Our last coffee was had beneath the gaze of Mary, mother of Jesus, on December 17, 2018, some months before she left. I didn’t know it would be our last one-on-one conversation. Neither did she. That’s the point—we rarely know. It’s only afterwards, in retrospect, that these final conversations find their light.
Fortuitously, the conversation was recorded. I wanted her story for a series I’d been writing for the very cafe in which we met (a story I never wrote … until now). These were new rules of engagement for us, a unique excuse to talk about things we didn’t typically talk about; to go to places in conversation that a typical catch-up didn’t ordinarily allow. For too long I’d been the ‘lecturer’ or ‘mentor’ or ‘little brother’. This time I was the writer and journalist, and she the one-time ‘star’, cancer survivor, local resident with a tale to tell. And she was different because of it—playful and content, happy to be on the receiving end of genuine enquiry. For some, the presence of a microphone and the context of a semi-official interview can be intimidating. For others, it sets up a safe zone in which dialogue has more room to spread out. It seemed to be that way for her, because from the very first moment she was relaxed; energetic; smiling broadly, not so self-conscious as I’d known her to be in the past. And maybe I contributed something to that—there’s no doubt the interview is an easier place for me to be present. Whatever the reason, I’m thankful for it. Because now I have a recording of my final conversation with my friend, from a brief moment in time in which she was celebrating renewed life and the promise of more of it.
‘I met a friend at a party on Saturday,’ she begins. We’ve barely said hello, but she’s off, telling stories. It’s a relief—sometimes generating energy in an interview is difficult. Not in this case. ‘She’s a friend now, I’ve not met her before,’ she continues. ‘And I knew she was going through cancer treatment and when we were talking I realised she had exactly the same cancer as me.’
‘I thought yours was pretty rare,’ I say, without really knowing much about it at all.
‘Well, it’s a triple-negative—about 10 per cent of breast cancers are triple-negative. We had the same treatment, the same chemo, the same radiation. She’s just finished hers. I was talking to her and I was saying, it’s lovely to meet someone else who’s gone through the same … yep, yep, that was quite nice.’
She pauses while I adjust the mic levels. Sometimes I record too high and the interview is buzzy and difficult—not to mention annoying—to transcribe. I want to get this one right. It’s mid-afternoon and the patrons have thinned out, so the background noise is light. But in the relative quiet there’s something else she’s worried about.
‘Testing, testing,’ she says, into the mic. ‘I’ve got sibilance too. Now I’ve said it you’ll notice I lisp, all the time.’
I know a thing or two about sibilance. My ears are sensitive to it. Sibilance on vinyl records drives me nuts.
‘But sibilance isn’t a lisp,’ I say. ‘It’s a harsh sss … buzzy. I hate it on my records.’
‘Years ago, my friend Stephen Bell-Booth was opening for the band America, so me and my friend, we just did BVs (backing vocals) for him and played the piano. We toured with them for a week—the first gig was in Palmerston and we were setting up, and I said to the guy on the sound desk, just be aware I’ve got sibilance. He said, “You know there are creams for that.” I was so embarrassed. I was 22 at the time—so embarrassed.’
I admit to her that I’ve taken records back to the shop because of sibilance. A Peter Gabriel album, for example. The last Lorde record.
‘Some weather makes it worse,’ she says. ‘When it’s really humid, sometimes I feel like my front teeth and tongue … now I’ve said that, you will notice it. Sorry.’
‘When you were singing, was it an issue?’ I ask. This is a genuine segue, because her singing career is actually what the interview is mostly about. It’s also a topic we’ve never discussed. I knew about it, of course. But it always felt somewhat off-limits.
‘Sometimes. So … depends on the song.’ She gets a little self-conscious, realising she’s suddenly using a lot more Ss than she would like. ‘I’m realising now I’m trying to swallow my Ss and really quietly. I did backing vocals for a Jules Riding song called Grace and Peace. The words were “Grace and peace to you” … lovely … so I would sing “Gray and peas”. But you can hear if you listen to it really carefully, you can hear me singing “Gray and peas”. That’s how you can tell I’ve done backing vocals because you can hear my Ss in the background.’
It’s true. You can hear it. I’ve listened to Grace and Peace on YouTube and, hilariously, even as she sings “peas” you can hear the sharp S skipping off her front teeth. What a mark to leave on the world!
‘When I’m really self-conscious about it they put a big sock over, or a big wind thing over … you can take some of the tops off I think, but sometimes I would sing with my hand over the mic, sing over it, to kind of deaden it. But then I think you’re talking with a lithp.’
I tell her about inner groove distortion, forgetting that she knows far more about this stuff than I do. Inner groove distortion is an unavoidable phenomenon on vinyl records, where the last track on each side distorts as the stylus struggles with the compression of the sound in the groove of the track.
‘I have an album for you,’ she says. ‘My album. From the 1980s. So you’ll be able to listen to it. You will either smash it, or you’ll go, “Oh that’s Darlene.” One day. You had to work out how many songs you were going to have on each side, so that the stuff that was at the very end was always compressed. You had to really think, how much can you put in? The song that was at the end of side one was the song everyone in the Christian world played—me and Stephen singing God Will Provide. But just towards the end you can feel the compression as they’re trying to get it all in.
‘We got rid of a whole bunch of vinyl just recently,’ she admits. ‘Threw out hundreds of CDs. I didn’t throw them out, I gave them to Derek Lind. We kept the local stuff that we had a hand in producing. We kept the vinyl we wanted to keep. But all the CDs we got rid of. I’ve just got my U2 collection, my Joni Mitchell, my Shawn Colvin, Suzanne Vega. All the girls. Kept them. Sting for Kevin.’
‘When did all that music journey begin for you?’ I ask. I’m referring to her singing career.
‘Just a musical family from the Sallies,’ she says, as humbly as it’s possible to say it.
The coffee comes.
‘Thank you. Marvellous,’ she says. Not all interviewees are this pleasant with the hospo staff. To my embarrassment, some of them are downright rude. Not in this case. ‘They’re very musical,’ she continues. ‘My dad plays guitar, the black notes on the piano, big voice. His mum could sing too. My brother and I just sang. When you’re the minister’s kid and you need someone to sing during the offering, it was me with the guitar.
‘I had a year or so when I wasn’t working, we had a small record company that we ran from home. I was doing that. It was called Someone Up There Records.’
I find this hilarious, and Spinal Tap fans will know why. There’s a scene in the movie This Is Spinal Tap when the band is standing at the grave of Elvis at Graceland, suitably sombre. Bassist Derek Smalls says, ‘He was going to do a TV special from here, before he died.’ David St Hubbins responds: ‘Yeah, that’s right, the musical version of Somebody Up There Likes Me.’ Then they break into a spontaneous barber shop version of Heartbreak Hotel.
All this is in my mind as she attempts to connect all the dots behind the reason for the name of their record company.
‘Sorry, chemo brain,’ she says. ‘Scottish band, had a song called Somebody Up There Likes You. Kevin didn’t realise it was the Kurt Vonnegut reference.’
She’s talking about Simple Minds, of course. And the reference to Vonnegut is his book, The Sirens of Titan, from which the quote is a well-known anchor point for the question of free will versus determinism. The Spinal Tap reference, however, is to the 1956 Paul Newman movie.
‘Whenever Kevin used to do these concerts … guys used to be musicians, go to a YFC rally, do one song. Practice for months and you get up and sing one song on a Saturday night. Then you flip back to the flat and bitch about how bad the sound was. Kevin said look, instead of this how about we just put on some concerts ourselves. So he started doing them at the museum and then at the Lake House, all these non-Christian environments, so that people would just come along. There were always three acts. Derek Lind or somebody solo up first and a couple of bands. No one too much. Just three bands on the bill. Crystal Palace, we did a couple of gigs there. Put three-phase wiring in the Crystal Palace so they could do gigs. The old Symphonia. So that’s how we started doing concerts. But Kevin called it Someone Up There and that music … it’s going to really annoy me, I can’t think of the band. The lights would go down and he would play that whole song. He said, “If I’m going to do a record company, I think we’ll just call it Someone Up There Records.”’
She’s in full flow now, in that groove that people sometimes find in interviews when they slip into the past as if through a wormhole—forget where they are and who they’re talking to and just relax into the story. When they find this place I try not to interject; my voice can shake them out of the moment and it’s difficult to get them back there. So I just let her go.
‘We started doing that with Derek Lind. He would open and he always had like hundreds of songs. Kev said, “Have you ever thought of recording them?” He said, “Who’s got the money for that?” Kev said, “I’ve got a credit card and we’ve got about 200 bucks we made from the last gig,” so we booked Phil Yule, who was a great engineer and worked with Blam Blam Blam years ago. One little studio, one day, and we did the whole album in a day or so.
‘Then Kevin took it off to try and sell it to Christian bookshops but couldn’t find anyone to do that, so he thought, aw, we’ll do it. The joke was, people phoning in saying can I have side one of Derek Lind’s album please, or one cassette. And you’d package it up and send it off to Dargaville or Christchurch or Wellington. Then I did my album and then we got Steve Apirana’s stuff and Guy Wishart and Jules Riding. And gradually just a few little local artists. Whenever we got enough money we’d put it into another recording. Some of them the artist recorded it themselves and we released it and paid for the production. Maybe 30 or so. We did it for 10 years or so, maybe longer.’
‘And that was your sole work?’
‘No, no, that was what we did in our spare time,’ she laughs. ‘I worked and Kevin worked. Then, just towards 1990, I took a year off work, had a bit of a depression, and that’s when I was doing a lot of jingles; was doing a lot of jingle work. That paid quite well. Mainly through friends.’
I had heard years ago that she was the New Zealand equivalent of Hillsong worship supremo Darlene Zschech. I mention this, and she just laughs again.
‘My album came out in 87 and it was a real pop album, so I was like, in the old Vodafone Awards or whatever they were called back in the old days, I was one of the three most promising female vocalists. There were only three nominated, so it was fairly low-key. I didn’t win the gospel album, that went to Jules Riding, because my album wasn’t gospel enough. There was one track that Radio Rhema played, which was Stephen’s song. And the rest of them were just really … awfully cringe-worthy 80s pop songs.
‘So we toured it for about a year, played every conceivable gig within Auckland, we did lots of trips down to Tauranga and Hamilton, Wellington—we did a road trip, five of us in the car, drove down and did a gig in Wellington and then Palmerston North and then drove back. All of us working full-time, did it for about a year. Once we paid the loan back I said that’s it, I’m not singing ever again. I’d had enough.’
‘You really did just stop?’
‘And you didn’t do it again for years?’
‘No, just did backing vocals for people, and occasionally would come out of retirement and do a little acoustic set or something, and feel all the stress and panic and anxiety.’
’So it produced all that in you? Is that why you stopped?’
‘I think it was expectations. I could sing and people would say if you’ve got this gift you have to use it. I was doing this gig at what used to be Takapuna AOG at a sort of jazz Sunday afternoon thing and people would come up afterwards and say, “Love your singing.” Yeah, yeah, yeah. This pastor came up and said, “You’ve got a real gift.” Yes, yes, thank you, thank you. He said, “No, it’s not singing.” He said, “I think your gift is communicating. Yes, you can sing, but it’s what you’re saying between the songs that seems to be the part you are most engaged in.” It gave me permission to say aah, if it’s about communicating I can do that in different ways. This incredibly stressful getting up and singing a song and hoping you hit the right notes and wondering if it’s going down well with the audience, I could find a different way of doing it. It was more about the telling of the story rather than actually the singing of the song.”
I ask if that’s what led her to become a counsellor. This is another part of her story I should be more familiar with. I was the head of the counselling school when she first applied, and she often credited me with a role in her decision to study. But I never knew what brought her to that point.
‘Yeah, I think so. I think I realised that in listening to stories, telling my story, being part of a conversation rather than when it’s just me up there, singing and speaking, it’s too solo. Too much responsibility. And also, at times … I remember I did a cover of a song—Geoff Bullock was a big Christian singer in Australia—a friend of ours did a cover version of his big hits, and they flew me over to do a couple of songs on it. And one of the songs Radio Rhema loved: Just Let Me Say How Much I Love You. And Rhema played it non-stop. Went to number one on Rhema, which is hilarious. At one point I was singing it and everyone started to sing with me and I wanted to say, “Shh, you can’t sing with me, I want to sing to you. I want to tell you a story.” I realised I’ve never really felt comfortable doing the corporate worship thing. I wanted to either tell the story or be in a conversation with somebody.’
I’ve known her for years, but this is a woman I’m unfamiliar with—someone very comfortable in her own skin. She hasn’t always been this way, not with me anyway. Which suggests it might be my fault. I’ve always felt like she was trying to convey something that I was missing; trying to let me know her value, perhaps, or impress on me how much the counselling training has meant to her, or how good she was at it (which I knew, but maybe didn’t show). It felt like somehow she had to try extra hard to convey this because I wasn’t getting it. At the same time I was aware of being somewhat resistant to her efforts—and maybe that’s why she was trying harder. But all that is gone in this conversation. Perhaps it’s the impact of the cancer fight; perhaps it’s the impact of passing through a season of fear. Whatever the reason, she is totally at ease with herself. There’s no attempt to impress, no sense of self-consciousness in how she tells the stories. Just humility, thoughtfulness, presence. And maybe my own presence contributes to this—the fact that I’m asking real questions out of a genuine interest and desire to know her story in a way that perhaps I haven’t shown before. Maybe that’s the biggest difference; maybe this interview format is giving her freedom that our catch-ups have been incapable of giving.
The upshot is, the person I’m encountering is someone who is thrilled to have been given a second shot. Not by me, but by life.
‘I never thought I would do counselling,’ she says. ‘I remember when we did our interview, and I saw the sign saying Laidlaw’s going to be doing some counselling, and I’d listened to Mark Strom and you, at a couple of events—I was kind of interested in the theological ideas that were being presented, as much as anything else. I saw the counselling thing and I thought—I don’t know why, what was it … it was in a pink sign, and I thought, I wonder what that would be like. That caught my eye and it was so random that it caught my eye. You’d talked a little about maybe something that would be emerging and maybe we could be a part of shaping and it was all new. That appealed to me, which is not like me at all. I’m far more, do something I know and well travelled.
‘My dad was a counsellor. It wasn’t until I was in the second year of my degree that I thought about that and I was now being one. I never put it together myself. So It wasn’t like I was following in his footsteps, it felt very much like my own journey. Right through to the end of the first year I wasn’t sure I wanted to carry on. In the first year of the degree where you spend a lot of time getting to know yourself; getting to know your story and learning how to listen to someone else’s story. That really impacted me. Then weaving into that the idea that God’s story is in there and part of that whole engagement. I don’t know, it just opened something up. It felt opening rather than restricting—I’d thought it might become restrictive, but it didn’t.’
I ask about her own counselling practice.
‘Yep, private clients. I had a contract with a tertiary educator for a couple of years, Excel School of Performing Arts, working as a counsellor there. And working back at Laidlaw—never left Laidlaw. Just kept on doing groups and now I’m a group coordinator, doing some marking, doing some of the connecting and thinking around the program, and how we integrate the program into groups, particularly.
‘We’ve just been interviewing people for facilitators roles in the groups—we say to them why are you in groups, why are you interested in coming back? And they say, “I hated it; but it was where I did all my learning.” Most people hated one year. They either hated the first year or they hated the second year. No one’s come through and said, “I loved it every step of the way.”
‘At some point these interpersonal group interactions are going to undo you. Part of what I’ve loved staying in them is that they keep undoing me. Every time you think you’ve landed and you think you know who you are, you discover through the interactions with somebody else that you’re not quite as locked as you thought you were. For better or for worse sometimes.
‘I’m really glad I got cancer after I’d been on the last 15-year theological journey. The Theology of Suffering and Hope that we looked at was really helpful for me to dismiss some models of theology that place … something to aspire to, something that will teach us.’
‘Are they ideas you brought into your training?’
‘I think they sat very loosely but I hadn’t had them quite so delineated, which I found really helpful. Particularly the theology of prosperity or word of mouth doctrine that says the enemy’s got in or you haven’t done enough—those ones I had been aware of. But the Protestant “learning from”, it’s very easy to slip into that: “Oh, this is a wonderful experience and I can share it with other people,” bullshit.’
She’s referring to Christian ideologies of suffering—the special talent people of belief have of rationalising their suffering, or assigning it divine import, or of trying to write it off as a teaching moment. Rightly, she’s rejected these ideologies. She knew they were questionable before she trained as a counsellor; her education confirmed her suspicions. But it’s her life experience that has dismantled them for good.
‘Being a counsellor, I remember finding the lump, then they went out to do the biopsy and I remember laying there and looking down and having a conversation with myself: “So Darlene, how are you feeling? What are you noticing? What are your thoughts? What can you see?” But then when it was actually confirmed it was cancer, and it was a nasty kind, very aggressive, I just went into a free-fall of fear. It just was like a sucker punch. It took my breath away, and left me just …. So I started to think what is this fear, what is it actually about? I guess that was the counselling, saying, if I could speak to the fear what would I want to say to it? What is it trying to say to me? For me, the fear was saying, you are alone; you’re on your own and there’s nothing anyone else can say that will break through. It’s just fear and me. And that was it.
‘The very next day I spent a day with Marty Folsom and Ruth McConnell and they were doing this conversation round integrating the trinity into our family of origin. And I found Marty particularly helpful—he had a really full-bodied way of connecting with the Father, the Son and the Spirit, and I ended up with my own little routine that I kind of use. It changes, but just acknowledging that the Father has my heart and I am in his. And I know this through the Son who was fully human, who felt and suffered but trusted his dad. And then the Spirit, which I kind of strangely have seen as chemo, which gets into everything and infuses everything and soaks your body. I often do this little ritual in the shower, and then I think now I’ve done that it centres me. Now I take all that out with me and I go out into the world.
‘So, I’m thinking of getting a tattoo. My daughter got in first and got the triquetra. So I’m going to get the word “Known”. Because to me that sums up my relationship with the Father, Son and Spirit, and others. To be known, to me, is the deepest. For others it might be something different. For me, for someone to know me, or to feel that they know me, and I know them, is a beautiful gift. It’s very precious and very sacred. And with it comes all this other. So … I will be known.’
Then she laughs.
‘I’m just imagining being an old lady and “Known by who, who do we call?”’
She laughs again; at the idea of old age, with the tattoo ‘Known’ confusing her carers. She laughs because in this moment it’s a very real possibility. She’s just been through the fight of her life and come out the other side a victor. At this moment, there’s no sign of the cancer returning. And there’s nothing like winning to facilitate laughter.
‘So, the cancer coming in was shocking,’ she continues. ‘People said to me, “Did it challenge your faith in God?” For that instant I found myself lonely and alone. But from the moment that I pushed back on that, it’s not ever come back. Not one iota. I have some doubts. When I get a headache, I think, Okay, has it metastasised? Every time I get a back pain. Or find a lump … is it scar tissue? That’s there but that’s just normal hypochondria anxiety—which I’m prone to.
‘I think I’ll have that for the rest of my life; every time you go for a scan. It’s a genuine thing. And people are worried. Will it be there, won’t it be there?
‘I’ve read a lot about cancer, and I listen to a podcast called You Me and the Big C, which is this three UK girls. What I loved about it was that they use real words. One of them … I was just about to say passed away … one of them died. She said, “I’m not going to say I passed away … I died.” There’s something really real about it. So, I shock people by saying, “It’s like the Titanic. The ship is going down for all us.”
‘I just have a head start on thinking about it, that’s all.’
And that’s it, our final one-on-one conversation. There are other attempts to meet that don’t come off. And there’s a group dinner, but no opportunity for one more conversation. The next time the two of us communicate is in June the following year, when she tells me the cancer has returned, and that it’s the worst possible news. Once again we talk about catching up. But it never happens. Because life is too short. And her life ends just a few weeks later.
And yet, I have this recording, and the memory of a conversation not just about presence, but with presence. Not just about the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit, but in their midst. The record of a woman giddy on life and loving the moment, finding something I wasn’t even aware she was looking for. And what’s more, I have her album, sibilance and all. Treasured memories and mementoes of someone whose dialogue with me is far from over.