Vale Patti, our big sister, by Zita Fogarty

On March 21, 2022 by markfogarty


When I found out Patti, my sister-in-law (married to my eldest brother, Mark) had died, I was two hours’ drive away in Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, England, staying with my cousin Keith and his wife Rachel. It was Sunday morning, and we’d just been walking their two very energetic dogs (though in hindsight, I think they walked us).

The family who were with Patti in hospital in London (husband Mark, son Ignatius, his wife, Jenny and me) had been told that Patti wasn’t going to make it, but it’s always a shock when it comes. I walked into Rachel’s hair salon in the basement of their house and howled, Mark still on the end of the phone. I’d only met Rachel once before, yet here she was, hovering in front of me with a box of tissues as I tried to take in the news.

I’d arrived from Sydney on the previous Wednesday 12 November 2019. Mark had greeted me at White Chapel station, rugged up for the weather, looking pale and exhausted from living with acute back pain and the swift sequence of life changing events that had led up to my arrival.

At first it felt like a blessing that Patti didn’t survive – the last time I saw her in hospital, the day before my weekend visit to Cheltenham (and the day we’d received the grim news), she resembled a small rare marsupial, curled up in a fetal position, hooked up to gadgets that beeped and bleeped, keeping her alive.

She certainly didn’t look like the Patti we knew and loved.

After seeing her, I shared with our brother Dan back in Australia – one of many international phone calls – that she was probably the worst off in an 835 bed hospital; the severity of the situation really hitting home.

On each visit up to her ward, I’d stood shoulder to shoulder in the lift with people from around the world, a density of humanity that would have fascinated Patti. Their bright colors contrasted with the drabness of the hospital that was much in need of a makeover. The floor length grey curtains provided some softness to her cavernous room, framing a cold, wet November day. And the gentle, concerned voices of the nursing staff keeping vigil over her.

Mark and I were staying in an Air BnB a short walk from the hospital. Unable to sleep, preparing for the worst, we lay side by side in the dark on his bed in the early hours, sharing stories and memories of Patti. We knew then she wasn’t going to survive, but we didn’t want to admit it. Getting over jet lag, I made myself tea and toast at 3am. Mark said it reminded him of his Pre – Patti uni days in Canberra, the 24 hour clock of university flatmates.

When I now think of Patti I hear her laugh, with its wicked undertones, and her hard-to-trace accent on the other end of the line: ‘Zita darling, how are you?’ I see her lying on the couch, black coffee and the day’s media publications close by, her lithe body – the perennial teenager’s silhouette – looking fabulous in whatever she’d just put on.

I met Patti when I was 18 and she and Mark had just begun going out. Mark and I were flatmates at the time, in Wolloomooloo, Sydney, a short walk from her night shift at St Luke’s hospital. Her visits were fleeting (they managed to sneak in a bit of together time before she went to bed for the day and Mark left for work!). Like everyone else, I was besotted with her from the start.

After decades of sister-ship with Patti there’s a lot I could share. But what stands out for me is her presence at significant times of my life: at my wedding to Nick in 1986 – Mum had just died and Patti was pregnant with St John and had two small boys underfoot, yet was always available when I needed her. She made beautiful chocolates for the wedding guests. Such a thoughtful touch.

Patti and eldest son, Ignatius, at our wedding on October 4th, 1986.

When Dad died in 2004 Patti checked in on me every day from their home in Wimbledon Park in London, until Mark touched down into Sydney. “Are you ok? What do you need to do today?” She sent thank you cards to everyone who signed the attendance book at Dad’s funeral. We made excellent use of Patti’s beautiful handwriting!

An example of Patti’s delightful handwriting.

I like to think that over the years I was there as much for Patti as she was for me, though one particular event stands out for me, when I wish I could have been more understanding and supportive. I was in the bath and Nick was cooking a leg of lamb when Dad called to say that six- week-old St John had died. The date, 23 May 1987, is etched in my memory. I don’t remember much else about that night, except the police car and ambulance sitting in their driveway in Leichhardt, Patti clutching her baby, a kind man hovering ( a volunteer from the Sudden Infant’s Death  Organization, who had also lost a child). Neighbors Amanda and Steve were looking after Ig and Patrick, and Mark was on his way back from a weekend conference in Melbourne.

As it was dark when we arrived, I didn’t see the baby clothes still on the line. Patti shared later that taking them down the next morning was very hard.

I didn’t become a parent until 1997, ten years later. I wish now that I’d had more understanding of the grief and anguish they went through, losing something so precious, and so unexpectedly.

When Nick and I toured the UK and Southern Europe during 1994, their home in London became our base. Patti would cook an early dinner for the boys, and we’d (both chefs at the time) prepare a meal for the adults – Patti pulling up a chair to watch the show in her galley kitchen, drink in hand. I celebrated my thirty-second Birthday in July that year. We slept in a tent in their backyard, the squirrels racing along the fence line. Patti and four-year-old Dom arrived at the threshold with ‘breakfast in bed’. She gave me a beautiful set of pastis glasses and matching carafe that she’d found in an antique shop (we were mad about all things French at the time, having just toured there). Dom had chosen the birthday card, with a rocket ship on the front.

Patti with their 3 boys, Nick and me in Hyde Park, London early Spring 1994.

In May 2014 I embarked on a month long trip that started at Mark and Patti’s house in Sticklepath, Devon. On a very wet, cool spring day, Patti, Ig and I walked up to Cosdon Beacon, a favourite of hers. After a hot shower, she was in the kitchen dressed only in her underwear, music playing, hair piled up under a towel, cooking scones. So effortless; just what we needed.

Picture taken in the kitchen at Sticklepath shows Patti’s eye for detail and color.

A rest stop in Belstone during our walk over the moor from Sticklepath; one of many fond memories of my time with Patti. May 2014

The lovely dinner that Patti prepared; that is me at the apex of the table.

On that same visit, she gathered relatives from near and far for a weekend for my benefit, dinner for fourteen round their big wooden table being a highlight. Again, such an effortless display of genuine hospitality, and a sense of occasion. Helping Patti in the garden one afternoon, the spring sun warming our backs, a novice gardener myself, I pulled up a plant: ‘is this a weed?’ Without looking up from her crouching position, she replied ‘Is it in your hand?’ She even made weeding fun…

When I visited New York later that month, Patti put on her tour guide hat. We went places you wouldn’t necessarily read about in The Lonely Planet – dog parks, a gospel church in Harlem, a Jewish deli on the West side, a stand-up comedy gig (where Dom was MC). I viewed the city through her eyes, the eyes of a creative who wanted to witness humanity in all its interpretations.

Patti in her element, chatting with some youngsters she just photographed. High Line NYC, May 2014.

I captured Patti off guard, on her non preferred end of the camera; no easy feat.

I think Patti’s early life working in the family pub, plus being the only girl in a big family, naturally made her an observer of people. It was always about the other person, not her. She had that ability to make you feel like you were the only one in the world, the only one that mattered.

And she had that rare combination of big personality and small ego. She never planned to be in the centre of things, was happy to observe from the sidelines, but her magnetism and charm made strangers want to meet her, the accidental life of the party.

Then there was her photography. It found her, I think. Patti and the camera were ideally suited to each other; Patti accepting people where they were, at their place in time. There was no preconception, expectation or prejudice. One of her favorite destinations was visiting the homeless along the river in LA.


To me, this photo taken by Patti of her husband Mark, is indicative of her ability to capture the real person.

She not only touched them with her openness and acceptance, she captured them, authentically, through her lens.

The global ripple effect from Patti’s death is indicative of her capacity to love people; she was unforgettable. It literally took months for Mark to get round to all her contacts – people kept coming out of the woodwork.

Among her strengths were loyalty, empathy, insight, a sharp intellect, and that trademark sense of humour. I remember back in Leichhardt there was a newspaper cutting on the fridge, a photograph of a typical bank trading floor with the word ‘Greenback’ in the subject line. Patti had graffitied snot on the finger and nose of a serious looking, suited trader. It was so Patti: iconoclastic, irreverent, cheeky.

She wasn’t afraid to let me know her opinion – whether I asked for it or not – and I took whatever she said on board, knowing it always came from a place of love.

I’m sad Patti’s not here to share my sea-change move from Sydney to the South Coast of NSW, to witness my son Liam in a much better place after four years of riding rough shod through life, since leaving high school. And to celebrate my first ‘real’ writing job – a desire I’ve had since turning sixteen (not getting the grades required for journalism). She always encouraged me to keep that flame of creativity burning, sending me books out of the blue that she knew I’d love, or that reminded her of me.

A few of the books Patti sent me over the years.

Mark commented that my presence in those last days with Patti was ‘a blessing’. But that’s what families do. I jumped on that plane for Patti; I knew the gesture would have been reciprocated if the tables had turned the other way.

Vale Patti, our big sister. I have many memories to cherish. As Ig their eldest son texted recently: a part of her lives on, in the next generation. Such beautiful grandchildren they are too! – Chloe, Audrey and now Rachel, a little sister for Chloe, born in Manhattan just last month – 19 February 2022. The pain lightens as time takes us along on the tide.

I know I speak for many when I say: we’re all so much richer for having Patti touch our lives.

3 Responses to “Vale Patti, our big sister, by Zita Fogarty”

  • Anne Mainsbridge

    Oh Zita, you capture Patti so perfectly here! The laughter with the wicked undertones, the beautiful handwriting, the thoughtfulness… How hard it must have been to have lost such a unique “big sister”.
    However, your beautifully written piece honours her, and helps to lessen the pain of her loss.
    Anne xxxxx

  • Anne Mainsbridge

    Oh Zita, you capture Patti so perfectly here! The laughter with the wicked undertones, the beautiful handwriting, the thoughtfulness… How hard it must have been to have lost such a unique “big sister”.
    However, your beautifully written piece honours her, and helps to lessen the pain of her loss.
    Anne xxx

    • Zita Fogarty

      Thanks Anne.
      It took a length of time after her death before I could summon up the energy to write about her.
      But so healing to share these special memories in this space, as I’m sure it was for you.

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