Other voices

Heather’s friends and colleagues wrote many wonderful tributes to her in the days following her passing. Some came in email, some were gathered by organizations such as the League of Canadian Poets, some were on Facebook, etc. Another dear friend of Heather’s has shared the following.

The Death of Heather Spears
Margaret Slavin Dyment

On the day that Heather’s son Danny helped her pack up to go to the hospital for ‘tests,’ she had told me in one of her increasingly incoherent emails that I was to call her and that it could be any time, not to wait. “Well,” I typed back, “there is no way I am going to call you in the middle of your night, when you just might be getting some sleep—you need to sleep! I will call you at 7 my time,” I wrote, which was 1 p.m. her time. Heather was in Denmark; I was in Ontario, in Canada. We didn’t ordinarily speak on the phone. In the past we Skyped, but that technology had defeated me; we had just begun to explore Zoom. Mainly it was emails, day in and day out, mostly reacting to dramas playing out in the lives of our friends in Gaza, but at other times it was anything and everything about our writing, her latest application to Canada Council—the technology of which did defeat her, I think, that last time—and responses to one another’s poems. “That one is for your collection,” Heather would say, as if I had ever had a collection, and as if my next one was–as with her own way of working—always in process. As if I too could take for granted that amazing stubborn focus that kept her producing, constantly on her way to a new publication or installation or show.

I had some trouble figuring out how to place the long distance call, but then there we were: her phone rang and Danny picked it up and handed it to his mother.  She said, “I just needed to hear your voice.”

She told me about the tests and the packing for the hospital and after a while, we signed off, except that at her end she just wandered away. I could hear her talking with her son about yes, we will take that, and no, let’s leave that right now. Things were thunking into suitcases. I ended the call.

The next three weeks were mostly responding to the escalating anguish and terror of our friend in Gaza. His ‘Mam’ was dying and he wanted to talk with her, he wanted to be with her, he would give any part of himself to save her. As he had said when her illness first emerged, ten years earlier, and she included his words in a poem at the end of I Can Still Write, I will give you my eyes.

Then Heather died.

It was normal to cry every day. After a while it was not so often. Several people wrote wonderful tributes, but my tributes had been written a long time ago. Everyone who took my writing courses heard and read about this poet who was exemplary for changing her whole life around to follow a nudge, what Quakers like me call a “leading,” for persistence, faithfulness to that thing and seeing it through. It was difficult to get her to talk about it: she just did it. But when I persisted, she spoke of drawing or writing just what one sees in front of oneself, without ego or other layers of imposed meaning. She wanted to draw and to write, she said, in a way that “left no residue.”

I imagine that moment outside of the neonatal hospital in Copenhagen, that sense that came over her that she must go inside, must draw those new lives struggling to survive. Later she wrote about herself in speculative fiction mode as “the woman who draws dead babies.” And that other moment, when she heard from a Palestinian refugee stories of an intifada she had not taken in before, and found that she had to go and see for herself. Heather wrote the grant applications, pulled the strings, made it happen. She was living on so little, but when she happened to be in Victoria when Reena Virk was murdered by her teen crowd, I saw Heather just decide or know that she would do what she indeed did do, which was to return across the world again and again and again, to find the air fare and sit at those trials, and draw the lives she saw there. I attended the show of her drawings, heard the criticism that she was glorifying the young murderers by drawing them, and I learned and felt my way through to the message Heather would always refuse to articulate: that these children are ours. That we want to demonize them and put them away, out of sight, but she made us look.

She would not, could not, talk about the social justice intention of her obsessions. She just knew what she had to do. If we quarrelled at all, it was because I was always searching for that moral stance, and Heather would always absolutely deny it. A moral stance was a piece of ‘residue’ she wanted to see past, in order to witness to what was truly there. She wrote a poem, “Falun Gong,” addressed to me, when I sent on news of healthy members of this group in China being kept in hospitals as living warehouses of transplant organs for the wealthy west. What do I get out of being good, Margaret?

For five weeks in 2019, we lived together in Heather’s apartment in Copenhagen. I had accepted her invitation as my celebration of turning 80, and in some dim way of denial I also understood that the diagnosis of lymphatic cancer must somehow be playing out, even though the symptoms were more of making mistakes, misremembering the day of the week, and writing wonderful poetry about the way our perceptions shift the world so that the this moment we enjoy is also unbearable exactly now.

Because of those five weeks, I remember Heather now in dailiness. When I make a bed with clean linen, my hands remember the bed she gave me in her flat , with its summer and winter duvets. When I sweep, of all things, or especially if someone makes blueberry pancakes, or offers a storebought paté… It’s just the ordinary things we spent our days doing to keep the dailiness going–the trip to the pharmacy, to the grocery store, how all that looked and felt. And what I feel is just missing Heather, the ongoing mistake of her absence.

Of course our friend in Gaza mentions her very often, and the team that continues her work there acutely misses her clarity and pointed decisions as the Gaza siege drags on. The children she encouraged to draw when they were little are growing up now and don’t want to draw any more. The donkey and cart she was badgering her friend to buy has now been bought by another member of our team. We speak of her.

I wrote a piece when I was staying with her, called “Practicing Death.” I felt I somehow needed to let her know, in her vigorous going on at life, that her mistakes and misrememberings meant something more serious, were pointing to mortality. I had read her poems. I ought to have understood that she knew perfectly well that she was in the end times, but denial is a real thing. I was the one who could not look at her situation without a residue of certainty that all this was going to be fixed.

I remember Heather now when I fold laundry, when I put away towels and sheets, and when I can bear to re-read her poems. It’s not really a remembering; it’s more a being with. A friend can die. I was a long time knowing that, but I know it now.

1 comment

  1. Oh Margaret, what a perfect understanding. I’m weeping as I read, remembering her. I too remember her often during a day.


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: