Friday, 30 December 2016

Esther's Story

This is one of the latest pictures of Esther, the guide dog who was bought with some of the proceeds from the estate left by my sister.  She came to visit my parents just before Christmas.

Esther's eulogy, that I read at her burial, is so personal that maybe I thought it wasn't meant for a wider audience than those around her grave. I've said before that Blogland is a sanitised version of real life and I reflect deeply about what I choose to write. Yet after much um-ing and ah-ing over several months I've decided that it needs to be shared.  For  the story of this highly unusual life is part of her legacy from which  others might take inspiration.  It is the most important piece I've ever written.  I like to think that, we as a family, in piecing together the memories, did my sister proud.

The Eulogy of Esther Harris 1969-2016

This eulogy is based on the shared memories that Mum, Dad, my brother Paul and I, as her sister, have of Esther’s  life.    I am honoured to be able to speak today on our family's behalf.

My first encounter with my sister was in a children’s home in Westcliff when she was a baby.  I still remember her beauty and that she was wearing a yellow hand crocheted outfit when we went there to bring her home to live with us.  She must have been about four months old.   My sister was originally called Sarah but her name was changed to Esther, when she was adopted. It was also the name of my Nan, another woman who, in her time, bucked trends.

As siblings we had our own very different strengths.  I showed academic promise.  Paul, my brother has been an outstanding artist from an early .age.  Yet we were all in awe too of Esther’s amazing ability for common sense and prowess in the practical.  She was incredibly skilled in many different areas, a talented cook, gardener and craftswoman. I have never yet mastered how to throw a pot on a wheel but Esther did this with ease and made a teapot soon after she started classes.

In contrast to her personality as an adult Esther was an outgoing child.  Paul remembers how she used to sing to the people who worked in the greengrocer’s shop that we visited.  I remember that we used to wear hand me down clothes from our cousin.  Esther was particularly taken by a very ‘70s jumpsuit and would wear it to impersonate  Freddie Mercury singing  ‘We are the Champions’.  The music that I will play in a moment is influenced by this memory and  has also been chosen as it reflects the feelings of someone at the end of a life shortened by tragic illness.

Esther had incredible recall of childhood events.   Our mum, who is, to this day, very chatty, made up stories.  My sister was very fond of these.  She also remembered many of Mum’s comments as she went about  her daily life. For example, all of us were brought up from an early age to be respectful of nature.   Esther was particularly taken with a phrase that Mum uses:  'The bees like it'.  We are keen that this should be incorporated into a memorial to her in accordance with her wishes.

Yet it was during early years that Esther started to become troubled.  The support for adopted children and their new families was non-existent in those days.  How can being rejected at birth not take a toll?  The seventies was also a time when prejudice against minorities was overt and tolerated to a far greater extent than today. From an early age my sister experienced cruelty  because of her colour and this began to take a lasting toll on her mental health.

My mum was very adamant that I should talk about how compassionate and kind Esther was and I am so happy to be able to do this.  When she has been well enough my sister has impacted positively on the lives of others and had a special affinity to those, like herself, who have been  marginalised in society.  She left home at sixteen to work as a carer in London but was unable to sustain this due to illness.  However  it was then that she started to demonstrate a theme that was repeated throughout her life. This was a determination to rise back up and do good.  She went on to volunteer for the Terence Higgins Trust.  After returning to Southend she worked for several years at the ‘Growing Together’ project, a garden open to the public.  It was there that she found that she had an aptitude for working with people with learning difficulties.    But it was at the Salvation Army’s Hadleigh Farm that she found a real sense of belonging.  There, Esther used her incredible ability to teach and guide those with special needs so that they were able to find meaningful employment.  I was very touched to see cards from trainees at the centre when I was with my sister in the hospice.  These were with her at the end of her life and meant a lot to her. We, as a family would like to give those that Esther trained our heartfelt thanks.  For she felt safe with people like you and you brought out the best in her.

Although my sister was shy she was outwardly flamboyant in the way that she dressed and presented herself. Her dreadlocks combined with the distinctive tattoos on the side of the head were part of her identity.  The more recent tattoo of a hare that she had on her scalp when she lost her hair to cancer treatment seemed to be a symbol representing both her courage and her humour.  My brother reminded me how she used to travel the tube in an Army surplus jacket with a toy parrot sewn on her shoulder.  And I thought that I dressed to stand out!  When I was with her for a few days before she died the first thing that she wanted to tell me about was the dress with skulls and roses that she had ordered to wear to my Paul’s wedding.   She was going to  set  it off with a purple bowler hat.   Sadly Esther died three days before  Paul got married.  She is being buried in the outfit that meant so much to her and many of us today are joining her in being colourful.

At times when Esther was well she achieved a great deal, for example studying horticulture and being accepted onto a social work course.  She also embarked on a trip around the world even though her eyesight was failing her.  She was so excited for me and my son Louis last year when we went to Vancouver as she had such fond memories of that city. In spite of setting off with trepidation she met many good people on her journey and formed a close friendship with a  handsome Maori in New Zealand.  At one time she was very overweight but had the determination to lose over twelve stone after which she maintained a daily exercise habit.   She viewed cancer as especially cruel as it hit at a time when she was trying to live such a healthy lifestyle.

This eulogy would not be complete if we did not acknowledge the impact of the  severe mental illness that Esther endured during large parts of her life.  It affected her ability to work, her self esteem and at times made it difficult for even those who loved her to sustain a satisfactory relationship.  It led to a period when she even lived on the streets of London.   At times   she would not leave the house and would do little else but lie in bed for weeks.   She  was often hostile but this was a woman suffering. The world seemed like a terrible place  to her and she felt angry and afraid. News stories touched my sister deeply and we are glad she is at peace and no longer troubled by events that are outside her control. In a moment of black humour shared on her death bed we joked that it was a good thing that she would never see Donald Trump as the US president.
Because she had such poor experiences with mental health services and I work in this area my own relationship with her was often strained.  At these times I offered support to those family members who were still able to maintain a closer caring role.  My sister’s own tales of how she was sometimes treated in the health service with a lack of dignity continually hits home and I use her experience to reflect on my own practice.  I hope it is part of Esther’s legacy that no-one in my care feels that they are treated with a lack of compassion or respect.

Perhaps the last few years are those that Esther has felt most settled and was able to build a meaningful life and walk away from a past marked by vulnerability and abuse.  When she moved back to Essex she started to build lasting friendships with good people.  You know who you are.  I am sure having the support of Mum and Dad when she lived over the road from them helped to sustain her too.

Paul has told me a couple of stories that demonstrate  my sister’s wicked sense of humour.   Just before she died she wanted to take up photography and asked Paul to look for a camera for her. She wanted to join a photography group and see the looks on their faces when she walked in carrying her white cane.

As part of her exercise regime she took protein powder. She noticed that it made her fart and told Paul about this.  He suggested that it would be funny to have 'Sorry it's the protein powder' printed on a tee shirt. She thought this was hilarious and arranged for my brother to order one which she wore at the gym.

Esther’s compassion for others and her sense of her place in nature outlasts her natural life.   As she had requested many of her belongings have been donated to help the homeless and those with health problems.  Her corneas are being used for medical research and a large portion of the money that she left behind has been used to buy and train a black Labrador, Bolshie Esther.   The residue of her estate will be distributed to other charities that help those she identified with  She chose this burial site so that her bodily remains might contribute to a beautiful habitat for plants and wildlife. It will also serve as a lasting memorial to my sister if we all work to fight prejudice in all its manifestations, examining ourselves first.

We can also take from her example of living a remarkable life in spite of adversity. I promised Esther that I would run my first half marathon in about twenty five years in 2017 for Idiopathic Intercranial Hypertension UK.  This charity supports those with the condition that caused Esther to lose her sight.   If you wish, please join me in taking action in her memory.  It could be a challenge or maybe doing  something that you’ve always wanted but never got around to.  She would like that.

I would like to mention the exceptional care that my sister received at Havens Hospice in her last days  The staff there can be enormously proud of their role in helping Esther to transition from being scared and in considerable inner turmoil to dying  pain free and with dignity. They could not do enough to individualise her care so that she was as comfortable as possible. Their role in supporting us as a family at the end of such a difficult journey cannot go unnoticed either.

Thank you all so much today for being here and listening.   I am particularly glad to be able to share these memories with Esther’s only nephew, my son Louis.  I know she loved him dearly even though her illness meant that she could not play as big a part in his life as she would have liked.

‘Goodbye – see you on the other side’.  These  were my last words to my sister as I left the room in the hospice.    Esther, you remain so loved in the hearts of your loved ones who remain here.  Rest in Peace.


  1. What an amazing woman Esther was. Thank you for sharing such a deeply personal and loving tribute with us.

  2. What a beautiful tribute. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    Love and hugs to you and your family.

    Alex xx

  3. A beautiful tribute to what sounds like a beautiful person. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  4. Thank you for sharing. She has left an amazing legacy and inspired others to continue to go out and do good in the world.

  5. A beautiful tribute to your much loved sister, Esther. Thank you for sharing it with us. She was loved and more importantly understood by her caring family. Best wishes to you all.

  6. Peace for Esther now, and for your family.

  7. Beautiful, you did her proud. Best wishes xxx

  8. A beautiful piece of writing about an extraordinary individual. Thank you for sharing it. I hope Christmas wasn't too hard for you all xx

  9. A lovely eulogy delivered I am sure with true feeling.RIP Esther.MY mother's name.She suffered with mental illness too.

  10. Simply beautiful, thank you for sharing it.

    Hugs! xx

  11. Well done for writing and reading out such beautiful words that give such a lovely picture of your sister. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  12. Thank you so much for sharing your words.

  13. I think sharing Esther's story is a very powerful tribute - we can learn so much from each other x

  14. Thank you for sharing this - she sounds a wonderful, generous, open hearted young woman.

  15. I hope I never have to do this but, if I do, I only hope I can do it as well as you did. You brought her to life and then let her go gracefully. So sad but she did great things too. Blessings.

  16. Thank you so very much for sharing this. It may have been easier to keep it private but there is a lot to ponder here. I appreciated your reflections on mental health care. We all know someone affected, either personally or as a carer. Due to my family situation, it is something I think about every day. I admire your combination of respect, dignity, self-reflection and will to action.

  17. You have done Esther proud. A beautiful piece of writing from a beautiful woman.

  18. Lovelygrey this is lovely. xxx