At least once a year, our organiser would email, text or call to propose our next lunch.
It was often tricky to get a time or day we could all manage but our organiser was tenacious. That day and time didn’t fit? Let’s try this. Let’s make it work.
These weren’t shallow “we must do coffee, soon” proclamations. Our organiser wouldn’t have any of that. She made it happen because she loved to keep in touch: to hear of everyone’s lives – their successes, their heartache, their dreams.
It wasn’t easy. “Hi guys, let’s try to organise a meal in town,” she wrote in a 2009 email. “Send me your incredibly complicated schedules soon!” Several emails later: “Can’t help thinking it would be easier to get a group together if we all worked at the local supermarket or pumped gas at the service station. Bloody globetrotters!”
On the occasions we’ve gathered over the past decade, usually a core of four but others came along or were at least invited, we found plenty to talk about. Two of us are 51, another is 50, the same age as the organiser. Our common history is the school we attended from 1978.
While the closest many get to maintaining contact with school friends is the tenuously named “friend” relationship on Facebook, our organiser preferred to keep it real.
We had met as foundation pupils at a little-known college in Porirua. It had been somewhat of a social experiment in its nascence, drawing students from low-decile homes in Porirua to the aspirational middle-class suburbs of Whitby to the didn’t-they-do-well families of Paremata and surrounds. Our group represented all bases.
We were all so very different in many regards, yet during our catch-ups, we laughed, debated, skirted around our differing political views and reflected on our career paths and families. Three of us had ended up travelling the journalistic route, one had then taken another turn and retrained as a librarian, while the bloke in our group had combined a career as a law firm CEO and respected figure in the creative arts.
In June, the organiser, Diana Balham, the youngest of our group, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She’d been feeling a bit unwell while travelling New Zealand, writing for a new guide book. That involved eating some exquisite-looking dishes, actually worthy of posts on Facebook; trouble is she suddenly didn’t feel like eating them and had been bloating up “like I’m bloody pregnant!” she said indignantly. For someone who was blessed with a washboard stomach despite our advancing years, this was the first of many indignities Diana would endure over the next three months.
Through most of our college years, Diana proudly wore a mane of very long, straight, blonde hair right down to her butt. It was a big move to cut most of it off to a ‘mature’ style some years ago. Then, after her first round of chemo, when lunch group member and her very close friend Alastair was visiting her at home, she asked him to shave it all off. It was already falling out and was “too fluffy and itchy”. He obliged, carefully, with much ceremony and we declared she had a fine head.
That was true in all regards. She was a smart, intuitive woman and I’d discovered this early on. My friendship with Diana differs to Alastair’s who has known her since primary school, as had our other core lunch group member Jo.
Chatting with Diana a month back, in Ward 64 at Auckland Hospital, we reminisced over schooldays as we often do. This seems odd to many but because we had been foundation pupils of a new school, we had been small in number in our first year and had all grown to know each other well. Many long-lasting friendships formed.
Diana was musical, diligent and highly intelligent; she had a vocabulary that left mine for dead, and paid absolutely no regard to peer pressure. She was also very funny, quirky, kind and had an amusing appreciation of the macabre.
I was a typically shallow teen – I tried to hang with the cool (i.e. not so well-behaved) kids but having a skirt sewn by my non-sewing mother did me no favours. (Diana would have worn hers as a badge of honour.) Towards the end of fourth form I threatened to veer in a direction that may have ended my education prematurely. I was sent to the library on various detentions where the librarian, Diana’s mother, Helen Balham, ignored my sneering and surly attitude and talked to me. A couple of times she gave me a bit of a telling off. You know the kind of stuff. ‘You have a brain, why don’t you put it to use instead of ending up here on detention’. She was very kind and I had to admit I liked her. It was about that time I started to really talk to Diana, even though she was ‘uncool’ and had the temerity to walk posture-perfect around the school carrying her clarinet case.
I straddled the uneasy friendship divide between my hard-ass Porirua mates and the ‘nerds’, she and Alastair being two of the more obvious examples of them. As an adult, I’d be more likely to call them model students of course, although Alastair did get into a bit of trouble for being a chatterer. I can still see Alastair and Diana walking side by side around school – she so tall and slim, he so short and with the chubbiness of pre-puberty. They were an easy target for a laugh in the early days but didn’t seem to care. They shared a love of music and a sense of humour and had known each other since primary school.
Diana and I were in the same French class and, at some point, I realised I didn’t really like not being as good at French as her. She was always so encouraging, even at that age, and despite being light years ahead of me in ability in three of our common subjects, French, Latin and English, she pushed me to try harder. I’m pretty sure her mum Helen had a hand in that too. In January 1982, at the start of 7th form, we were lucky enough to spend 23 days in New Caledonia for French summer school. We looked out for each other and our friendship grew. (She was still better than me at French though.)
Back in third form, Alastair, Diana and I formed a school debating team. We delighted in being a Porirua school that took traditional schools by surprise. Diana was a big part of our success and after five years as a team we were fairly formidable and successful.
In our final year at school Diana, Alastair and I were part of the group of eight editors who dedicated many lunch hours and evenings to editing the school magazine. It was the days of typing and paste-up and no small feat. Looking back on SLACK MOAS now (School Literature and College Kids, More of Aotea’s Secrets), there is so much you would never get away with (the art teacher’s captions, and some I wrote, would not have passed the PC test today). Diana was tasked with writing snapshots for the Secret Sevens Centrefold, a wrap of the outgoing seventh formers. Of me: “Denise in full flight could reduce an onion to tears. However she has a soft spot for animals, she nearly killed the zoo’s gibbon trying to relate to it.” (From memory I had allowed it to take a piece of flax from me which it promptly tried to eat.) Of Alastair: “Must be admired for his iron constitution, having eaten more canteen food and come out alive than any other seventh former.” We forgave her.
Over the years we went our own ways, she overseas and me into my first full-time job, at the Listener where I started as the illustrations editor. (No this was not anything artistic, I can barely form a stick figure correctly). When I departed in 1994, by which time we were in Auckland, Diana stepped into my Listener job, which by then was as a subeditor. She worked there as a subeditor and writer for 11 years before heading off to be publications editor at the New Zealand Opera and then freelancing full-time, including her quirky observations on life and landscape through her travel writing. She wrote the book Undiscovered Auckland: 70 Great Spots Waiting to be Explored, was a keen conservationist and volunteered for various causes in West Auckland where she lived with husband Derek and 10-year-old son David.
When Alastair first called me to tell me Diana had been diagnosed with cancer, so much was unknown. At first doctors thought it was in one place, then another, then another. I talked to Diana while she waited what felt like a lifetime for answers and treatment, in reality it was several weeks. A course of chemo then surgery was planned when they finally settled on ovarian cancer. Round one of chemo came and went with all the expected horror it entails. Round two came on her 50th birthday.
Alastair and I walked the hospital corridor past room upon room of people attached to chemo machines, in a scene reminiscent of science-fiction. Young, old, fat, thin, men, women, all races. No prerequisites were required to be part of this club, one no one had wanted to join. We entered Diana’s cubicle where she sat with about eight others receiving the potentially life-saving concoction. There were no walls to shield their expressions, their hope and their fears. Some sat alone, staring into the distance. Others made quiet conversation with loved ones. We were determined to give Diana the best time it’s possible to have while having chemotherapy on your 50th. (I apologise right now to the others there; we were a bit too jolly for the circumstances.) Another friend of Diana, Vanessa, had flown up from New Plymouth bearing flowers and hugs. Diana nibbled organic bliss balls and other small treats she could manage. She slathered herself in body cream from our Body Shop birthday basket, while Alastair draped himself in its ribbons to the watery smiles of those around us. At that point Diana was optimistic she would win the battle. She went out for a dinner that night with family and friends feeling upbeat.
Over the next week there were a number of lows. She wasn’t improving. Alastair had visited a lot, I had been out of town with work but had called and texted. When I got back I popped up to the hospital one evening after work. We had a great talk and I confided in her about my new job: returning to the Listener after 21 years, this time as chief subeditor. She was genuinely delighted and excited. When Alastair arrived soon after, she couldn’t help herself. “Can we tell him NOW?” Alastair also then told her of his new role as the Commissioner for New Zealand’s presentation at the 2017 Venice Biennale. “Wow!” she shrieked as best she could. “We done good, us kids from Aotea didn’t we!” She was proud.
Alastair had brought another friend with him who was fascinated by how the three of us had maintained this school friendship. Even though he didn’t know the people about whom we spoke, he laughed at our recollections. Much of it was in Diana’s telling of the tales. She was a great storyteller, both orally and in the written form. There were current-day stories too and analyses of various characters we all knew but what is said in a hospital room stays there…
Diana was very sick by this point, although she had perked up on this day. She displayed a delicate mix of bravery and fear about what was ahead, and used them both to deliver her trademark black humour and the occasional, understandable, grumpy remark. In a loose-fitting hospital gown, with tubes coming out of her nose, she joked “well at least I have thin thighs for the first time in my life”.
When Alastair left, I stayed with her for a while until she grew tired. She said something quite revealing of her strength of character when we were laughing about the day she turned up on mufti day at school wearing one of her mother’s old school jerseys. “But I never WANTED to fit in. I wasn’t interested in it. I was quite happy how I was,” she said. I thought about it later that night and wished I had had the same integrity at such a young age. It takes quite some doing to reject peer pressure.
Because I was away with work the following week and then got a cold I didn’t want to pass on, that evening was the last time I saw her. We had laughed a lot amidst the damn unfairness of it all. For the next few weeks we kept in contact by phone and text. We still had hope.
A couple of weeks later came the news she had dreaded. That the cancer was terminal. And with that the unspeakable difficulty of having to convey this to people who loved her, especially their son. She took the time to inform people by email of the situation.
As many of you will already know, my diagnosis is now terminal and I’m getting very sick very quickly. This brings me sorrow beyond belief, for myself, my friends and my family. I don’t know how to finish this email but I just want to say your support and love over the past few months has been the one happiness I have experienced. With love, Diana.”
The brutal honesty of it hit home. This is how she was. There was no dressing this up. No humour to be found in this cruel verdict. The fact is, her situation was an absolute, utter bastard.
Naturally she wanted as much time as possible with her nearest and that included the wedding of her elder brother David, which took place just three days before Diana died peacefully at home. Alastair was overseas at the time, which was tough for him, but he had recently spent a laughter-filled weekend with Diana, her husband Derek and young Davey at Alastair’s house, where Alastair’s joking threat of performing an interpretative dance for Diana was played out.
Alastair and I messaged each other and kept in contact with another of Diana’s good friends and neighbour to find out how Diana was doing mentally and physically. Diana’s acceptance of her fate was difficult, as it always will be when a child is left behind. She was so proud of her boy, not in that in-your-face ‘look at my child’ kind of way, but quietly proud. He is an intelligent and thoughtful child who if he assumes any of his mother’s attributes will achieve great things.
Five days before she died, I had texted her passing on the wishes of lots of Aotea College people, not just our lunch buddies, and naming all those I’d contacted. She texted me back soon after: “Thanks mate. Can you pass on my thanks to the others? xx”
After Diana passed away, Alastair messaged me of the influence of his dear childhood friend and I am sure he won’t mind me sharing: “Diana was an enormous force for good during a large part of my life. She was strict and independent and full of judgment which she was prepared to defend at any age. Quite often when we were small her words were so big I would have to look them up afterwards. When she got bigger her words got smaller and fewer and quicker and ambiguity was seldom an issue.”
Diana left us so many good memories. Not just in our minds but her numerous travel features have left a precious legacy for her son. Her humorous observations made her a popular choice of travel writer for the NZ Listener, the Herald, Woman’s Weekly and many others, and she had almost completed an updated version of the Frommer NZ guide book, covering the North Island.
In recent times she had the opportunity to take Dave with her and Derek on a trip to Vanuatu. It was a trip that incorporated three of her loves: family, travel and wildlife conservation. The last line of her article wishes the turtles a long life. If only she could have had the same.
Rest in Paradise somewhere Diana, as I think resting in peace may be too dull for you. We promise to muster a lunch group together each year in your memory. And when I take up my desk at the Listener on September 28, if you wouldn’t mind transmitting me a few of your well-chosen words, I promise to use them well.
CAUSES TO SUPPORT
Education fund for David Balham at Give a Little
Matuku Forest & Bird reserve in West Auckland.
Cancer Society – to remember both Diana and her special mum Helen
- It is the wish of Diana’s family for her service to be private. But please raise a glass or take a moment for Diana at 3pm Saturday, September 12.
Some of her friends are thinking of organising our own memorial for her later in the year to remember our friend, fellow musician and old school mate in our own special way.