Jeanette’s much loved only sister Sheryl died of polio at the age of five in 1952. Fifty years later Jeanette describes the profound and continuing effects Sheryl’s death have had on the family and strongly advocates immunisation.
I was eight when she died. We were living on a farm, ten miles out of Matamata, and there was myself, then my sister and I had a baby brother who was not quite a year old when she died. Mum and Dad both milked, so I used to have to go and help feed the pigs and get the cows in and go over to the shed to be with Mum and Dad while they were milking. We all went over, in the early years before Sheryl died. And we’d be playing around the cow shed the two of us and Warwick would be either in the pram or the pushchair.
We had to catch the school bus by half past seven and were not home till 4.30. Walked up the dusty road, a long day for little ones. Sheryl had started school in the March and she died in the August so she was just over five. I can remember she had her tonsils out not long after she started school; she was sick off and on for a wee while. I can remember her being at school one day with her bottle of Irish Moss for her chest because the doctor just said, “chest infection”. Then she obviously got very sick and Mum rang the doctor and was told to bring her in, in to town, so they took her in wrapped in a blanket. He saw that she was really serious and told them to pick the other child up from school, get her away from the rest of the community and take the sick one to Hamilton in the car, which took an hour and a half, I guess, in the old Plymouth. I can remember Mum coming to the school and picking me up.
I can remember stopping down by Karapiro and Sheryl was coughing and Mum telling me to wipe the phlegm out of her mouth, but she had to get out to do it because I couldn’t. The next recollection, I can remember sitting outside the hospital in the car waiting while they took her in. That was the last time I saw her. So yes, straight in to the iron lung. Having polio in the chest and the lung she didn’t have a chance. She lasted just on a week but to me it seemed weeks.
The day that she died, we were down at the lake and I can still remember being down there, and waiting and knowing that something was really wrong and I didn’t know what.
And she had died.
And we went home. Nana was at home looking after us and I can remember her changing Warwick’s nappies on the sofa and pulling the blinds down and saying, “ooh we mustn’t be scared because it is a bad night out there”. And the lightning and thunder.
I can remember the funeral. I can remember seeing her white casket and I can still see the white casket in the church. Mum had asked if she could be in the Sunday School and the minister wouldn’t let her be in there. In fact he didn’t really even want her in the church. How could that disease get out of her lovely white coffin? I was with Nana and I can remember her saying, “hold my hand tight because we mustn’t cry”. I still didn’t know, I still didn’t realise that she had died. I knew she had gone, but not died and gone for ever.
Mum and Dad always went to church every Sunday and we had Sunday School clothes, little dresses and berets that mum had knitted and off we’d go to Sunday School. But after Sheryl’s death that was the end of Mum’s faith. I wasn’t allowed to go to Sunday School, I wasn’t allowed near the church, my brother still hadn’t been baptised she wouldn’t get him baptised. To Mum there was no God any more because God wouldn’t do such a thing to a child.
Here was me left all alone. We slept in the same room the two of us. We had all our clothes in one chest of drawers and I can remember Mum separating all my clothes down in to the four drawers and I said, “Oh no, Sheryl is coming home, we must put these back”. Still not told that no she will never be back. Old enough to know that something had happened but not old enough to know what had happened. I think death was never talked about then. It was never really spoken about.
We were put into quarantine so I couldn’t go to school and my work was sent out on the mail bus. It seemed like weeks but I was told later it was only three weeks. Mum and Dad weren’t allowed into town so all their things had to be sent out on the mail car as well.
I can remember the Health Department coming and going through the house.
Then Mum had a nervous breakdown. I do remember thinking, “Mum wishes it was me that had died and not Sheryl”. I do. She got through it, two and a half years later, but I honestly believe she has never got over it properly.
And then when I went back to school nobody wanted to know me. I was all alone. You can’t blame the children because it would have been the parents, “stay away stay away, you had better keep away from that Jones girl because her sister’s died of polio”. Well I think I had a breakdown myself, because I was in the A class and I started to stutter and I started to shake and one teacher made fun of me and he said “this is how Jeanette Jones writes” and did this scribbling. And I burst out crying. If I ever saw him again I would say to him you have no idea what that did to me. And of course the class all laughed.
I felt guilty when Mum was having her breakdown, because I had actually lost her as a mother and if it hadn’t have been for my aunt next door… I used to go and see her and she sort of brought me up I guess. You know I’d be nine or ten then, cooking tea for Dad who was milking.
Yes it did affect me, It did. I felt unloved. And it still affects me now since Dad has been gone, Mum, I think it is all coming back to her. She has never ever got over it. She is pushing me aside now. Again. I am going through the same feelings, in a way, that I did then. She doesn’t really want me. Yes, she is grabbing at my brother because she grabbed at him when he was little because she could cuddle him. She has said she used to spend her days in bed with him for comfort.
Mum and Dad I don’t think talked about it. Dad was a very very quiet man all his life and even at the end when he was sick and we would talk about all sorts of things, but never ever, he never wanted to talk about Sheryl. Too hard, put it away.
And you know, Mum said why did it hit us? It would be lovely to get Mum to try and do what I am doing now, to talk about it, to get it out but she won’t. No.
But it did change the family. The closeness that I had had with my Mum was gone and never came back the same way. Sheryl and I were very special sisters, we were very close. And when she was taken away to hospital I never had time to say goodbye. When I got married and that hit me then, she could have been my bridesmaid and should have been my bridesmaid. To be able to say good bye is so important.
And those are the effects. It is so strong and long lasting, yes, the effects that it has on the children
Parents who consider that they do not need to have their children vaccinated should read some of the sad cases and deaths related to the disease and consider how lucky they are to have the choice. Why leave your child unvaccinated when others have taken the precaution? To me this is being very irresponsible and selfish. There is no need for any of this heartache now due to the wonderful breakthrough of vaccination. What I am trying to get across is parents please please please do it, just do it, it is so important.”
This story has been edited from the transcript of a recorded interview and is posted with written consent for the story to be published on IMAC's website.