Song for Maggie or Why there’s a pen in my mouth

The instructions sound easy:

Put a pen between your teeth in far enough so that it’s stretching the edges of your mouth back without feeling uncomfortable. This will force a smile. Hold it there for five minutes or so. You’ll find yourself inexplicably in a happy mood. Then try walking with long strides and looking straight ahead. You will amaze yourself at how fast your facial expressions can change your emotions.

Hey, presto! You’re happy. It’ based on the latest research. Seriously. Just ask the CIA.

I have to admit, it did make me feel better when I tried it out yesterday. My partner and I laughed so hard. Who knew happiness could be that easy? .

That was before my friend Denise rang to say that a friend had died last night. Maggie. I guess I knew already sticking a pen in your mouth can’t solve everything.

I’d known Maggie for years, though not as well as Denise. I’d heard she was diagnosed with cancer some months ago, that the doctors had given up on chemo, that they’d put her on morphine. It’s still a shock though.

What sticks in my mind about Maggie is she’d once tried to kill herself by pouring boiling water over her head.

My friend Ron once described Maggie as one of the most beautiful women he’d ever met. She was beautiful, even in middle age. But she was also difficult. Apparently she was asked to leave two Buddhist centres where she’d taken up residence. That must take some doing to piss off a bunch of Buddhists. But Maggie tended to rub people up the wrong way. She rubbed me up the wrong way.

When she attempted suicide, I wasn’t one of the people who went to the hospital to visit her. I found such evidence of raw despair threatening. I still do. But there are those who stuck by her, who saw her beautiful side, who shared her laughter, who sat with her in her pain. Who didn’t judge. Friends like Denise, and my partner Rodney. What gets to me is how in the end, she didn’t want to die. Not really. Who does?

The Buddhists believe there’s a time after death called the Bardo, when the soul hovers between this life and the next incarnation. It’s a time of reflection, I suppose, time for gathering courage for the next adventure. Maggie had courage. She had to, choosing a life filled with suffering.

I wish I could have liked her more. I wish I could have treasured her laughter, those times when we were bushwalking in the Blue Mountains when she seemed so self-consciously free, like she liked being regarded as a gypsey. I did love her handmade jewellery. I loved her occasional dirty humour, too. And I loved her smile. But she was always a bit too much like me for comfort. Self-absorbed, with a huge sense of entitlement, and always, always that bone-deep unease.

Vale Maggie. Rest easy. Hope you stick a pen in your mouth next time, mate. It’s working for me.

PS The pic’s for you, from Rodney.

Photograph by Rodney Weidland (used with permission)
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