When I was around 7 years old, my then 4 year old brother was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma. At the time, I had little understanding of the significance of this illness on him though, over time, it became painfully apparent to me as I watched him grow increasingly ill, lose weight, lose his hair and, very nearly, lose his life.
There was a three year period during the early 80's where my brother's life was characterized by frequent hospital stays, numerous operations, hours and hours of chemotherapy, followed by hours and hours of wretching and vomiting due to the effects of the chemotherapy. For my family, it was a period of extreme emotion, heart break and near soul crushing endurance. As we lived in the country and my brother's medical care, for the most part, was in the City, my parents spent long hours on the road, travelling from rural Victoria to the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne, racking up the kind of miles that would make a long distance truck driver blush.
For me, it had been decided that I would stay home, rather be carted along to the City. My parents didn't want to disrupt my schooling and I guess they needed to focus on my brother without having to worry about me. So it was that I spent a lot of that time with my grandparents - both sets - and my Aunty Ronda, who had me come stay with her family, my cousins, who were about the same age.
Despite their efforts to make my life as uncomplicated as possible, it was a lonely time for me. With all of the attention being so focused on my brother, inevitably, I came to feel left out of my own family. I remember many nights of crying myself to sleep, not understanding why I couldn't be with my Mum and Dad and brother.
It's strange, the things we cling to in order to cope.
My Star Wars fandom is something that is known to many as being kind of legendary and of course during the early 1980's, we were in the midst of the classic Star Wars era, between The Empire Strikes Back & Return of the Jedi. Christmas 1980, was perhaps one of the most memorable Christmases for me. That year, I got no less than four classic figures under the tree - Artoo Deetoo, Han Solo in Hoth Gear, the Snowtrooper and Darth Vader. Along with those I got the Yoda hand puppet (which I still own) and a generic lights and sounds star ship that I dubbed the Millennium Falcon, even though it looked nothing like that ship. My brother was all He Man and the Masters of the Universe - which were great figures in themselves and we had countless cross franchise battles in our bedroom.
Then the diagnosis came.
I remember I had a bag that was always packed with clothing and toiletries, ready to go at a moments notice, given the unpredictable progression of my brother's cancer and the intense schedule my parents were required to keep with his treatment. And, along with that bag, I always made sure that my four Star Wars figures and Yoda puppet were ready to go as well. They had become my companions - my proxy family - and I came to rely on them more than anyone as those days and weeks and months passed by. Whether I was at my Nana and Pa's or my Nana and Poppy's or Aunty Ronda's, they would be on my pillow at night, I tuck them in and I'd invariably talk to them.
At one point, there was a very real prospect that my brother was going to die. His treatment wasn't working. The doctors thought they had discovered secondaries in his chest and there was a period of urgency where he had to undergo multiple, simultaneous surgeries. I don't remember how I was given the news but, somehow I had to digest the likelihood that my brother wasn't going to come home.
I talked to Darth Vader about it. I don't even remember if I spoke specifically about it or whether it was more an esoteric conversation about life in general - but I do know that in those darkest of hours, that 3 & 3/4 inch Darth Vader was there for me more than anyone else. This guy, the darkest Sith Lord in the galaxy, and only he knew how I was feeling because he was the only one I felt I could talk to. I so feared losing my brother. I hated not being with my family. I hated being alone and no one listening to me.
My brother survived and he got better and he came home. The trips to Melbourne tapered off and my family returned to some semblance of normal. Eventually, he was in remission and had won the greatest battle of his young life. I never forgot my conversations with Darth though. Nor did I forget how he helped me at a really dark time in my childhood.
That's the thing about Star Wars. It has given me so much beyond the enjoyment it offered on the cinema screen. In some ways, it was the family I needed, when I was far from my own.