December 2014, Melbourne, Australia
Maryanne has been my friend since I first met her on day one of my son’s kinder journey. While the rest of us were quietly freaking out at the enormity of leaving our BABIES on their own for a whole hour with near-perfect strangers (OMG!!! add emoticon of choice), Maryanne strolled in, gave her daughter a kiss and some words of reassurance and then laconically announced to a mutual friend, “I might just get going, I think Chloe, so Mia can get on with her day.” Right then and there I knew we were going to be mates, because I would make sure of it. She knew stuff.
It turned out to be a cinch to become her friend. She was one of the easiest people to talk to I have ever met, and she so loved finding out what made people tick. Within a week of me introducing myself, she had invited me to join her mother’s group, as I (cunningly? innocently?) mentioned that my own had recently drifted on to different neighbourhoods and lives. Our family had found our true gang and Maryanne was instrumental in setting that up. Thanks MA, love your work.
In the intervening 9 years, that first recognition of a kindred spirit has proven itself over and over. In her wake, we have realised that for our gang, she was the mum. Slightly older than us all in years, she was millennia ahead of us in wisdom and always went straight to the heart of a conversation. ‘I’d just let that one go’, she’d say and then you could, because you realised of course she was right. ‘Yeah, it’s pretty fuckin’ shit, but does it really matter?’ or, ‘Yep, that is totally fuckin’ shit. What are you going to do about it?’ was all I needed to hear her say, and I’d be back on track.
For the whole time I’ve known Maryanne, she taught at a local Catholic school, and several cycles of families have navigated the highs and lows of primary school with Maryanne there to guide them through it. Everywhere I went with her she would run into parents from her school, or their children, all of whom wanted to come and give her a hug and bask in the sunshine of her love. She just radiated warmth, and every single person who knew her felt they were special to her. We are now all the colder for our loss.
She would hate me for making her sound like a saint, and she was far from saintly, but she was one of those rare people who make their flaws into virtues by the sheer grace with which they live. She whinged as much as the next person, smoked and drank with abandon, and was often bothered by depression and overwhelming sadness. Together we would wind ourselves into a spitting love fest of fury, matching each other in finding the vilest imprecations possible for the latest inhumanities displayed by successive disgusting governments and lashing ourselves to greater heights of comedic vitriol. Boy did she love a debate and a laugh.
Like me, she didn’t back away from a fight, but unlike me, she was able to put the passionate vitriol aside and be both tactful and supremely disarming when engaging in battle. As a school councillor dealing with a divisive and incompetent principal, I have remained sane (I think I’m still sane!) thanks to the advice I have received from Maryanne in countless rants she has endured. She taught me the art of empathetic argument and I am not only a better warrior, but a better person for that knowledge. She has slowed me down and made me a more effective advocate. All the while I thought she was just letting me vent. Sneaky, MA!
Being so passionate about all the things that are wrong in the world, she recently completed post-graduate training in student wellbeing so she could be a better teacher, thereby creating better outcomes for her students. As usual, her gang milked this wisdom for the benefit of our own parenting and our kids are certainly the better for her advice. And they know it, too. Telling my children that Maryanne had died was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. We try to protect our children from the shit in life, and this was the biggest pile they’ve ever come close to smelling, let alone diving into. Somehow a sudden and shocking death is just so much fucking worse than any other kind, and as I told them the news, I saw something break in their hearts that will never be repaired. I recognise it reflected in my own shattered heart and those of the many people in our community I have since told, or just sobbed with.
The one thing that I have been sure of since hearing the inconceivable news that Maryanne was on life-support, is that her spirit is going to be one pissed off spectral being. She will be FURIOUS on so many levels about the manner of her passing. As a passionate advocate for wellbeing, she will be demanding to see the Transitions Director about the unacceptable lack of professionalism displayed in allowing her to collapse at work, thus possibly traumatising innocent children. She will be irate that she was even at work; if it had to be so sudden, why couldn’t they have at least let her be doing something fun on the way out? She will be fuming at the disruption to all her plans for the future, and pretty fucking pissed off that her beloved friends have been so destroyed by the shocking nature of her sudden departure. Like me, she preferred to be the last one to leave a party... Mostly, though, she would be so completely fucking angry at the injustice of not being around for her beloved Bill and their two beautiful daughters. As I have said to countless friends, the more you think about that one, the shittier it gets. I don’t think even Maryanne could come up with a positive slant to that immense tragedy. It’s just FUCK FUCK FUCKITY FUCKED. So yes. She is one pissed off spirit, and the Transitions Director had better look out...
As I have hopefully managed to illustrate, Maryanne lived a big, generous life, and ours is not a small loss. However, we are all so aware that it pales into insignificance beside the loss faced by her two young daughters and her devestated partner. We, her friends, can do nothing but hold ourselves together, ready to catch any bits of them that fall apart and glue them back together as would be expected of us by Maryanne. As it has turned out, perhaps it was for her family that Maryanne planted and tended her enormous garden of friends.
Our children, who all adored Maryanne because she made them feel important and loved, each in their own special way, are all so sad, but each of them has a precious story to tell of why they loved this fabulous woman, and that is a gift they will have forever. We, her friends, all have precious stories of her humour, her advice, her silliness, and her totally unique outlook on life – nothing can take that away from us, and we can help her children to remember her as they grow older, by sharing those little moments with them.
Even though her sudden and premature death makes me incandescent with rage, her laconic voice is in my head still. ‘Yeah, it’s fucking shit, but as long as you can still celebrate the good stuff, it’ll be okay.’ Well, Maryanne, for once I’m not entirely convinced you’re right, but since you aren’t here to argue with, this is me celebrating you, because you make me so happy and you are the BEST stuff.
Love you, Maryanne Balmer. Rest in peace.