Journalist and author Karina Machado spoke to over 60 Australians who said they could sense around them the spirit of a loved one who had died. From their stories, Machado wrote the book Love Never Dies to show the indestructibility of love. This is one of the stories from the book.
Like most teenaged siblings, Bianca, age 15, and her brother, Stephen, 18, occasionally argued over trivial things – an ill-judged joke, the distribution of chores, taunts shaped like arrows aimed at the heart. But beneath the bickering, the pair were bound by a closeness that informed their lives – a sense of togetherness they took for granted.
On 12 August 1988, Bianca rose early. Her grandmother had been staying at their home in north Sydney to care for Bianca and her sister, Torrie, aged nine, while their single mum juggled two jobs. Since leaving school two years earlier, Stephen, too, helped support his mother and sisters. Now their grandmother wanted to drive back to her apartment on the central coast of New South Wales, to attend to gather more belongings, before returning to Sydney to continue looking after her grandchildren. Bianca and Torrie were going with her for the weekend.
The morning was crisp and dazzling, the sky a bowl of brightest blue, but Bianca was in no mood to appreciate it. Today marked four days since she and Stephen had stopped speaking to each other. Charged silences, crossed arms and downturned mouths filled the spaces in their relationship where laughter and camaraderie usually dwelled. ‘I can’t really remember why we weren’t talking,’ says Bianca, whose calm and matter-of-fact voice cracks, to her surprise, as she recalls events from a quarter of a century ago. ‘And because I was younger than him,
I was full of pride. I would never talk to him first – he would have to talk to me first and apologise to me first. I was very stubborn. I would never try and repair the arguments.’
Leaving her bedroom with an overnight bag slung across her shoulder, she stopped short outside Stephen’s room, neighbouring her own. His door was open but he was still in bed. ‘I actually said, “Goodbye, Stephen,” and that was very unusual,’ Bianca says. Looking up at his sister, Stephen’s wide-set eyes mirrored her confusion. She had no idea why she’d paused here, why she’d broken her usual resolve. ‘Oh! Bye, Bianca,’ he said, with a glimmer of his characteristic cheekiness, before returning his gaze to the ceiling.
Their grandmother beamed, grateful the kids were getting on again. ‘She said to me, “I’m so proud of you for saying goodbye to him,”’ remembers Bianca, her words pitching and dipping. ‘That was the last time I spoke to him.’
Later that Friday night, Bianca and her sister were at their grandmother’s trying to connect the video recorder they’d given her for her birthday. Pressing buttons here and there, Bianca managed to set the time display. As her grandmother prepared dinner in the kitchen, Bianca found herself mesmerised by the numbers on the digital display: 6.35. ‘I was just staring at the time and feeling really quite homesick for some reason, I just wanted to be home.’
The next morning, her mother and uncle arrived at her grandmother’s house – unexpectedly. Drawn to the window by the thud of slamming doors, Bianca watched them approach, aware in some way that in seconds – the time it took for them to reach the door – this life would cease for her and another would take its place. Everything was about to change.
Her grandmother opened the door. Dread spilt inside Bianca, spreading like a bloodstain in waves of zinging heat that crept up her spine and across her belly. Icy, pulsing fire that told her what she’d experienced last night, tuning the video recorder, was preparing her for this. Still dressed in her work clothes from the day before, her mother was like a broken doppelganger of herself.
It seemed she was covered in a network of fissures, where one misstep would see her crumble into shards on the welcome mat.
Then Bianca’s uncle stepped forward and ‘sort of grabbed us,’ she recalls. He said, ‘Stephen’s had an accident.’
Up through the tunnel of years, his sister’s hazel eyes grow red from weeping. Twenty-five winters have rushed by, Bianca is now 40 years old, a mother of two, a registered nurse who’s weathered much in her life and work – but the news that her brother was dead felt like an assault. Twenty-five winters doesn’t change that; the pain is frozen in time, perfectly preserved.
In the same way Stephen is forever young, I think, studying a photo Bianca sends me. Tall and slim, posing astride his beloved motorbike, bought with proceeds of one of his first pay packets, the dark-haired teen has the swagger of a young George Clooney.
For Stephen, the combination of youth, inexperience and his passion for bikes proved lethal. As Bianca’s uncle explained that awful Saturday morning, Stephen had been killed riding his motorbike the previous evening. His passenger, a friend he was picking up to take to a party, also died. The accident happened at 6.35pm, the precise moment Bianca found herself hypnotised by the pulsing digital clock on the VCR.
The grieving family made the trip back to Sydney. All was the same yet nothing was. Time itself was twisted out of shape. ‘For about a week after his death, I’d wake up in the mornings and hear his motorbike in the driveway, revving up to go to work,’ says Bianca. ‘It was quite loud in my ears, you know, and then I had to remind myself that he’s dead.’
Ahead of the funeral, family came to stay and their little home was packed. To make space, Bianca and her mum moved into Stephen’s room, sleeping side by side in his double bed. On the eve of the service, Bianca’s mum was out cold after taking a sleeping tablet, but Bianca sat up reading, battling a gnawing unease. Something was about to happen. The knowing manifested as anxiety, as an inability to pin down the words on the page.
She set aside her book and looked towards the end of the bed. There was Stephen, wearing his favourite black- and-grey striped dress shirt, the one his mum had given the funeral directors. The one he’s wearing in the photo with his motorbike, staring down the lens of a truncated future. In the stark glare of the overhead light, as his mother slept, he was revealed.
‘It was as bright as anything in that room,’ marvels Bianca. There were no shadows to dart into or mould into shapes, no dreams to beg back, no dim lamplight to blur the truth. There was only Stephen. He knelt.
‘All I could see was from his abdomen up and his hands were together, as if he was praying, and he was really staring at Mum and I. He was looking straight at us.’
Bianca’s fear melted away when she saw him. ‘I felt scared beforehand because I knew something was going to happen, but I didn’t quite know what. And then he just appeared to me, and the feeling that I got – he wasn’t talking – was, “Look after Mum”. That’s what I felt he was trying to communicate. Then I closed my eyes and he was gone.’
Bianca watched her brother for only ‘seconds’ but it was enough ‘to really see him clearly’. His image is branded onto her heart: ‘There was a transparency to him. He was grey, but I could see him as clear as anything,’ she repeats. ‘His eyes were wide open. He had big, dark blue eyes and he was just looking at us and he looked sad.’
Afterwards, Bianca went to sleep easily, which she concedes was strange, but it’s in keeping with many other such encounters with the spirits of loved ones.
In quiet moments, she still tries to decipher the message in his stance and expression. ‘I don’t know why he was kneeling down at the end of the bed, with his hands together in prayer,’ says Bianca, whose family is Catholic but not strictly so. ‘I don’t know whether that was just to let me know he was going to God or whether he was taking that stance not to frighten me. I’m not sure.’
She often wonders why he appeared so troubled. ‘It could have been regret and feeling sorry that he’s left us. He was a bit reckless,’ muses Bianca. ‘I guess he was the man of the house and he was worried about leaving us.’
Stephen wore the same heartbroken look during an encounter at a cinema two weeks later, when Bianca was stunned to see his gaze locked on hers in the mirror behind the ticket counter as she paid for an ice cream. ‘I saw his eyes,’ she recalls. ‘I don’t know whether you’d say he superimposed himself on me, because I was expecting to see me. He was just staring, really staring at me.’ This time, Bianca was very shaken and the two friends who’d suggested an outing to the movies to take her mind off things helped soothe and calm her. Stephen appeared to share her shock. ‘He could see that I was frightened because he looked scared, too. And then he looked down at the ground, like in a sad way.’ Then he vanished.
DREAMS AND ANSWERS
For two years, Stephen regularly visited Bianca in her dreams, usually just as a watchful presence on the sidelines. But some were much more powerful. The first and ‘most significant’ of these took place around a month after the accident. One morning, Bianca and a friend rode their pushbikes to the accident scene and talked about what had happened, trying to understand the sequence of events that had led to Stephen’s death. That night, she had the dream. Stephen, and the boy who’d died with him, were standing in front of her, exactly as they’d been in life. ‘Stephen said to me, “Bianca, do you want to see how we died?” Like it was an everyday sort of question. And I said, “Yes, I do want to know.” And so he showed me.
‘It was like I was actually sitting on the motorbike, watching what they would have seen. He showed me how they hit the back of the car in front and then they flew over to the opposite side of the road.’ In what was perhaps a tender gesture on Stephen’s part, any disturbing details were omitted. ‘He just showed me the impact with the car in front, how the motorbike tipped up and then they …once they came off the bike, it just went white, nothing.’
When she woke up, Bianca felt free of her desperation to know how he’d gone. Her burden lifted: ‘He answered my question.’
Today Bianca, who first showed signs of having increased psychic awareness in childhood, rarely senses Stephen’s spirit anymore. ‘I think he’s just moved on, you know. But I think he hung around us for a long while because it must have been an awful shock for him to have had the accident and to leave us. That was really sad.’
Yet there is less grief now, when Bianca thinks of her big brother. Seeing him again on that distant night was a gift that continues to yield, more so with every year that drifts by. ‘I just feel really privileged to have had that experience, which was so special and amazing,’ she reflects. ‘I feel really happy that there is another life beyond this life that we live. I think we go to a happier place, and a safer place. I feel at peace.’
She knows this is the case for Stephen, too, knows his velvet navy eyes are ablaze with light and infinite love, as he watches over her.
This story is an extract from Love Never Dies by KARINA MACHADO.
Published by Pan Macmillan Australia. Machado wrote the book to show how spiritual contact with a deceased lover, friend or family member can bring healing, hope and the solace of knowing that their love lives on. This is one of the stories from the book.
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