Family & Education

'If it were not for my sister I could not have coped'

Claire Cantor's bond with her sister Laura grew much closer in the face of adversity


It is 7.30 on a Sunday morning and I am helping my sister put on her shoes and clothes as she is too weak and sick to function alone. We are off to the London Clinic again, where she has just completed a punishing stem-cell treatment that will hopefully save her from the life-threatening, rare lymphoma that has invaded her body. I am trying to keep it together but it is almost unbearable to see her like this — my strong, capable, indomitable older sister, brought so low.

Over the past two years, my sister and I have been drawn together through adversity. After 50 years of thinking: “This is it, we are not close sisters,” I realise now that everything can change in a flash.

In those two years we have lived through, and continue to struggle with many tragedies. But some things have changed unexpectedly for the better. Discovering our new and evolving relationship has been a revelation.

If you ask our parents they will tell you how different we were as kids. I was chatty and dramatic, gathering friends wherever I went. Laura was more bookish, controlled and self-sufficient. As young girls we spent days playing with our Barbie dolls or trotting around our bedrooms like horses. While I would always be able to make my sister laugh, telling made-up stories about the royal family and their corgis, she was the voice of reason and was always right. Typical older sister syndrome.

Laura was a first-class maths and science student and then became a pharmacist, with a sharp, logical mind and no-nonsense attitude, I was artsy, studied English and Drama and began my career in advertising. I spent my year off swanning around Israel, living on a kibbutz and studying at the Hebrew University, while Laura worked as a pharmacist in a busy hospital in Melbourne.

Laura always knew what she wanted. I never knew what I wanted. She would go out shopping and come back with a selection of clothes that cost more than she could afford, and I would come back with a pair of tights and a cassette. She aspired to, and achieved, a certain jet-set lifestyle when she married, frequenting fancy restaurants, attending glamorous dinners and enjoying five-star hotels, while I was achieving my childhood dream of living in Paris, in a romantic garret flat with my now husband, and finding a zen-like peace on a Swiss mountain-top. Until recently, there were few areas where our lives coincided other than family occasions.

Suddenly, all that changed.

In February 2016, my sister lost her husband to pancreatic cancer. They had been married 25 years. Days later, Laura began treatment for a rare lymphoma, which had been diagnosed seven months earlier. She underwent punishing and intensive chemotherapy followed by harrowing stem-cell replacement therapy, for which there is little data to support its long-term efficacy. During this period, Laura’s sister-in-law (celebrity fitness expert Nikki Waterman) also passed away from a brain tumour, as did her husband, too, also of pancreatic cancer.

This devastating scenario set the scene for the change my relationship with Laura.

I was catapulted from the position of the practically ignored younger sister to chief confidante. Whereas in the past we rarely spoke and I was not on my sister’s “radar”, suddenly I was on speed dial, day and night. I was her first port of call. A place for her to cry, agonise, take out her stress and seek solace. She knew she could repeat the same story to me over and over again, and I would listen.

Along with a couple of her closest friends, I became her counsellor, advising and supporting in any way I could. We have spoken on the phone nearly every day for the past two years. She would often call me at six in the morning, crying in disbelief at how her world had come crashing down. Laura knew that she could rely on me for unconditional support. I sensed that the deep sibling bond had become her lifeline because, as a sibling, I felt her pain.

Thankfully, my sister has recovered and is in remission. She is trying to “get on with her life”. And I am now part of that new life in a way that neither she nor I could ever have imagined. And we are enjoying it.

Our sibling relationship has become a very comfortable and comforting place. In our fifties we have found a new way of connecting.

Nowadays, we go to the theatre together, have dinner together, go shopping together. We laugh. She asks my opinion. This is all new.

I couldn’t help wondering, cautiously, whether she felt the same as I did — that out of such sadness something precious can evolve. She told me that she felt so lucky to have close friends who showered her with love, food, time, kindness and even laughter in the nightmare that her life had become.

She wrote these words: “I know that, were it not for my sister, I just would not have coped. Truthfully I don’t remember in those awful days just what I spoke to you about, I just know that I needed you and you were always there. I came to rely on our conversations. I know they were repetitive and still are as I try to adjust to what has happened to me but not once have you ever said: ‘We’ve talked about this already’.

“Your selfless devotion to me, and my children, the sense that you would be there to catch me if I fell, helped enormously in my recovery. I always felt that we were so different in every way but I see now that those differences will not stop us being close because all that really matters is that I have a sister I love and who loves me.”

I was just “being a sister” as anyone would. But I had never considered how deep a sibling bond is, and how much it mattered to me (and her), until it was threatened and tested.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive