a tale of two hearts

a year ago

Dear Tanya,

A year and a day ago today was the last time I saw you, the last time we laughed. Over the last few weeks I've found my thoughts gravitating towards you even more than usual. 

I've never shared about you here in this space but I have pulled away from blogging because anything and everything I would say in this space felt like it was a lie if I didn't also acknowledge the pain my heart felt about what you were going through. But that wasn't my story to share, it was yours. But you're no longer here and I love you still and your story and the mark you have left on my heart are all I have left of you.

This little corner of the internet has always been a family album of sorts and it's never felt right or complete to me without a mention of you here. So here is your story as I told it at your funeral.

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"Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy- think about such things and the God of peace will be with you."

Philippians 4:8

As we’re all aware, at times and for a significant portion of the last decade of Tanya’s life, she was required to walk through circumstances and subjected to experiences and a system that at times was anything but right, anything but pure, anything but admirable, excellent or praise worthy.

Philippians 4:8 was Tanya’s favorite verse and when there’d be a lull in our conversation which wasn’t too often, she’d pipe up and say “Philippines 4:8 Tina…whatever is true” and look to me to finish the rest of the verse. So in honor of Tanya, Philippians 4:8 will form the guidepost of how I will share her story as I saw it as her big sister.

So let’s start from the beginning. I have been told that I begged and pleaded with mum and dad for a baby and so they obliged, both in their early 30’s having arrived in new country on the other side of the word with their two kids, they took the advice of an 8 year old and I’m so glad they did. Six and a bit months later Tanya made her early, incredibly early, entrance into the world, 3 months before schedule.

As the 8 year old that I was I didn’t see any issues with having a teeny tinny baby sister that was the size of my 8 year old palm, in fact I was rather thrilled when the nurses in the intensive care unit asked if I had any dolls clothes that I wanted to bring in for my little sister to wear. As a mother now, I can’t imagine how terrifying it must have been for my mother to look at Tanya, so fragile, connected to all those machines for months, all those operation, the infections, receiving calls from doctors notifying her that her baby girl had stopped breathing so she needed to come, all those hormones and chemicals being pumped through her precious baby’s body. All the while wondering, 'will she survive this and if she does, how will she survive this life'. But as the 8 yr old I was, I was in utter bliss and in love with my baby sister, oblivious to all the challenges that would await her in life. She was here and I loved her fiercely, always have and always will.
Early on when mum was pregnant they asked Maya and I if we had any suggestions on what we wanted the baby to be called. This part I distinctly remember, “ if you really think about it the baby should have a name that starts with 'T' because I always feel like the three of you gang up on me with your names, Mile, Milka, Maja and I’m left on my own, so can we name the baby a name that starts with 'T' please, like Tony or Tanya”. They were the only T names I knew and yes I’m now aware that my actual name doesn’t even start with a T! But that didn’t exactly occur to me as an 8 year old did it!
So once Tanya finally made it out of her humidi crib and into the world I could finally get to hold and play with the little baby I’d dreamed of. And boy did I love to cuddle and play with her, I was besotted. Mum has told me that she would often find me asleep in Tanya’s crib next to her, that I would avoid doing pretty much anything so that I could play, feed, bath whatever it was that Tanya was doing. Where she was where I wanted to be. We were tight, from the start.
And then she grew, from a tiny little baby into a little toddler. I watched the countless hours Mum and Dad would spend doing little bicycles with her legs, wheel barrows down our hallway, giving her massages to help her strengthen her muscles in desperate hope that one day she might walk and defy the odds the doctor’s gave her. I still remember the first day I saw Tanya’s little glasses, she would have been less then a year old and Mum brought her to our Macedonian dance class and my friends where so amazed “Wow can she read!?!” they assumed you only wore glasses for reading. And then for years I watched Mum and Dad come home from work and put a little patch over her teeny tinny glasses and sit in the dark with her shining a torch and moving it around to strengthen her eyes.
But again, I was young, so to me I just assumed that all the stuff I saw mum and dad doing was all the stuff that people normally did with babies. I’ve since learnt it’s not. My parents were carrying for a very special baby and they cared for her remarkably. I was lucky enough to grow up having sacrificial, self-giving love modelled to me each and every single day. That kind of love gets no applause, there are no witnesses to pat you on the back and say “wow you’re such a lovely person” that kind of love hurts, you give till you are empty with absolutely no expectation of being filled up. It’s the bravest and truest kind of love we can give each other and I watched my parents love Tanya like that till the end.
And then she started talking, again another huge milestone the doctors warned us she might never reach and not only did she talk, she could talk in two languages and again I had a front row seat to the love, commitment and effort my parents and baba poured into Tanya to make that a reality.
Tanya as a toddler. Man was she cute, sooo sweet, so much joy and excitement, such animated expressions, so much fun to be around, she loved to dance, she loved to chat, she loved to hang out. She was so sweet and cuddly, if you’ve seen me with Lucas and you’ve seen how my heart lights up just being with him and watching him enjoy himself then you’ll have some idea of just how much I loved being around my little sister. I loved just hearing her chatter and listening to how she was perceiving and interpreting the world, I loved looking at her little hands. Her little fingers for some strange reason always fascinated me, I loved watching her try new things, I was so proud of her, I celebrated with gusto each new thing she mastered. And as a little toddler we started to see her beautiful generous heart for others emerge and as she grew that radiant heart grew.
I have so many memories of school holiday shenanigans with Tanya and my friends Bec and Kelli. Our parents worked so we were latch key kids, which has it’s advantages. I remember the time we walked from Allawah across the rail line to the other side of Carlton where Tanya was at preschool. Mum needed to work back so we had to pick Tanya up from preschool. Getting a 4 yr old to walk all the way back was a bit of a challenge so we came up with a plan. We tracked down an abandoned shopping trolley and proceeded to push Tanya all the way back home. Tanya thought it was amazing!! Then there was the water fights, our little make believe ‘swimming pool’, our ‘club house’ where all the bins from the units were being stored but we turned it into our club house. Tanya was up for anything, always super keen to get involved help out, put on a show to make us laugh, I loved having her by our side.
And then she started school. A little boy in her class, Ethan Lee was asked by his mum how his day at school went and his reply “Mum I’m in love…with a girl with rainbow colored glasses”. Yep, he was talking about Tanya and why wouldn’t he be. She was a stunner, sweet, super thoughtful and always so inclusive and generous. When Tanya was in year 2 we were both on the same school campus at St George. I had a commerce class that would have started either a bit earlier or a bit latter then school did for her and I remember she would knock on the door and ask if she could come in and sit with me. I would always be beaming with pride when I saw her at that door, yep, that little cutie is my little sister, her smile, those eyes, the way she would look at me and look up to me, I was so blessed to be chosen to be her big sister.
We lived two blocks away from school, so we got to walk to school and walk home together, we would hang out at the park on the way home together and we’d get locked out together!! Oh the number of times we’d get locked out. Eventually we organised a little chair for ourselves so we could sit in the back of the unit block where we lived and I started to teach Tanya how to give Maja and I massages while we’d sit waiting for mum and dad to come home. There are lots of good uses for little sisters, if you need tips just ask me, teaching them how to change the TV channel on the TV when you’ve lost the remote is another good one.
So there was school and then there was everything else Tanya did outside of school; girl's brigade, swimming, dancing, tap, jazz, ballet and sailing, then there were the plays, the drama’s, script writing, song writing and recording, the list went on. She was driven, motivated, and passionate and in my books so brave, the stuff she tackled, the stages she stood on, terrified me and therefore made me even prouder when I’d see her on them. She wasn’t the most talented or naturally gifted and as the years went by it broke my heart to see how much that broke her heart but she never gave up, she continued to pick herself up and give it another shot. I often wonder where I’d be if I had an ounce of her bravery and tenacity.

And then Tanya went to high school and you know what, I don’t know how to do the last decade of her life justice in front of you all.

I then think Philippians 4:8 but you know what, when you look at that verse a little closer you realise that it’s not just a “think about the good stuff” kind of a verse. If you look at it closely you notice it starts with “Whatever is true”. And the truth is that last decade, it was brutal and beautiful, in the words of Glennon Melton, it was brutiful.

That last decade, the one where we watched her walk through some of the darkest circumstances imaginable, in those dark, dark moments, we, Mum, Dad, Maja and I also got to witness the true beauty, strength and radiance of Tanya’s heart. We all have our battles that we need to fight and we watched Tanya fight her's with such strength and conviction in who she was as a child of God and His strength, goodness and power. Here is a note she wrote to give you just the tiniest of glimpse into her extraordinary heart. She wrote this when she was 12 or so yrs old after her first bout in hospital.
She was 12. I wonder how many of us in this room would have that kind of a response if we’d suffered trauma at work and ended up in hospital for it. She had an extraordinary heart.
There is so much gold in brutiful. I’m so thankful for the incredible conversations I got to have with you Tanya, because things were brutal at times. We never did superficial talk, you showed me your heart and I showed you mine. I’m so thankful that when things were beautiful we knew how to savor and appreciate the goodness in those moments and not take them for granted. I’m so thankful we trained each other on how to look for beauty in the most hopeless of circumstance. I’m so thankful you gave me sight so that I was able to really see the beauty every person carries despite their superficial successes and at times in spite of their brutality towards others, I’m so thankful for the way your life on a daily basis was a mirror to me of the pride and prejudice I’d held in my heart towards those who were less educated, less articulate, not as “successful” as I was.
There is so much more I could say about her extraordinary spirit, her compassion, her thoughtfulness, her joy. Her life, her love and her struggle has taught me so much, I could write a book on it, but that’s not for today.
But what I will say today and I’m not saying this lightly, or flippantly, or as a platitude just because she’s no longer here, there is no truer truth I could speak of her then this.
No other human on earth in my lifetime has redefined, reshaped and remolded my heart the way that you have Tanya, you have no idea what kind of a mark you have left on my heart - every cell, every fiber of my body, my neural circuitry has been rewired into something so much more radiant because I was chosen to be your big sister. No other human has etched the words Jesus spoke into my soul the way you have. Your life, your joy and your struggle and suffering have made my life so much richer, I love so much better because of you.