Meryl Hyde and I first met in the summer of 1975. We were both asked to join the Access Skills Project Team. The team consisted of primary and secondary school teachers and educational consultants, drawn from State and Catholic schools, a social worker, a journalist, a graphic artist. Our brief was to develop whole school approaches to the teaching of ‘access skills’: literacy, numeracy and social interaction skills. The project was the brain child of Bill Bainbridge and John Sargeant; both had been inspectors of English in Technical schools in Victoria. Bill Bainbridge had also been a school principal.
We became close friends and remained friends until the very end. Our friendship helped sustain us both personally and professionally for over 40 years. It helped sustain us through emotional and existential upheavals in our lives – separations, divorces, disappointments and depression. But it was also an intellectual relationship. We would discuss the issues that confronted us in our work as teachers and writers and thinkers.
When Andrew – Meryl’s son – compiled a video for Meryl’s 60th birthday, he invited many people to speak off-the-cuff and on camera about Meryl. I remember saying at that time: “Meryl was never an ‘easy’ friend. She was always very honest and direct. If she felt I’d done the wrong thing, or that my view of something was wrong, she would tell me.” After she died, I remembered the first Access Skills live-in conference we attended. She and I composed a song together, sung to the tune of the Arlo Guthrie masterpiece Alice’s Restaurant. The chorus of the song went:
You can get anything you want if you’re willing to take a risk …
In her relationships with friends, this risk taking took the form of honesty and directness. What I came to realise was that this directness stemmed from her commitment to being honest – both to herself and to her friends. Sometimes the risks backfired; friends would step back, offended or hurt, and distance themselves. She was never cruel; nor was she dogmatic.
She battled with her demons, as we all must, and she struggled with loneliness at times, and with disappointments. And she dealt with them though her two greatest strengths: her capacity for friendship and her devotion to good, honest conversation. And of course, through her love of reading and of film and of theatre.
When she was diagnosed with bowel cancer she faced it without self-pity. During the final many months of her life I would drop into her unit in Clifton Hill on Saturday mornings – after taking my daughter to her work place in Carlton. We would chat over coffee and biscuits for an hour, sometimes two.
The five poems in this Suite were written between December 2015 and mid-October 2016. Her courage and honesty during that time were inspiring.
‘Do you fear death?’ I asked her on one occasion.
‘No … I am not afraid to die. And I have no regrets. I just don’t want to suffer pain.’
But this is all background material; in the poems I have attempted to trace the course of our relationship over the final year, and to chart that difficult terrain.
- Poem for Meryl
She has grown of a sudden frail, the chemotherapy
Those poisons, all those toxins that they’ve fed in
Mixed in a baby’s bottle, along a tube
Through a portal just above her breast
Into her veins…
They take their toll
She lives her life in two week cycles
Each second Wednesday they insert the formula
For three days, the stuff seeps through the portal
And is pumped around her body in the bloodstream
The first night is the worst
Poison sluicing around her body and she is hit by a bus
She is laid low
They’re killing the cancer, that’s the theory
Bludgeoning it to death
And her body tells her no, no I cannot bear it
Her body cannot bear it.
But she can.
Knocking it for six
and her with it
After three days they take the bottle away,
by Saturday or Sunday, she is a little better
She can find enough energy to read perhaps
Or go through boxes of old photographs
Holds them to her, seeing in them faces
Perhaps for the last time
She is throwing out boxes full of bits of paper
She has no need of
No one has need of any of
I shift in my chair as she tells me this
Over home brewed coffee
And Salada crackers with cheese
And I understand:
She does not want to leave her children
With the task of setting her affairs in order
I remember the day when she said to me
Thirty years ago
“You are stronger than you think you are”
I see that she is stronger that I think I will be.
Perhaps, I think, I’d best begin that shedding too
Relinquish the accumulation of ancient leaves
I hear a bell tolling
But realize: it’s only in my head
And realize: It tolls for all of us
We hug, she and I.
No I hug her and feel
How frail she has become.
I’m tough as old boots today
And she is not.
She is – not resigned, she says no not resigned –
She is very tired now
We have been talking
Coffee and Salada crackers
For an hour and a half.
Too long I realize.
I’m annoyed with myself, for not seeing
How tired she’d become.
I should have known, and not waited
Till she had to ask me to leave
She walks me, a little doddery,
Out to the car.
2. Friendship: Poem for Meryl
Friendships that last the distance are hard to come by
Friends can so easily be lost along the way
Usually through excesses of one kind
Through one’s own folly or through theirs
Amidst all the blind cacophony of this world
Amidst the silent animosities, the bitter recriminations,
And the sightless lashings of triffids
Friends are so easily lost, misplaced
Friends sometimes choose to make themselves absent
The traffic noise, the ceaseless tramp of feet
The unending rushing to and fro
Party meetings where the comrades go
Prayer meetings where the comrades go
beneath a blanket in the cold darkness
earnest chats about the latest novels
wild projects, headlong adventures
Surrounded as we always seem to be
By clanging gongs and crashing cymbals
Silent and fervent whisperings
As constant as
The song of the silkie on an arctic shore
Or the lilting sound of flutes
or violins payed in duet
While the rest of the orchestra is for a short time
The candle flickers in a dark tunnel
Despite the eerie coldness and the wind
These are precious hours we spend
In the place where the gaudy, grotesque,
Luna Park smile of God welcomes us in
As he accepts the host. This is the final sacrament.
We take the last ride of the day before the park gates close.
Side shows surround us
Laughing clowns with table tennis balls mock passers by
We find our way
We pay the ferry man
and are launched on this final ride
Into the dim world of the Tunnel of Love
We sit together and talk of many things
The orphan and the wise traveller
Two children adrift …
In the darkness about us
We hear the children at their play
Their game is Hide-and-go-seek
We hear the grim voiced seeker
Who covers his eyes and counts:
Forty five/fifty …”
Time is running out
We huddle together and wonder
“How many miles to Babylon?”
How long until the inevitable words:
“Coming, ready or not.
The monkey’s on the war path.”
Are the children afraid?
Are we afraid
of this monkey’s chattering?
Are we afraid of being found out
By this monkey on his chattering, ruthless was path?
Oh yes … a little … More than a little. Yes.
Who knows what lies beyond
the accustomed near certainties of our Hundred Acre Wood?
A kind of dream?
A kind of nothingness?
The resurrection of the dead?
The communion of Saints?
The blessed reunion with the long-since dead?
The glorious banquet
Where the Latter Day Saints gather by the river
That flows by the throne of God?
Garth, our driven friend
Sometimes spoke in metaphors:
Here, he explained, it is as if we were in Hollywood, on a backlot,
On a set where they will shoot
The final shoot out. High Noon, perhaps.
Or Darkness at Noon.
In outfits chosen from ‘Wardrobe’
with guns that can only fire blanks
Will sidle out of saloons and barbers’ shops
(Painted cardboard replicas, of course)
Extras will scuttle – for safety – back inside
And peer at the pageant from behind their drawn curtains
While the gunslingers face each other on the street
Waiting for some movement to trigger their quick -as-a-flash draw
All is illusion
That stately bank that seems so solidly real
Is no more than a single sheet painted plywood
Propped up with sticks
Not only that: the dollar bills are counterfeit!
We know, perhaps to our detriment
That the throne and the banquet too
Are propped up pretences.
Philosophers, scientist, thinkers
Galileos and Darwins
Have plundered Eden of its apples
Have left us without the certainties of ignorance
The comforting illusions
And we ride in the boat along the Tunnel of Love …
We are growing older
Who knows what turn the boat will make next?
Friends are hard to come by
Therefore let us persist
Let us eat
Strong coffee from the bodem
And be merry
As merry as we can be under the circumstances
We listen to the thudding of the water
On the underside of the hull
And smell the salt in the spray on ghe air.
“This is the way the world ends:
Not with a bang but a whimper.”
No cataclysmic explosions
No icy freezing over all the world
Just a small boat adrift in the Tunnel of Love
About to be loosed, at sunset, into the vastness of the open seas.
3. Saturday mornings with Meryl
October 2, 2016
I fear that sometime soon
Saturdays will never be the same
For months that seem like years my Saturdays
Have been ordered, like the Sundays of my youth
Back then, when I was a believer
In God the father
God the Son
God the Holy Ghost
A believer in
The Communion of the Saints
The Life Everlasting
I would each Sunday morning
Commit myself whole-heartedly, soul-fully
To the practiced rituals:
The faithful gathered together to sing His praise
To pray and listen to the Word of God
To receive, symbolically
In the non-alcoholic grape juice
Of dowdy Methodism
The body and the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ
Each service began with “Our Father …”
And ended with the benediction:
“And now may the peace of God, that passeth all understanding …”
Like all well-versed in the intricate interplay
Of comedy and tragedy
She began our conversation with a joke
“They’ve sent me home because of bad behaviour.”
[You can be sure when Comedy is cavorting about on stage
That Death will be in the wings, waiting for his cue.]
The news is not good.
The procedure they’d intended to perform:
The unblocking of a bile duct
Had been abandoned.
They saw little point in removing the speck of sawdust from her eye
When there was a plank in her chest.
The cancer in her lung had grown. Suddenly. Exponentially.
Breathing was more difficult now.
The progress down the estuary had been slow till now.
A gentle drifting on the mirror-like surface
The current, benign
The vessel, barely moving
It seemed becalmed, almost.
No one knew quite when the tide would quicken
When the current would grow stronger, more insistent
When paddling to resist the tidal rush
The rapid ebbing
Would no longer make a skerrick of difference
Our Saturday mornings had been like picnics
On the deck of the Good Ship Lollipop
Coffee and shortbread biscuits
In the midships
Stories and laughter and camaraderie on the decks
Foolishly, I thought these easy times could last forever.
I was wrong.
Now we can feel it
The current tugs and pushes and jostles and drags
Resistance is almost certainly futile
This is the tide that moves in the affairs of men
“I’ve been pushed into the next stage,” she tells me
“It’s a big jump.”
I know just what she means.
Our Saturdays –
Are about to change.
I can smell the change on the air.
And soon, too soon
I know these Saturdays will end.
This is not pessimism speaking.
For a year now we have chatted so easily
About these heavy matters
And each time, if we felt we weren’t quite done
Well, there’d always be tomorrow
There’d always be next Saturday.
We spoke, often, of death
And God knows, she’s prepared well
Tidied her papers, her books, her affairs, her life
To make the crossing of the sand bar easier to manage
For her children, her friends
I must be very clear about this:
We weren’t two kiddies playing ‘Let’s pretend.’
We did not imagine nightfall would not come.
These Saturday mornings
We were two old and aging friends
Both past the designated three score years and ten
We knew that we now lived on borrowed time.
[I’ve only just now thought of this:
Maybe this “added time” was a gift from God
A repayment for our staunchly Methodist years
All of those prayers we’d prayed
Those good deeds done.]
The last time I had seen her
Ten days back
She’d been the best she’d been in quite some time.
That mind, always so passionate and focussed
Was crystal clear.
Those eyes, full of life and fire.
We’d chatted for nearly two hours
She didn’t tire.
Maybe it was a kind of sunset clause
The lull before the inevitable storm
The moment of complete stillness at the change of tide.
If there’s a Heaven
[concerning which we are both confirmed sceptics]
It is not among the clouds
It is a small living room
one of the many mansions in God’s house
where old friends sit for hours and chat
over coffee and shortbreads
and what can one say anyway
about this state of affairs:
“I’ll miss you.
I don’t want you to die.”
I will take take-away coffee
And home-cooked egg and bacon muffins
And stay for just a short time
Because she is tired and in pain
And finding it hard to breathe
The cancer has surrounded her lungs
And I will wish for her
What Eric Bogle wished for Willy McBride:
‘I hope you die quick and I hope you die clean’.
I hope that your death isn’t ‘slow and obsecene.’
Soon, I will say: From this day forth
Saturdays will be days of sacred remembrance
“She feels it close now, the appointed season
Suddenly, without warning without reason
The guiding spark of instinct winks and dies…
The complex map of hills and rivers
Mocks her small wisdom with its vast design.”
That day is near.
Beyond that day
Each sunrise will be tinged with sadness
Each coffee tinged with the bitterness of loss.
4. Funeral Blues: A Poem for Meryl
Friday, October 11, 2016
The clocks will not be stopped, and mobile phones
Will ring and will not cease
The dogs will bark and wake us from our sleep
But there is nothing will disrupt her peace
The waiting time has passed and she is gone
The coffin’s brought, the mourners have all come
There’ll be no moaning aircraft overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message: She Is Dead
No black crepe bows around the necks of doves
No traffic policemen wearing black cotton gloves.
She wasn’t one for ostentatious gestures
Just quiet remembrance from the ones she loved.
She was herself until the very end
She worked at dying as she worked at life
Without fuss. Quietly. Efficiently. With dignity.
She knew how to live. She taught us how to die.
She lived these last eighteen months
As she had lived her life:
She lived as though tomorrow were eternal
Read books. Watched films. Followed the politics.
Four weeks ago she toddled off
With Marie to a play.
She loved a conversation till the last.
I thought this kind of living might last forever.
I was wrong.
In life, she had so many projects:
Her garden. Her plants. DSP and PEP.
Access Skills. Her cards. Bookclub.
The idiocy they call Naplan.
Death was her final project.
She died exactly as she would have wished.
Her death occurred, in fact, as she had planned it:
With loved ones close, with farewells said.
Her papers and her life in order.
Not causing any fuss. She stayed at home
Until she knew that it was time to go.
And those of us– the ones whom she called friend.
Can only marvel at her strength and courage
Her honesty, her trueness to herself.
There was no self-pity, no anger, few – if any – regrets
She’d lived a rich, a fulsome life.
Found in her heart the strength it takes
To embrace death, to forgive what few would forgive.
Auden, confronted by the death of one he loved, wrote:
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song.
I thought that love would last forever. I was wrong.
Yes, she is gone –to quote another poet: A D Hope
“The great earth, with neither grief nor malice
Received the tiny burden of her death.”
The stars remain – they go about their course
There’ll be no dismantling of the moon and sun;
The ocean will remain
and she will walk
That long wide sweep of beach till each day is done.
Auden wrote, when overcome by loss
That nothing now can ever come to any good.
But once more, I’m afraid, he got it wrong.
Never mistaking illusion for the real.
What an amazing friend. What an amazing person.
The great earth may not grieve her death
But we will
The stars and moons and planets may pay no heed
But we will
For me, no friend has loved and cared so well
No friend has cared so wholly for my soul
Seen past the gestures, the crap, the frailties, the excesses
No friend has loved so well.
The end came fast. It was just as she wished.
She did not fear death. But she did not want the pain.
That wish was granted.
She was herself until the very end.
And I will miss my most enduring friend.
5. And so I come to pay my last respects
Saturday, October 15
And so I come to pay my last respects
For she is gone.
The universe, with neither grief nor malice
Has received the tiny burden of her death
She has become another entry in the Doomsday Book
And soon enough, nature will take its course
Twenty years on, as memories fade and fade
Some bare acquaintance might be heard to say:
‘Do you remember … oh… what was her name?’
Her name was Meryl Hyde.
But already what once was “Meryl Hyde”
Is held in a plastic container.
From dust and ashes we all come
To ashes she is now returned
The poet, Auden, overcome by grief
Demanded that all clocks be stopped.
The world, the universe, should cease to turn
In recognition that his loved one died.
The woman that we grieve would have understood
His pain, his loss. But she would not have concurred
Auden had thought that love would last forever.
He realised, too late, that he was wrong.
No such delusions, no such posturing
For she who lay within that wooden box
That Friday in October
Before they made her body dust.
She knew that nothing – nothing – lasts forever
Not joy nor hate nor fear nor love nor suffering
And so I come to pay my last respects
To this most fiercely loyal, most honest,
Most passionately alive
Most unswervingly courageous
In the face of all that life could do
To bring her down
Deaths, divorces, disappointments and disasters
Through the whole alphabet of life’s cruelties and generosities
Through Agonies and Addictions and loved ones dying from AIDS
Bitchiness and Bullying and Bastardry
Edginess, excess, excitement
Foolhardiness and Falsehoods …
The whole Gamut
Everything from A to Z
She struggled, suffered, swore, strove and survived
I’m not for one minute pretending that she was a saint
Oh no. She was, in all respects, utterly human …
And it is to all of these human respects
I come to pay these: my last respects
And make this last thanksgiving.