Do you remember your first year in high school? I do. I spent one miserable year in a dated and pompous girls’ boarding school near Pietermaritzburg. Even if I put aside my confusion over whether the tricorne hat or the white boater went with the summer uniform, or my horror at having older girls and teachers throw my belongings on the floor for being incorrectly stored, it was a horrible time.

Mastering the school’s layout was hard enough without the added pressure of doing it in the allotted two minutes between classes and using only the stairs permitted to a newbie. The prefects and teachers were objects of fear. Then there were the other kids. I’m scared of people in general, but those Grade 8’s with their innate understanding of fashion, of how to be popular and of how to cut-someone-dead were a terrifying prospect. It was overwhelming and lonely and boring all at once. I spent a lot of time hunkered down, hiding in the narrow gap between the shower stalls and the laundry lines.

I’ve been trying, this morning, to imagine what that experience would have been like if I’d been told one-week in that my older brother or sister might die.

I can’t.

Today is the last day of the 2017 academic year. Josh is enjoying some well-deserved praise. He attended school for about three and half months this year and he’s passed every subject. He even brought home a couple of distinctions. Over the past few days teachers have pulled Josh aside and told him how he inspires them, how they can’t wait to teach him in 2018. It’s heartening.

Chris also stumbled through the year successfully.

This year, his first in high school, was harder than most of us will have experienced in in our lives. That older brother who was always, always there to guide him has been, mostly, gone. There was a moment earlier in the year when Chris said, “I have always had a brother who has done the year before me. He tells me what to expect and how to do well. How will I manage?”

Chris HAS managed.

It’s not just his brother who’s been gone. We, his parents, have been, at worst, absent and, at best, preoccupied. He too missed days and days of school. Friends who couldn’t cope with his circumstances have dumped him. He worried over choosing between hospital visits or homework.

He’s been the updater for family, friends and teachers. He’s been the kid opening the door and making tea for countless well-wishers. He’s become the person doing the household repairs and maintenance. He’s also been the person telling his mother that it will be OK, even on days when we both knew otherwise.

And he’s ended the year with passing grades, a clutch of new friends and an outstanding repertoire of 80’s-rock, guitar solos.

Josh deserves his accolades, and so do all the cancer warriors out there. But, as we finish the academic year, let’s remember all the sibling heroes. They still get up, put on their uniforms and head off to school. They study and turn in projects, participate in extra-mural activities and write exams. They do it under an unrelenting weight of worry in families who, too often, don’t have the capacity to notice their struggles.

Christopher Castle, you rock.


heroes sibling heroes