My latest book is called, If You Only Knew… A Book of Letters
As the title suggests, it is comprised of letters that I am writing to people who have had a profound impact on my life.
This letter is a tribute to woman who was a very close friend of mine.
Her name was Deborah Millar. She was an internationally acclaimed composer, performer and vocal coach. And an extraordinary woman.
Some of you may have known her. Feel free to post a comment below if you like.
My dearest Deborah,
I am listening to Ave Maria over the phone that another dear soul, my writing buddy, Debora Seidman, is playing for me from her home in Taos, New Mexico. Earlier, when I heard her introduction to this song, talking about the divine feminine – about passion and peace and purity…it brought me to these pages. I leapt from my chair and onto this computer, where I am writing to you, finally… with my heart wide open. Ave Maria is still reverberating throughout my whole being and bringing me to you where you remain alive. And you greet me here. You are also greeting me with an open heart and beyond that, a tender smile, full acceptance, forgiveness and light. Thank you! Oh, yes, thank you! I have been so burdened for letting you down.
I know that you understood. So perhaps this letter is to myself in some way. A time for self forgiveness – because I only want to remember us the way we were – once we melted away the boundaries of teacher and student and became sisters, dancing this way and that, in this crazy, wonderful, mixed up and mysterious world together.
I will never forget the first time I laid eyes on you. I would never have known you were an acclaimed composer and vocal coach. How could I have known when you walked into my home on the first day of a new writing circle and introduced yourself to me in an almost apologetic manner? You were not quite sure you should be here. You were not quite sure if you could write – but thought you would like to give it a try.
I felt your humility along with a presence that was captivating. The kind that enfolds a person when they look into the eyes of a wise woman, a shaman, a teacher of the highest order. You carried a presence and a dignity that was both regal and simple at the same time. An impossible mix … yet you were able to hold each with equanimity. Without pretence. Even later, when you were very sick, even when you were the most vulnerable a person can be, you remained noble and gracious.
And on that first night when you wrote from an exercise I offered and then tentatively shared what you had written, the silence that followed was breath taking. It was the kind of silence you experience in a concert hall after a performance of the highest calibre. That all consuming inhalation when the audience becomes one entity that can no longer hold its breath, and so it explodes into a torrent of thunderous applause. It was like that after you read and I wanted to leap to my feet and give you a standing ovation. I think we all did. And I probably would have if I was sitting in the circle beside you and not the teacher.
And your writing continued to evoke that same response week after week until you began to trust your own voice on the page in spite of a lifetime of doubt. Children’s stories, poetry, prose, song lyrics and memoir came tumbling out of you in the same way a parched and starving person would grab and clutch a flask of water and then gulp it down. Each piece seemed to be written as though it would be your last.
You were writing as though your life depended on it and it did. You were writing for your life.
For a long time it was only me who knew the demon you were fighting. I wondered if you were going to share it with the others in our circle. It seemed awkward that you didn’t with the intimacy that was present. I never questioned your choice. I just wondered. And then one night you arrived late looking disheveled and very pale with make-up that tried to cover a face tormented by pain. I rose to greet you and hug you and wished that hug could melt away the hopelessness I read in your eyes. You sat down, tried to smile but the mask cracked and you wept and you told the group that you had stage four cancer. That you had just come from seeing the doctor who told you to get your affairs in order.
You courageously tried to summon the brave part of you and declared that you were going to fight just like you had for the last four years. You told us that you weren’t supposed to have lived beyond six months when you got the first prognosis. But then, in an almost inaudible whisper, you said you weren’t as confident this time.
You continued to come to the group – sometimes having to miss because of the fatigue and nausea from the treatments. But you continued to write. And then write more.
Writing became your devoted spiritual practice. You were reaching in to find the voice that you privately tucked away in order to survive all those years ago. Buried deep within you were secrets and pain no-one would ever know about once you took your place on the stage as an internationally acclaimed composer, conductor, and performer and voice coach. And on top of that you donned a quick wit and wild sense of humour that could bring the house down equally as you much as when you were performing.
After 16 years of an illustrious career in Europe you returned home to Victoria to make your name here.
Of course, I tell myself you moved back so we could meet. How else could I have met you? And had I not, it would have been a terrible loss in my life – to not know one who loves as deeply as you.
And at first sight I felt a sense of familiarity. I knew immediately our relationship would be more than teacher and student. And later when the workshop was over and you asked to continue privately, of course, I said yes. And so you did and began writing with a vengeance – telling stories of your life you never dared to tell before, memories purging out of you about people and events never revealed to another living soul. You were ready and felt safe enough to unburden, sister to sister, friend to friend, soul to soul. In fact, you were willing to tell it all until the suffering of the past would become stories of strength and heroism.
When your body became more and more frail, writing became your prayer, your way to God. And our visits became less about your book, and more about two people needing one another. For me, it was to give all that I could to a friend whom I loved. For you, it was having me to hold you as you sobbed, when the terror took over…when you knew you had to surrender to this vicious beast that was devouring your body when more than anything else in the world, you wanted to live. You had to, you said. You needed to leave your legacy…your book…what you now understood. If it were to help even one other person, you said that is all that mattered.
The book took a dramatic shift from teaching people how to sing – a user-friendly, `how to book` about what you have learned about the body and posture, vocal chords and breathing techniques and examples. It was a book of the heart, daring to tell parts of your own story. How as a child your own voice was stripped away bit by bit. It was a book about who you were and who you have become.
Your hand couldn’t move fast enough across the page in order to share how vital it was to speak your truth, reclaim your voice, your power, and ultimately your life. It felt like a desperate act. The longing was so great. And that’s how it ended. Sadly, that’s how it ended.
The curtain came down before the last chapter got written. Before the dream was ever realized.
I miss you, my friend. And I need to tell you, finally, I am sorry. I am so sorry for not being able to tell you back then why I couldn’t continue to see you. Why our private lessons had to end while you still needed me so.
The truth was, dear Deborah, I too was dying. A different kind of death – but a death all the same. The death of my spirit, my joie de’vivre, of all I knew of life, of friends and laughter and ocean walks and love and of meaningful work. Instead the curse returned – the unrelenting suicidal ideation, anxiety and crippling depression – what I have come to call the torture chamber of my mind – part of my diagnosis of bi-polar affective disorder. This is when hope feels like the farthest thing from my truth.
Yet, how on earth could I tell you that! You, who were really dying…your body disappearing in front of me…how could I tell you then, that I too was dying in my own way. My dying was filled with shame…the kind that comes from the stigmas around this insidious, crippling disease. I learned at a young age to put on a tight mask so no-one would know I was suffering inside.
But now the mask was crumbling and I couldn’t let you see it. I don’t know what lame excuse I used. I only remember how you gasped, and swallowed tears, trying desperately to understand.
And the only other thing I remember is it split my heart open to tell you that … that it made me sink into an even larger pit of self loathing – but I swear, Deborah, I didn’t have another ounce of energy to give anyone. I was barely getting myself out of bed then. It couldn’t have been worse timing.
And from that day, until now, even though we would see each other again, the guilt I have carried has been enormous. I know it is time to forgive myself – it is long overdue. I know you have forgiven me.
I just wish we had met as children and were best friends so we could have shared a life time together. But you know…every moment we did share, things we did together, things said and unsaid, were and will always be, precious to me.
Deborah, you made a magnificent impact on this earth. I hope you know that. You were so brave, and beautiful and talented and funny!
And you were such a gift to me. It has taken me this long to write. Is it a year? More?
Here I am typing on the very same computer where you put your fingers when we had our closure on the last day of our sacred writing circle. We were reading out the letters we had written, that expressed our appreciation for one another.
You waited to be last. Then you went to my computer and put on the Leonard Cohen song “Dance Me To The End of Love”. When it was over, you said, “Junie, this is my gift for you. This is what you do for us. You write us to the end of love.”
Now I am remembering our last time together. Our walk in Beacon Hill Park. It was a beautiful, glorious day. You told me you weren’t afraid any more. You told me that you had come to peace with your life. That you had been seeing a minister at your church and he has been helping. I could feel all of that to be true. You truly had a peacefulness about you. We made a plan to meet again in a few weeks after I returned from California. You wanted me to come to your house and see Gaston again…your beautiful, fat, regal cat whom you adored.
I called you as soon as I got back to hear your voice, to confirm our meeting. Someone else answered your phone. I asked for you. She said, I’m so sorry to tell you, Deborah transitioned two days ago. I put down the phone and I wept.
I knew you were looking forward to coaching the Getting Higher Choir at their performance at the Alex Goolden Hall. And I was told later that you did it. In fact, there was a video of that evening. I watched it and it was shocking to see you being held up, supported to get up the few steps onto the stage. You were so ill. But one tenet you upheld to the very end is that the show must go on. And on it went.
You died the next day.
What a hero. I wonder if you were at your Celebration of Life. I hope so. And maybe it was good you were where you were, because there were no more seats left in the hall! That’s how loved you are! I hope you heard the choir as they lifted up their voices to the heavens to you. I was there and listened to dozens of people who came up and shared their personal adventures of you. Paid their tributes to you. Do you have any idea of how many lives you touched?
What an enormous life you led. How brave you were. How grateful I am to have known you, to have loved you.
Without a doubt in my heart, I know we will see each other again and will continue where we left off holding each other to the end of eternity, to the end of love.
God Bless you.