KARIN DESISLAVA FEODORA BERNADETTE MARIA GUEPIN-STANCIOFF
My sister Karin was born in London on May 14, 1935, the elder daughter of Felix Guepin and Hélène nèe Stancioff. Having been married eleven years, my parents had abandoned all hope of ever having a child of their own and were contemplating adoption. Naturally, the were overjoyed. My mother, a great romantic, decided to call the child Karin, which in Greek means a special treasure, and her patron saint was Karin of Sweden.
Karin was three years older than I and we grew up together, sharing everything. We shared the same room, the same bath, the same toys, just like any two sisters so close in age. There were no squabbles between us, no tug-of-wars, no unwillingness to share possessions. Karin was a happy child always smiling and she became my life’s model. While she lay in her cot staring out at me with her big, beautiful blue eyes, I played the clown to amuse her. At an early age I learned that my toys were our toys and that all I possessed was to be shared. I remember how, pushing with all my childish might I managed to drop things trough the bars of her cot, and how she struggled to get hold of them and clutch them to her breast. Rushing round the nursery at the indefatigable pace of a healthy child I began to realize that our rhythms were different. While I grabbed a doll or pushed a wooden duck at full speed around the room, Karin’s reactions were very, very slow. But she was always laughing. I can still hear the peals of laughter as with the tremendous effort of moving her arms she clung to an old rag doll I had thrown to her.
My sister and I were always laughing. We laughed because we were happy together. At first sight, to the casual stranger we were not much different. But we were: I was s normal child, she by an accident of birth was spastic, a lifelong sufferer from cerebral palsy. At first, after her birth at our parents’ home in London, Karin’s condition was not obvious; she seemed to be a very delicate baby and was put on a special diet, but she steadily gained weight and the doctors didn’t thing she needed any more special care than was customary for newborn baby. Later, however, when it became obvious that Karin was not doing the things she should be doing and could not control her movements, the unending consultations with doctors, specialists and therapists began. At the age of three, while living in America, she was diagnosed by a San Francisco specialist as having a type of spastic infantile diplegia known as Little’s Disease, usually caused by a difficult labour in which the head of the infant is exposed to considerable pressure for a prolonged period of time. The sudden release of the pressure tears the delicate membranes in the head, resulting in meningeal haemorrhage, one of the causes of cerebral diplegia.
For six years in America Karin underwent innumerable clinical tests, first with a great deal of optimism on everyone’s part, but ultimately descending into disappointment and acceptance when it was realised that she would be confined to a lifetime of braces, corsets and wheelchairs.
On our return to England in early 1945 the daily schedule of exercises and therapy, including speech lessons, continued, with the addition, three years later, of treatment under the recently-developed Bobath method, treatment which led to general if slow improvement. Karin, in fact, was Mrs Bobath’s first patient in London. Along with the Bobath treatment she was also pursuing her formal education by correspondence course. She was an excellent student and passed her examination with very good marks.
Karin developed into a truly remarkable person and personality. She was joyous, full of humour, she was wise. She listened and could counsel and console those around her with loving understanding. Her love of life was contagious, her capacity for loving unique. She had a great thirst for learning, read a lot and had a phenomenal memory. She loved the arts, music and ballet especially; she liked to finger-paint and was very good at it. She learnt to type-write though with great effort and at a slow pace. Her ambition, which she could never realise, was to design patterns of mosaics for church floors. She was an enthusiastic museum-goer. An interesting anecdote illustrates her very good memory. On a visit to the Prado Museum she was shown a set of photographs of Leonardo da Vinci paintings which, through lack of space in the museum proper, were housed in the cellar. On seeing one particular picture Karin exclaimed: “But you can’t have this one here, it’s in one of the rooms in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.” And she was right.
Karin was always asking questions – her favourite word was “why?” Possessed of strong will and determination, she managed the most difficult exercises and in her early teens manipulated an electric wheelchair, which gave her the joy of relative independence. She was always ready for adventure – an outing, a journey. We travelled the world with her. Her favourite place was the shrine at Lourdes in France. She went there with hope, she came back full of strength, praying always for those to be cured who were in worse physical condition than herself. Surprisingly, she was a great talker and became the centre of attention in our family.
Our mother, deeply religious, devoted her life to Karin; seeing it as God’s will she persevered with love and faith. Our father, an active and busy man of the world, learnt patience from Karin; she taught him to sit next to her and wait for the words that were slow in coming. She taught him to stop and think about the power and strength of faith.
At the age of 55 Karin died as she had lived: quietly, without fuss, she just slipped away during evening prayers, in the presence of our mother, and Anna who had devoted 45 years of her life entirely to the care of Karin. She had said au revoir to me few days earlier at Crans sur Sierre, our home in the Swiss mountains, before my departure for Spain. She went like an angel filling the tremendous void she left with the warmth and splendour of a Christ-like love. My sister was the unforgettable example and model of my life. A true saint.