Daiva Bieri late in her life
Photo courtesy of Harry and Carol Rootsy
Those early years of tranquillity came to an end with the invasion of Lithuania by the Soviet army. In their quest to establish the perfect communist society, the Soviets proceeded to systematically execute the intelligentsia, those with a university education, and those in the military and public service. Her family fled into Germany in a covered wagon and there endured the last year of the war, where they were frequently bombed by American and British forces. It was a time of death, destruction and fear. She once remarked, with childhood innocence, that for a while she ceased making little friends, because they often seemed to get blown away the next day.
As a child in Germany
At war’s end the family resided in refugee camps, where food and medical supplies were in short supply. Anaesthetics could only be used for life saving operations and childbirth. From a young age Daiva possessed a philosophical optimism about the good things in her life, even in the worst of times. In the refugee camps Daiva was suffering from malnutrition and walking barefoot began to develop infected toenails. It was determined that her toenails had to be removed, otherwise gangrene would develop, resulting in the amputation of her feet. And so [and think of this when you slide into your bed tonight feet first] her little feet were held down and her toenails were extracted one by one with a pair of pliers [sterilised, of course]. I said “Darling, that must have hurt terribly”. She replied “It hurt a little bit, but I got a whole bag of lollies afterwards”.
With her parents and brother Vidas soon after settling in Canberra
Having been accepted to study medicine, Daiva was reluctant to pursue this profession because she knew herself too well:
Daiva and Dan Bieri on their wedding day
Unfortunately, a short time after our marriage Daiva was diagnosed with a rare muscular disease known as Myasthenia Gravis, which she would carry with her for the remainder of her life. Some said it was like living her life with one arm tied behind her back, but Daiva’s resilience, cheerfulness and optimism meant that few realised she was so ill. Eventually, Daiva had to abandon her Physiotherapy because of the disease. But, against family and medical advice, she was determined to start a family. After three miscarriages, we were blessed with the arrival of a 10 pound son, Aistis.
Daiva in her youth
Daiva was a proud Australian having been accepted as a Citizen as a teenager at a ceremony in Canberra, where a handsome young man, Harold Holt, the then Minister of Immigration presented her with her certificate. However, Daiva also remained proud of her Lithuanian heritage, participating in its sports, cultural and youth activities with enthusiasm. Another joy of her life was that her son speaks fluent Lithuanian and by a series of lovely circumstances married Jurgita, who comes from the same city in Lithuania where Daiva was born.
Many remember when the famous American-Lithuanian basketball team visited Australia in 1964. Daiva, as an organiser of the tour, arranged a reception for them at a Rose Bay Harbourside residence due to the generous hospitality of her long time physiotherapy friend, Jenny Harrison. The organiser of the American team was a handsome dark haired man, whom Daiva frequently worked with on the Tour. She was very impressed with him and, being a fine judge of character, said the world would see more of him later. The world certainly did, as he is now the President of the Republic of Lithuania, Valdas Adamkus.
Daiva and husband Dan a few years after their wedding
In 1986 she organised the Opening Mass in St Mary’s Cathedral for the Lithuanian International Youth Congress, which involved 20 countries of the world and over a thousand people. She liaised closely with Cardinal Clancy who asked, at the termination of the Congress, if the distinctive Lithuanian religious decorations could remain for an extra fortnight, because tourists were entering the Cathedral and taking pictures. He reported they were onto a good thing, because even the Japanese tourists were coming and taking pictures.
In her more recent years at one of her stays at St Vincent’s Hospital, before she was transferred to a nursing home, she had a short and chance visit with the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. The Prime Minister was very gracious and after a brief chat he thanked her for her work in medical research which, he said, undoubtedly, made Australia a better place in which to live.
Her last years were not enjoyable, as the muscular disease began to debilitate her. She spent the last 8 years in a wheelchair and the last 4 months in a nursing home, not before her grandson, Natas, was born. With his arrival she said “Now I can die, my replacement has arrived” and in her last days enjoyed his youthful company. Her health continued to decline and she passed away at 1.2Opm on Wednesday 29 October 2008 with her family present.
I am reminded of one final anecdote that occurred during the early years of our marriage when we were attending a Lithuanian Cultural Festival in Adelaide. We had visited a winery and I had returned early to the bus. A young lady commented on my accent and asked how did I happen to be in Australia. I related the story of how I came riding down from Darwin on my red BMW motorbike, met this beautiful young Lithuanian lady on the beach and after a wonderful courtship were married. She remarked to me that it sounded like a fairytale - and you know it was. However, as you know a fairytale needs a Prince and a Princess. Today I have lost that Princess, but my memories of our fairytale remain.
Goodbye ir sudiev, Daiva.
Mary, Mother of Mercy Chapel and Crematorium, Rookwood Cemetery - 1 November 2008
“I enjoyed my visit with Daiva very much and we had a great conversation. Daiva’s contribution to medical research in Australia has been outstanding. All of us who benefit from her sacrifices and endeavours throughout her life were inspired by her accomplishments.”
The Hon. Kevin Rudd MP, Prime Minister of Australia - 1 December 2008
“Daiva most certainly made a great contribution, not only to Australia, but to the lives of children in many countries around the world. She was a remarkable example of the commitment that many former migrants have shown to our nation and those qualities have been a key part of Australia’s growth and prosperity. I was moved by Daiva’s story, particularly her continuing determination to overcome any obstacle to improve the lives of many people that she would never meet. As a proud citizen, she espoused all of the values which make our nation’s multicultural society so successful while, at the same time, celebrating her Lithuanian heritage.”
Chris Evans, Minister for Immigration and Citizenship - 21 January 2009