Dr. Myrna Blake was cremated today, and I have lost forever a dear friend. Fifteen years ago, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. But she was realistic and pragmatic about the immense damage that the illness would inflict on her. She knew that she would ultimately suffer from the same illness that took her mother and her aunt.
I remember driving around with her in her search for a suitable nursing home to move into when she could no longer look after herself. Those times I spend with her were lessons in cheerful acceptance of a fate that could not be avoided.
Ten years ago, in 2009, was the last time she was able to speak in public. It was at the AWARE EOGM, and she spoke in support of AWARE’s Old Guard in their attempt to wrest back their organisation. A small group of Christian women had taken over Aware at the AGM two months earlier. When she finished speaking, she turned around and asked us, ever so tentatively, “Was I alright?”
Myrna, the highly respected professor, the committed social worker, the activist who stood up for the underdog and the needy, was already succumbing to the disease that would slowly take her away from all those who loved and respected her. It was a poignant moment for those of us watching her.
Myrna came into my life in the late 1980s. She had been a member of AWARE since its founding and I had just been elected president. She remained a friend and supporter all through the years that we both were active in AWARE. In the couple of years before the disease limited her activity, she was almost a daily presence in the Aware library, along with AWARE founder member Hedwig Anuar, working on archiving AWARE materials.
Myrna was central to the success of AWARE’s Helpline that was set up in 1991. For more than a decade she chaired the Helpline sub committee and supervised the training of the Helpline volunteers.
As a social worker, she embodied the best of social work ethics and code of practice. In AWARE as well as in PAVE, she was committed to pursuing social change, particularly on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people. She focused primarily on issue of poverty, and discrimination, and other forms of social injustice.
In the 1996 book “The Ties that Bind” published by AWARE, Myrna co-authored with Sudha Nair a chapter about the findings of a pioneering project. The key finding was that, contrary to what policymakers tended to think, there was no link between poverty, laziness and race.
The chapter, titled “A Family Against All Odds: The struggle of low-income women heads of households”, concludes by calling on our society to “examine the process by which we raise males and females… Both our men and women will need to share equally the responsibilities of ensuring a new generation of physically and emotionally healthy citizens.” This matter of how we raise boys was something she was seriously concerned about through in all her years with AWARE.
Many times, Myrna surprised me. Her small stature and gentle nature belied her great spirit of adventure. She once volunteered her time with researchers from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History for a project in Borneo. I think it was to collect monkey poo specimens.
She followed one monkey that had just pooed, but when she tried to pick up the droppings, the monkey got angry and bit her fingers. She had to be flown to a hospital in Singapore to be treated, and she carried the scar from that adventure all her life. I am told there were many such adventures, including one where a boat she was on, possibly in the Amazon, capsized and she broke her ribs.
We at AWARE owe her a debt of gratitude for her invaluable work with the AWARE Helpline. And also, for her many reminders of the feminist value of treating women and men as equals, and with respect whatever the differences in their circumstances.
Myrna, our dear, gentle friend, was 83 years old when she left us in early hours of Friday 1st June. She will be missed.