The Last of Miss Hewett’s Shenanigans

The Last of Miss Hewett’s Shenanigans: The Death of Dorothy Hewett

lately I‘ve heard

that little crop-eared owl

that lives in the ruins of Athena’s temple

hooting a warning.

(Black Harbour)

I have resisted this, writing of you, or rather of you dying, your death. Knowing, too well, that writing is an alchemist’s art and unwilling to transmute the experience. For there is no gold to be found there, only the black clay, the gaping hole into which they lowered your coffin, strewn with roses and wattle as a single crow cawed, the music played and the day was liquid with light. And all those strong men you loved fighting

gravely against their tears.

Now I can no longer deny or elude it, the words are taking shape beneath my skin, they will not be denied anymore and you taught me far too well. Only words will serve as a scalpel to carve grief and anger back to the bone, exposing the viscera, the muscle, the flesh until I can articulate shape, the skeleton of you, dying, in such a rage.

In the hospital garden amid the ferns, the sky is lark blue, diaphanous, you fix me with a fierce and baleful eye

I won’t recant, I never will, not now,

The light is filtered through green and on the rocks there are shadows of darkest moss, I cover you with the Connamarra shawl, although you’re not cold, just lately you’re always hot, fevered, warm to the touch; you always hated the heat. Somewhere, close, the long pitiless cold is seeping towards you like a bloodstain. Your skin is green and black with bruising, the medication doesn’t agree with you, nor you with it. And you’re roiling with rebellion, seething, there is no point in trying to calm you. Although, in the past, I’ve had some skill at that.

They want me to see a psychiatrist because I’m sad about dying. How fucking stupid is that

They want you reconciled I reply reconciled to death.

It has always been a pointless exercise to lie to you about important things; you’ve not tolerated fools or evasion well. For you truth is a necessity, you need it like oxygen, or a plant needs light.

Cunt, cunt, cunt

One of your favourite words, it came from the solar plexus we once decided and that was the reason that it was such a satisfying expletive. And you are furious with it all, with yourself most of all, with the body that is so bitterly betraying you.

I don’t envy the psychiatrist I say.

We laugh and a small bird flies up, startled. Your hair is all silvered in the light, a nimbus, hazarding sentimentality, I could say a halo. How you’d hate that. But I know the afternoon is a gift, an act of grace, to see you outside in the world, not pinioned in the darkness of pain, or morphine madness or even the old cantankerous wheelchair. Now you have a new one, and very glamorous it is, too.

We speak of Blake, and despite your vehement protestations against a vicious Patriarchal God, we both love Blake and have some experience of his Angel. And Keats, of course, Wordsworth and then Pablo Neruda dying as the junta destroyed his manuscripts; Victor Hara silenced by the military, his hands mangled. For this is what truly frightens you, silence, the stilling of your voice, the clamour of all your voices, layered and textured and never easily contained. Almost inevitably I am reminded of Dransfield, the great hope of Australian poetry, dying young of tetanus, that marvelous laugh silenced, the poet’s jaws locked against the lifeblood of his heart. The black irony of his fate. I look up and see that there are tears in your eyes

I don’t want to die, Kate

I can make no reply to this, I have none; love is such a fragile gift to balance against the scales of night. There is nothing I can do but stroke your hand as if you were some wild creature, crippled and defenceless in the iron trap of time.

Once I used to tease you about dying. I had promised that I would conscript a priest, any priest, to hear your deathbed confession. How you would be absolved of all your sins, despite your intellectual protest made in arrogance and pride, that God would forgive you. And then, an eternity, wrapped in His cruel arms, of relentless Christian bliss. That it wouldn’t matter what you said, (this would always particularly enrage you) that God would understand that you really did want to cross the great divide, to be relieved of your atheism. I knew you’d rise up, in some things you were entirely predictable.

Now, no threat of priestcraft can change the tide that is inexorably pulling you further away into dark water, as remote from human need or desire as the change of a season. In the garden I feel the sun, almost tangibly, slide slowly down the sky, and we should go back inside for you tire very easily now. But I don’t want to return you to the cage of blank, white walls, the insidious smell of the terminal unit that gets onto your skin, in your hair; the endless, muted hush of machines that monitor every second of life slipping away. In this war of attrition pain is dissecting you, as the cancerous cells divide mindlessly and even your rage is defeating you. Light deepens, eventually you look up and say

We should go in now

There is something now broken in your voice, it’s threaded with fear, you, who taught me so much about courage.

When next I come I bring more oyster silk nightgowns, frothy with lace and delicate beading, lavender oil and lanoline. A frail armoury against the dark that is stalking you, but all I have. You have always been a woman who loved to touch things, a tactile creature. I can still see you at your last opening, with an oddly secretive smile, patting and stroking a red velvet gown, fingering your jet-black beads.

I had not expected to find you conscious this visit, but you have defied prediction, as is your want. I don’t know what to expect anymore, but I never really did, not with you. The bruising is worse, your nose keeps bleeding and you drink a little fluid, perhaps only to humour me. But your mind is fiercely alive, that prodigious intellect fired by pride and the insatiable desire to pursue ideas, knowledge, to shape and distil experience in the crucible of your art. I read you a review of your latest collection of poems and you concede that it has real merit. Over the years you have acquired immunity to the vitriol, the sheer, unadulterated malice or the bewildered incompetence that has characterized so many reviews of your work. There haven’t been a whole lot of people who could keep up with you, scale the heights of your intellectual and creative prowess; part of my pride was that I could.

Outside the insulated hospital window, the palms trees crash riotously in the wind, bending under each new onslaught, like hunted animals. The fires have burned down in you since last I came, there’s less of rage and nothing of acceptance. To this, only, have you set your will. And God knows how stubborn you are. I watch your husband, a giant of a man, prowling the horizon between life and death, never still, ceaselessly vigilant. He walks, poised on the balls of his feet, like a boxer, waiting for another lethal attack by a devious opponent. He doesn’t sleep much anymore.

I read some of your poems to you, watch you mouthing the words with me, I lose myself again in another of your poetic worlds and look up to see tears in your eyes again, so unlike you,

Don’t stop, keep reading

And I do, throat aching; I read the poems of your last book, the lucidity of that marvelous language unraveling out of my mouth.

I want so much to take you home. To where the magnolia tree is luscious, almost indecent, with blossom and the shy camellia bush is bending under the weight of bloom. To your beautiful room, with its domed ceilings, shaped like the Chapel on the Green; teeming with books and artworks, light cascading through the stained glass windows, all the shadows of all the voices and lovers and conversations illuminating the walls. It only lacks an owl.

When I leave you the next day, I kiss you adamantly on your head and say

Don’t cry, I promise I will see you again, soon

Such banal words. Ten days later on a serene and sun-filled morning you die.

One of the last things you said to the man who kept the long vigil with you, the warrior, was that you wanted a cat. I wonder if you knew that the cat is valued in many different cultures as one of the wisest companions with whom one can cross to the spirit world. I suspect this idea would annoy you a great deal. We never agreed about death. To me it is a brief liberation, and then bound again to the Wheel. To you it was the end; the mind snuffed out like a candle, and to argue otherwise was abject cowardice, a refusal to acknowledge the absolute limits of what it means to be human. The argument doesn’t matter anymore.

Death and I are old companions, for it has been given to me, by some quirk of fate, to know a great deal about death, and grief. There seem to be far too many corpses in my life, and you go now to join these shades, some of them quiescent and some restless. On windy nights when the moon is full they will sometimes roam the house, unquiet or agitated. Then, as befits a descendent of all those black Celts, I get up and make a pot of tea for them, light a candle and converse. I shall set a cup for you now, never fear.

I have never truly known if you understood what a great gift you were to my life, to the difficult and tempestuous young woman I was or to the even more difficult woman I became. How many times have I sailed my craft into treacherous water and turned back to you, your hand on the tiller, your wisdom the stars by which I navigated another precarious passage. My life feels strangely dislocated, joyless without you, and this too will pass. In time, the bitter dregs of time. Just now I have neither the strength nor the inclination to take Pablo Neruda’s advice and break off that:

Sombre rose, shut up the stars and bury the ash in the earth.. to wake with those others that awoke or go in the dream, reaching the other shore of the sea which as no other shore.

(The Watersong Ends)

Kate McNamara

7th September, 2002

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