Sixtyfive Roses: A Sister’s Memoir

Sixtyfive Roses: A Sister's Memoir

By: Heather Summerhayes Cariou
Publisher: McArthur & Company 
Publication Date: January 2008 
ISBN-13: 978-1552786789 
Reviewed by: Michelle Hutchinson 
Review Date: December 23, 2008 

Children with cystic fibrosis, an inherited disease that affects the lungs, digestive system, and several other organs, often have trouble pronouncing the name of their condition, so they call it sixty-five roses. Similarly, Sixtyfive Roses, is what Heather Summerhayes Cariou, wife of actor Len Cariou, entitles her memoir recounting the years she spent growing up with a younger sister who had the disease.

This is a gut-wrenching yet moving story. In 1958, when Ms. Cariou was 6 and her sister Pam was 4, Pam was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis (CF). Heather’s sister wasn’t expected to survive more than another few months, but she defied the odds and inspired others with her accomplishments, living until the age of 26. It was not an easy life for Pam or any of her family members. Conflict fills much of the book: Heather’s jealousy of the extra attention Pam got, the get-well gifts she received, and Pam’s exemption from chores conflict with Heather’s relief that the pain, mucus, cough, breathing difficulties, medicines, hospitalizations, back-pounding treatments, and the ever-present threat of death are not hers. Heather’s loathing of the sound of the compressor that generates a mist for her sister to breathe at night conflicts with her missing that sound when Pam is in the hospital. Ms. Cariou writes, “I hated my sister. Except I didn’t hate her. I just hated that, next to her, I didn’t feel good enough.”

And then, of course, there was Ms. Cariou’s guilt, guilt that Pam inherited the disease and not Heather, guilt that Pam would die before Heather, and guilt that Pam could not live the life she desired. But that’s where the inspiration comes in, because Pam taught Heather that joy was to be found in what she could do, not what she couldn’t.

Unfortunately, Ms. Cariou learned that lesson only in Pam’s later years. In her teens, Ms. Cariou abandoned a potential career as a ballet dancer because she felt guilty that her training took her away from her sick sister. But giving up that training only led to festering resentment towards Pam and her illness, a resentment that was only resolved in adulthood.

Ms. Cariou does an excellent job of showing readers what it is like to grow up with someone who has a chronic, fatal illness, and how it can tear a family apart or bring them together. Even though Ms. Cariou doesn’t have CF, she also shows us what it is like for a person suffering from the disease and how that person makes peace with impending death.

The book could have used at least one more editing revision and a reading by someone in the healthcare field before it was published, as a few typos appear on the pages, a medical term is spelled incorrectly on more than one occasion, and a conversation is repeated seven pages after it first appears, but overall…

Quill says: Read this book if you can bear to have a lump in your throat throughout.

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