This is an edited version of the tribute to Rodney Syme delivered during the RSA Webinar on 24 November 2021.
It is an incredible honour to be asked to give a brief tribute to Rodney Syme.
I came to Australia 34 years ago. And for about 33 and a half of those years I had heard the name ‘Rodney Syme’ long before I had met him. It was so obvious that this man was a champion advocating for the cause of euthanasia, as it was called back then, now voluntary assisted dying.
I remember meeting Rodney for the first time at my first Dying with Dignity board meeting in 2018.
By this stage, Rodney was well into his eighties. My goodness! His energy, his enthusiasm, his absolute determination to effect change – and his incredible silver hair! There was so much about that man to admire and be envious of.
Not too long after that meeting, Rodney went to live in the country to look after Meg, his wife.
I thought he was going to quietly step aside. To my absolute astonishment, there was no stepping aside with Rodney.
There was a barrage of emails that kept coming. There were phone calls in the evening wanting to discuss yet another matter and consider what was going on.
There were questions such as, “How do we support Mike Gaffney in Tasmania?”, and, “What are we going to do about Western Australia?”
Rodney was always passionate about these causes. He was just indefatigable.
It was Andrew Denton who wrote a beautiful obituary about Rodney, so I’m going to use some of Andrew’s words. And I think when Andrew wrote this, he must have recently read Richard Power’s fantastic novel Overstory, because Andrew gets a bit arboreal in this.
This is what he said about Rodney – and here’s that word again:
He was indefatigable. Unbreakable. Or so it seemed.
But, now, the mighty oak has fallen. There seems a vast, empty space in the forest where he once stood. That familiar, comforting shadow no longer cast.
Beautifully put, Andrew. And it’s so true. For doctors like myself, Rodney was the person who was always there to discuss stuff and who knew so much.
But he wasn’t just there for us medical people. Rodney had helped so many people towards the end of their lives. He had counselled literally thousands of people.
Just two or three months before he died, I was chatting to Rodney and I said to him, “How many people did you actually help right at the end and give medication to?” He said: “Over 300.”
It’s absolutely astonishing what this man did and the number of people that he helped.
He was rightly recognised. He got the Humanist of the Year award in 2017. He got his AM in 2019. But I want to finish recognising Rodney with his own words. What he said was: “How we die is important. It is at the core of how our loved ones remember us.” As always with Rodney, he was absolutely spot on.
I want to remember Rodney as Andrew Denton did and say: “RIP, mighty oak.”
Photo by Humanists Victoria (2017)