a curtain. And, as she says in her interview with Mia, that was entirely deliberate.
"I chose to take a back seat... but obviously very supportive from the background."
"We're both very passionate people," Hilde says of Connie. "Having her during those teenage years and being her primary caregiver... we'd laugh, we'd cry, we'd fight, we'd make up. A really strong bond."
"She just achieved so much."
Hilde was forced to take on a maternal role with Connie when their mother's mental health began to deteriorate. "I was about 11," says Hilde. "I thought I was all grown up... I was very protective over them [Sam and Connie]."
"I always called them 'the kids' 'cos they were so little compared to me."
In Connie's final hours, Hilde was there around the clock.
"I didn't leave her side. It was a bit of a family vigil. She was in very poor health, but still smiling, and listening. We all just sat around, and reminisced," she says.
"We snuck a beer into the hospice and had a cheers to her OAM, which was a very special moment. We had half an hour after that before she finally went to sleep."
Listen to Mia Freedman's full interview with Em, Lucy and Hilde below.