I realise that it is almost Remembrance Day, 11 November, when we commemorate our war dead, but I’d like to remember my sister Kathy on what would have been her 70th birthday, 9 November 2021. Her life was cut short by cancer at the age of 35, so she has now been dead almost as long as she was alive.
Inevitably one remembers the last few years, from the shock of diagnosis, the determined liveliness that followed, before the gradual shedding of her powers that led inexorably towards her parting. She died at home, very early on the morning of 2 January 1987, surrounded by family. She spent much of her illness at home on the farm, running a Christmas tree business and travelling to Hungary with our mother for a last adventure. The house almost became a hotel, with streams of Kathy’s friends visiting her, usually with a challenging range of special dietary requirements that Mum gallantly catered for.
We didn’t have an easy relationship. Kathy was feisty and contrary, bright and adventurous and she thought I was the most boring, unimaginative person alive, contentedly plodding along life’s conventional track. It’s true that I had it easy – she was 12 years my senior and shook our parents to the core with her tempestuous and unconventional nature. She blazed a trail that handed me freedoms that she had had to fight for. I was in awe of her and some of her ardent feminism rubbed off on me, along with her outrage at injustice to the vulnerable and dispossessed.
Kathy travelled widely, doing whatever work she could find. She worked in Falkirk as a seed potato inspector and she also lived in Leith for a while in the 1970s. I work at a clinic in Leith – now the swanky port area of Edinburgh but in those days a slum following the decline of its industries (whaling, lead, herring fishing, shipbuilding). Leithers are a proud and independent people, with an international outlook and culture, probably making Kathy feel quite at home. Latterly Kathy lived overseas, in Hong Kong and Egypt, after training as a teacher of English as a foreign language. Egypt and Arabic fascinated her and it was when she was studying Arabic and Islamic Studies at Durham University that she was diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer. She completed her degree, gaining a 2.2 in spite of feeling extremely unwell. Her ambition had been to go to Yemen to work with women’s groups there but her illness denied her this opportunity.
She never married or had children and I wonder whether she would have been a perpetual nomad, had she lived. Friends and boyfriends were fiercely loyal to her but she was restless, always had itchy feet. I also wonder if she would have mellowed at all. I sort of hope not – I can picture her campaigning for refugees, or women’s rights, determined to make the world a better place. I’d like to think she’s resting in peace, but that’s not really her style.