Philippa’s message popped up in my screen last week as I was sitting down to read a book on the iPad.

‘Hey darling!’ it said. ‘How are you doing? How’s it going? You are my sister and I love you! I miss you so much! Thinking of you and miss and love you to infinity!’

The message was then followed by approximately 50 heart emoticons and kisses, as usual with Philly. I didn’t reply, not wanting to get drawn into a long exchange — my sister was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in her 30s and would sometimes stay up into the small hours firing off rather manic missives only to forget about them the next morning.

What I really wish was, however, is that I did.

Because when I did message back the next day, unusually Philly didn’t reply. And that evening, as I ate dinner with my husband, Erik, 50, I had a call from one of Philly’s sons.

My nephew told me his mother had gone to bed the night before, tired after a recent bout of Covid but otherwise seemingly fine — but when her partner of 12 years, Mike, joined her later, he’d found her cold and unresponsive. 

She’d slipped away in her sleep, aged just 53.

It was almost impossible to bear the pain of my grief and shock. Even more so, Philly was only just returning to my life after being away for years. We couldn’t have led more contrasting and divided lives.

I often wonder how two sisters — raised the same, who looked so similar and were so close as children — could have had such varying degrees of luck, success and happiness.

Tess Stimson pictured alongside 'incredibly warm and forgiving' sister Philly, who has died aged 53

Tess Stimson and Philly Stimson, a ‘incredibly forgiving’ sister that has passed away at 53. 

Good grades, Oxford University and a TV career were my highlights. I became a best-selling novelist, got married, and have a happy family. 

Philly, on the other hand, quit school when she was 16, had three children with him, and faced financial and emotional difficulties.

For many years, I longed to have a sister I could be proud of, someone ‘ordinary’ I could go for gossipy lunches with, or trade horror stories about our terrible teenagers.

Today I feel completely different. I’d give anything to have her back, on any terms at all. 

When we eventually reunited in 2019 after several years of not speaking, it was as if I’d rediscovered a piece of myself.

Philly always thought she didn’t matter, but she taught me what real compassion looked like. In the early years some might say she was a deeply flawed and imperfect mother, but her frailties gave her huge empathy for other people’s failings.

She was able to enjoy great joy knowing that her children were doing well before her death.

Incredibly warm and forgiving, my mother nicknamed her Philly ‘Fagin’ because she was forever collecting ‘lame ducks’. 

Her house was home to the vulnerable young drug addicts, alcoholics, and others she cared for.

She was generous to a fault; she’d give you her last bean. My love was unconditional. 

I realise now there’s no one left who will love me quite like that. There is no one left who knew me as a child.

No one who remembers my mother’s laugh, or the time Daddy taught us to waterski.

Tess, who attended Oxford University, pictured with sister Phillu

Tess was a student at Oxford University. She is pictured here with her sister Phillu 

Philly was my brother and I lost. They were our constant companions as we grew up. Once they’re gone, there’s nothing you can do to fill the hole they’ve left.

This feeling is all the more acute for me, because when I heard of Philly’s death, as well as being poleaxed by sorrow, I was struck with a dizzying sense of deja vu. 

In July 2015, I received a shattering call from a doctor at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford to say my baby brother Charles — known to the family as Bug — had suffered a cardiac arrest aged just 40 and was in a coma.

As his next of kin — our parents had died years before — I had to fly to England from our home in Vermont, U.S., and make the toughest decision to turn off his life support.

But while I crossed an ocean to be at his bedside, Philly refused to make the two-hour journey from her home in Brighton because she said it’d be too ‘upsetting’. 

It was me who went alone through all of the steps, including the switch off his life support and the final decision to donate his organs. I also arranged the funeral.

I was bitterly mad and cut off all contact with Philly. It’s an awful thing to admit now, but at the time I was raging that it was my brother, not my sister who’d died. Can you imagine how it feels now?

My mother Jane was in terrible post-natal depression when Philly was born. I was only two years old at the time.

It was so bad my father, Michael, a contract manager for an engineering firm, would leave our home in Caterham, Surrey, in the morning with Mummy sitting on the bed, and return home at night to find she hadn’t moved.

My sister and me were both hungry and filthy.

Mummy received outpatient electric shock treatment and gradually recovered.

In 1972, Daddy took a job in Corfu on the Greek Island of Corfu. The family moved together and lived in idyllic sunshine.

But my sister, a sickly baby, couldn’t cope with the damp, albeit mild, Greek winter.

Mummy was diagnosed with pneumonia thirteen times within 18 months. Mummy moved back to London to be with her family while my father completed his two-year contract. 

Tess Stimson (pictured in the purple dress) with her sister Philippa when the pair were children

Tess Stimson and her sister Philippa (pictured wearing the purple dress when she was a child).

Philly was in and out of hospital for months, and my mother was so focused on keeping her alive there wasn’t much time for me.

I took refuge in books, reading voraciously and losing myself in other people’s stories.

The same comfort came later when I wrote them.

With hindsight, I can see the trauma of my mother and sister’s illnesses — both were later diagnosed as bipolar — led me to shut down emotionally, making me seem tougher than I really am.

Philly, however, was someone I loved and cared deeply about. When we were Brownies and went on camping trips, we’d be put in separate tents, but I’d always creep out at night and go and find her, tucking her into her sleeping bag and wishing her ‘Sweet dreams, Silly Philly’.

However, our paths took us on different tracks as we entered our teens. While I was accepted at Oxford, my sister left high school to pursue a career in secretarial work. 

Although she started out well, her 18-year-old married boss snatched her from her. Her life was forever changed.

At 21 she had never met a man and was forced to marry him. At the age of 30, she was already divorced three more times, and she was single mother to three children. 

In the meantime, I worked as a TV news producer and traveled the world before finally moving to the United States with Erik, my second spouse, and our daughter Lily (19), and my two sons, Henry, 27 and Matt, 24, from my first marriage.

Philly had various health problems — exacerbated by her drinking and smoking. My sister was a mother to me, so it was hard for me, even though my efforts were unsuccessful. Sometimes it seemed like we didn’t have much in common anymore.

She was always in dire straits and asked for help. Sometimes, she’d forget our rambling conversations in minutes.

Eventually, doctors told her she’d kill herself if she didn’t change her lifestyle. So infuriated was I by this, that I once publicly said I wouldn’t give her my kidney if she destroyed hers — only for her to agree with me!

Bug’s death was the last straw. However, as I began to accept my grief I realized how deeply I miss Philly. I loved her just as much as I loved Bug yet I’d let us become estranged. 

If something happened to her too, I realised I’d never forgive myself. Dec 2018, she received a long, heartfelt letter in which I expressed how much I loved her and my desire to see her again in my life.

It was the best day of my life when she contacted me out of the blue, just as Covid came. Both of us sobbed as we shared our precious memories about Bug and our childhoods. 

Philly was an exceptional memory, regardless of the small details. He remembered everything from secret societies and holiday forts.

But I was still very wary — we’d been down this road before. In the past, we’d arrange to meet when I was in England, and she’d leave me standing at the train station. Or I’d pay for a flight to the U.S., and she simply wouldn’t get on it.

It was this time that I decided not to expect too many and accepted the fact that I might be disappointed once again. But I’m so glad to say that over the past two years, Philly proved me wrong. 

Our conversations were lucid, sensible and often hilarious — she knew exactly how to make me laugh. Her sister was a kind-hearted, earthy and rude woman who knew how to make her laugh.

It was the first time I had ever understood her. What I’d never known was that, years ago, she’d been prescribed morphine for agonising joint pain in her hip.

Whenever she complained to doctors about the pain, she was just given more drugs — until she was hooked.

It was combined with her medication for bipolar disorder that meant she couldn’t string sentences together. 

After seven years of this confusion, she’d finally — and very bravely — weaned herself off the morphine, going cold turkey for two weeks, suffering horrific sweats and chills.

She was a completely different person without the drug. I’d finally got my sister back. They spoke weekly and we exchanged many messages via Facebook. I dedicated my recent novel, Stolen, to Philly, ‘my memory-keeper and best friend’. It was a joy to see.

Because of Covid restrictions, we only managed to physically see each other once, when I flew to see her last September, but it’s a memory I’ll always treasure.

Then we finally discussed Bug’s death. She explained how she just couldn’t watch someone she loved die again. Although she begged me for forgiveness, I was the one responsible. 

Her beauty was in her soul and she is a true angel. I’ve kept all of her messages, and what strikes me now is how many times she said she was proud of me, how much she loved me, how happy she was to have me in her life.

Philly was my closest relative in the extended family I came from. It’s an eerie feeling to be the last one in your family left. My shoulders are blown by the winds of mortality.

It’s obvious that somebody has to die, but I was only 59 when my mom died, 53 for my sister, and 40 for my brother. It’s too much, too soon. Philly had much more to live despite her difficult life.

She’d become very close to all her sons again over the past few years. They’d kept in touch with each other and with her, and to her delight, they gave her four grandchildren, with another on the way.

It was a promising future. Her partner and she had planned to relocate to British Columbia, Canada in the summer.

Even though I expected it, she didn’t actually go to sleep before me. That was all I had to say. She knew how much she loved me.

Silly Philly: Sweet dreams!

  • STOLEN by Tess Stimson, published by Avon HarperCollins, £8.99.