A friend wrote the other day to tell me Dalia died.
I met Dalia in 1972 at the nursing home she ran in Wattle Glen. You descended from the bitumen into a silvan retreat, the buildings concealed behind flowering native shrubs. A quiet path led to a doorway. Through the door you entered a different world: smells assailled you, disinfectant, cooking smells and behind them, always, the smell of urine, the smell of the elderly and incontinent.
Dalia greeted you, her voice musical, her fetching smile stretched over an uneven lower lip, the more fetching for assymetry, her accent French and very pleasing. The bushland at the entry and the greeting upon entering, these redeemed you amid the oppressive smells.
Dalia moved with you from patient to patient. Almost all of them were women, aged, their men long dead, their families generally distant through geography or choice. This young doctor, oppressed by bodies that did not work, by diseases medicine would not cure, by alienating disfigurement and by disfiguring debility, by drooling helplessness, dementia, strange behaviours, this doctor nearing quiet moral panic, redeemed, redeemed always by Dalia. Dalia would proceed to the bedhead, cradle the neck of her charge, sing to the patient the glad news of the coming of the doctor: Here is Doctor to see you, darling. You remember, this is Doctor Howard. He comes to you every week.
Dalia was not alienated, never distanced. Dalia embraced her guests, kissed their foreheads, fixed their pillows, fussed over painless areas of red skin that she would not allow to break down. Dalia spoke to her speechless, apparently demented patient, as if she were wholebrained, fully alert, fully human. Only after taking doctor aside, out of hearing, away from the presence of the stricken, would Dalia allow any concession to incompleteness.
A secular person, she recognised tenderly the spiritual yearnings of her charges, old women born in an earlier age when churchgoing was a norm and a religious outlook sustaining. Poor Thelma, she weeps, she weeps because God has rejected her. She wants to die, she prays for death, and because death does not come, she believes her God will not have her in his heaven.
Now death has come for Dalia. She was ninety two years old.
Dalia left Wattle Glen and our paths did not cross again until a few years ago, when our respective writings brought us together. The accent was still there, the smile, the relentless action of her critical mind, unwilling to yield on any of her concerns. And all her concerns were for humans. I read her memoir, a work of humbling honesty, of emotional privation in Belgium in the middle years of last century, of falling in love, of the ending of love, of emotional collapse, of recovery, of growth, of a thirst for learning. Hers was a life of learning, of ever journeying in her wisdom towards greater wisdom. I thought of Cavafy’s ‘Ithaca”.
As you set out on the way to Ithaca
hope that the road is a long one,
filled with adventures, filled with understanding.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
Poseidon in his anger: do not fear them,
you’ll never come across them on your way
as long as your mind stays aloft, and a choice
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
savage Poseidon; you’ll not encounter them
unless you carry them within your soul,
unless your soul sets them up before you.
Hope that the road is a long one.
Many may the summer mornings be
when—with what pleasure, with what joy—
you first put in to harbors new to your eyes;
may you stop at Phoenician trading posts
and there acquire fine goods:
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and heady perfumes of every kind:
as many heady perfumes as you can.
To many Egyptian cities may you go
so you may learn, and go on learning, from their sages.
Always keep Ithaca in your mind;
to reach her is your destiny.
But do not rush your journey in the least.
Better that it last for many years;
that you drop anchor at the island an old man,
rich with all you’ve gotten on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.
Ithaca gave to you the beautiful journey;
without her you’d not have set upon the road.
But she has nothing left to give you any more.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca did not deceive you.
As wise as you’ll have become, with so much experience,
you’ll have understood, by then, what these Ithacas mean.
Ultimately Dalia became a therapist. I thought how fortunate were her patients, what gifts of life she brought them from her lifelong travels to Ithaca.
Dalia became a little unwell a few weeks ago, persisting in her vigorous ways until her last days. When abruptly her blood pressure fell due to a prolapsed heart valve, she asked the doctors to perform the operation they’d ordinarily reserve for one decades younger. When they explained the risk of technical success with accidental brain damage, Dalia elected to die. She accepted a trial of hero molecules for twenty-four hours; when these duly failed, she embraced morphia, chatted with her loved ones and went to sleep, rich with all she’d gotten on the way, and arrived at last in her Ithaca.
Her believer friend, the young doctor of 1972, prays his God will give her rest. At this Dalia would smile her crooked smile and pat me on the head indulgently and forgive my wishful thinking.