Carnival will always be tinged with some sadness and introspection. Bank Holiday Monday 2014 was the day Diva passed away. Not that I have to wait that long to remember. Her thoughts, urgent pleas, pains, complaints, thank-yous, jokes, now follow me everywhere, the omnipotent presence at every turn. The texts are just a click away in the memory of my phone. Facebook now memorialises deceased users’ accounts if they get a valid request from loved ones. Our digital footprints now have the same status as our physical estate.
How do you learn to live with the surreal fragments from the life of a departed friend? I met Diva Stravinskaite at artists’ studios in the summer of 2006 after I was allocated a space in west London. She had this uncompromising look which was further exaggerated by her imposing physique. She was the caretaker and was always busy fixing things around the building. She loved gardening and rescued many plants – two outlived her, the Cactus in the restroom and the long green bladed plant in the gallery landing. She was always scavenging and finding new homes for discarded objects. There may yet be many more of her undiscovered treasures in the building.
I am still dipping into her gigabytes of wisdom and wit. Perhaps, the best gift she left me.
She was a very talented and versatile artist, painting some of the best tulips I had ever seen whilst equally adept at fashioning an array of leather accessories and jewellery. She single-handedly curated my first-ever photo exhibition, cutting and laying the mounts and framing the subjects. I just gawped and learnt in awe.
She had consumate DIY skills any man would kill for and would admonish me constantly: “You have no practical …(sic).” She meant I could not use my hands and to a lesser extent my brains. She was like a Swiss Army knife. Even more endearing, she had the most unladylike hands you could ever set eyes upon (I never had the courage to tell her this). For her, no manicures or pedicures, just honest, hard toil with the hammer, anvil, and other peculiar tools which resulted in scary-looking blisters, greasy and blackened hands. She had a fiery temper but surprisingly was always the first to apologise whenever we had an argument. She was devoted to her black cat Suzi. She now lives in Lithuania.
Her advancing illness meant she had to give up her life as an artist and devote her flailing energy to getting well. She’d complained about not getting any recognition for her work in England, but she never tired of exhibiting her paintings at the Society of Fulham Artists and Potters‘ annual shows where she was a member and volunteer. My email about her passing was never acknowledged. But you really only ever need one person to remember you. As a Yoruba proverb goes: “It is never so bad that there is no one left to keep one company.”
It was a sunny autumn day at the Russian Winter Festival on one of our final outings together and as usual Diva had cajoled me into joining her, her sister Lina and niece Rima at Trafalgar Square. It was pre-selfie age, and I never went snappy-go-lucky with friends. After all I always knew they were unlikely to have changed from one week to another. We were making our exit and I asked if I could take a few shots of her. She loved photography and would often borrow my camera to my chagrin. It was my only SLR and I was always worried she would be careless with it but thankfully it always came back in one piece. I urged her to paint more as she could paint better than any photograph I would ever take. Those were my last portraits of her.
They’ve given up on me.Diva Stravinskaite
Diva’s decline was rapid. Diagnosed with metatastic tumour around her spine in 2009. Every time I saw her there was a marked change, often a drastic loss of weight. But she still had her humour often joking about ‘my tumour’ and remained fiercely independent. She was in and out of the Royal Marsden even more frequently as the years flew by, for blood transfusions and radiotherapy. She’d declined chemotherapy. A principled decision that put her on a collision course with her doctors. This saga led to her clinical team washing their hands off her. She would later complain bitterly to me: “They’ve given up on me.” I felt helpless to do anything but just willed her to get well.
In the book, Being Mortal, Atul Gawande, renowned New Yorker writer and physiologist explains that medicine often has its limitations, wiser to let nature take its course he advances. Diva felt she knew her body better than any doctor and refused to be pumped full of gunk that always robbed her of her senses and wellbeing. I supported her without any reservations. She did it her own way and breathed her last at the Trinity Hospice in Clapham. We should always be allowed to make our own choices. Even at the point of no return.
I would often rib her about how she managed to understand the red tape of UK’s tax complexities and financial services with her broken English. She would let it pass like a sage who knew she could always trust her instinct and judgement. You really do not need Grade A English to have common sense and make your way through life. I am still dipping into her gigabytes of wisdom and wit. Perhaps, the best gifts she left me.