Not long after Donna was first diagnosed with cancer she set off on her characteristic mission of managing the situation for everybody concerned. This included a list of requests for her funeral. I always said that at least on this occasion the whole thing wasn’t up to her and I would do whatever I wanted. Of course she knew I wouldn’t.
In her list of items entitled ‘for my funeral’ was ‘some of Andy’s jokes.’
For once in this instance the word ‘stupid ‘ didn’t precede the word ‘jokes’, which was unusual and mildly flattering, and it then said ‘the Aardvarks etc.’ Well – in the current circumstance, the aardvarks would mean a joke that starts ‘3 aardvarks at a funeral’ and end with the line ’guys… why the long faces?’… and you can fill in the rest.
She was also fond of the conundrum “If a man speaks in a forest, and there is no woman there to hear it, is he still wrong?”
Another request on her list was that there would be plenty of booze at her funeral. I said she was being hard on herself, and that nobody would actually boo on the day.
And here endeth the stupid jokes.
I wanted to try put together some kind of talk that tries to summarise the best I can what made Donna so driven and such a wonderful presence in this world.
Because although she patently carried an internal image of herself as a superstar, she would readily acknowledge that she had no great media talent. She couldn’t write, paint, sing, act, produce… But for most of us here there was something intangibly special about her, which I would say was all about the encounter. She had some kind of gift of encountering that was all about the moment and was very hard to capture except in the thousands of Donna stories that we could accumulate together today.
Maybe I could put it this way – here’s 3 things people never said about Donna:
First – “Donna, which one was Donna?”
Second – “I’m not sure what she thought about that…”
Thirdly – “She had the patience of a saint”
In fact – she had the impatience of a saint. She had no time for entertaining expressions
of concern when she could be getting involved. She had no time for hand-
And I guess that’s why most of us here remember the encounter with her. Because she would always be wanting to cut the crap in the belief that she knew what was at the heart of the matter. And 9 times out of 10 she was right – much to her surprise. She used to confess to me that she was just winging it in most situations, just going on a hunch – but still she ended up speaking so much truth…
I suppose the fourth thing people never said about Donna was that she spent too little time on the phone. I know that there’s many of us here today who no longer know where to go to when we need to sort out a life issue, someone who can turn us around in 5 sentences and leave us feeling brave enough for the next day: always feeling understood, accommodated, enlightened and inspired. That was the gift of the encounter that she offered the world. And although she never had formal creative talents, it feels to me that her early death is like losing Shakespeare half way through his first play. A travesty.
Donna used to keep journals – kind of letters to me and Cara. Their content gave me confidence to feel that I could say something from her today.
I thought I could try sum up some of her core messages to us – excuse the artistic license but I’m confident I knew her very well.
One thing that I know is that despite all her ambition to be a good nurse when she was at work – all that Donna ever wanted to be was a mother, and a good mother. To fly in the face of her own loss of mothering by nurturing a wonderful family of her own. And as she got near to dying her anger and despair at being deprived of this ended up most palpably in our relationship. Sometimes I ended up being the brunt of all her anger, which is very common in loving couples when one has to be able bear the impact of the others’ despair. And a couple of nights before she died this was at its worst. We’d had a terrible day and she had been lovely to everyone else and then just so hard on me. And as I drove back from the hospital I thought on our encounters of that day – and I thought that she’d been just merciless towards me – just merciless. And as those words went around my head I realised that that was the way her life had gone. Life had been just merciless towards her. It had cut her down at the point of most promise and it was unbelievably merciless. And who was I to resent a few moments of transferred anger when she was dealt such an immensely cruel blow – I didn’t mind even though it stung at the time.
And this is where I want to start when I think about Donna’s messages to us. Because I think that her first big message was “be real, and let God be real”.
I want to clarify something that came as a hard lesson to us. God isn’t running life’s circumstances. Donna’s cancer wasn’t God sent, and her absence of healing wasn’t God’s absence. Only a protected and decadent rich Western mindset can equate having a cushy life with God’s blessings. God has let go of creation so that love might rejoin us to our loving creator and that’s why Donna’s journal attests to never being distant from God’s love in all the mercilessness of her situation.
She and I hold to a view that when invited God comes to meet us at the very core of our being. Deeper than the us that we know, more true than the us that we think is us. And our journey into God is our journey into our true selves, and that being real with God is being real with ourselves. And God helps make that happen through our spiritual journey. And who is there who had this belief and practice more tried and tested than her? And who can testify to its authenticity than the person we remember today? She forbade herself and each of us from only living half a life – even if it made us wince at times, she would challenge us live and find freedom, and she would exemplify it even as she died. Please – for Donna’s sake – don’t let life’s trials be a barrier to knowing the God that holds out such profound love for you. God is love, God is truth, God is enlightenment. Be real and let God be real for you.
And her second message I think goes something like this… (and you may cheer)
Men – help your wives more in the house and with the kids! (for wives please read partners too) Don’t let them be isolated and your relationship compromised by your laziness. Love needs constant practical signs that you won’t let them be alone in the nurture of the family, get your ass in gear and learn how to be a partner in the home.
And thirdly (and you may also cheer here), women, give your husbands more sex! They’re simple creatures responding to simple stimuli. Teach them how to satisfy you in the process, and you’ll close the loop between them being emotionally absent from the household and you’ll get absolutely whatever you want when you need help. Don’t ignore the whimpers, use your power. (Guys, that’s a fiver each.)
Fourthly – never ever complain about getting old. Some people don’t get the chance. Donna always dreamed of being a grumpy old woman, and in that respect I was glad that I was 16 years older than her and might never have to witness it.
Fifthly, become a proper adult and love and nurture your children, don’t let them have to look after you. Grow up, grow up, grow up. They need you to – they’re powerless, they are precious, be 100% present for them.
And lastly – say what you think. Make others have to reckon with you, life doesn’t fall apart when we’re honest; love is big enough to receive the honesty and the foibles of each other. Make people deal with you and learn to deal with them. Somehow I think we all can see how she modelled that beautifully, but this was such a positive thing for us…
When Donna was diagnosed with cancer for the first time and we thought that life might only give us a number of years together – we were shocked to find that there wasn’t anything that we thought we would need to say to each other if we were to die the next day. That we were exactly where we wanted to be in our relationship – and it stayed that way. That wasn’t because of me. That was because she spoke her mind and taught me that it was OK for me to do that too.
When Donna died much sooner than we had expected I felt robbed of months and years of life together – more than I could say here without losing control, but I didn’t feel robbed of the chance to say anything that we had been holding back. We spent our last hours saying, “I love you” and “thank you”, over and over again.
And now I want to write and talk forever to keep her alive but we all have no choice but to let her go, recognising that none of us will know if we might end up in the same position, losing life much too early, cursing some horrible merciless disease, looking to a merciful God for hope for life beyond this period of toil. And I think that deep down she would want us to take inspiration from her, and learn some of her lessons in order to know that her many fights with life had been worth it. She would want us to believe that love will have the final word and to live out that love, and in the love that she inspired, she will be present, always.
Andy 4th Oct 2003