This Much I Know

Lynne Barrett-Lee


My friend died last week. Her name was Debbie, wife of Nick, mum to Richard, Jack and Olivia, and she died of cancer, too early, as too many still do. She wasn’t even fifty.

This week my principal responsibility, and honour, is to compose something to read at her funeral.

I’ve never written a eulogy before. Despite being fifty seven. Which I take to mean that, in many ways, I’m lucky. I’ve had one profound brush with death – when my nephew Stevie was killed eleven years back – but in the grand scheme of things I have dodged another bullet. That particular cup, once again, isn’t mine to drink from.

You will probably be familiar with that uniquely discombobulating feeling. It wasn’t me. For which, thanks. But it was my friend, who I loved. But why did it have to be anyone, for ****’s sake? Because this is life. Which ends in death. Because it does.

But not her. Not our Debs. It’s not FAIR.

I should tell you about my friend, since you might not be there to say farewell.

Yet it’s proving much harder than I anticipated.  I have a full thousand words of first draft at my disposal – the distillation of lots of half-awake thought-rushes in the wee hours, hastily emailed to self on my iPad.

But they are uncorralled, gambolling wildly across the screen. Here ‘scallops!’ (she loved scallops), there ‘that time at that party!’, over there a paragraph about the night on the campsite where she fell off her bike into a hedge. I can see her, and hear her, and in remembering,  feel her.  But there’s no elegance. No eulogising going on.

By Monday, another looming deadline on my calendar, my hope is that I will have relocated my facility with words. ‘Can you have a look at this, Lynne?’ Deb would say. ‘You’re good with words.’

But what strikes me, as I reach for ways to describe Deb, is that our words around death need an overhaul. Never in my life has the sewing box I normally turn to in order to stitch my thoughts together felt so inadequate, so full of bargain bin, two-for-one, blowsy remnants.  So full of adjectives, and clichés, and truisms, and idioms, and turns of phrase that at such times come flying at you wholesale but, by their very ubiquity, feel so bland.

Which is why I have striven not to use many here, because to do so would take something away from Deb’s essence.  D’you sometimes feel that too?

Deb was beautiful, inside and out, she was kind, she was joyful. She had that way – she really did – of lighting up a room. She was generous in thought and deed. She was one hell of a wife and mother. She put Nick and the kids first and last and everything in between. She was a loyal and loving friend. She had a love of prawn cocktails. She was innocent. She was funny. She was quick witted. She was capable.  She was strong and courageous, and never complained, even when the ravages of the treatment to try and cure her conspired with the cancer which had set out to kill her to make her life pretty bloody unbearable.

All of this is true, and every word of it is heartfelt. But it feels like a suit of clothes bought from a cheap mail order catalogue. Fit for eulogising purpose, but no more.

So, a story about Deb. She loved to go running. And, to pass the time, she would often listen to the audio version of whichever book we were reading at book club that month. Fast forward to book club, and the serious business of analysing what Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Woodlanders’, was all about. Question after question was posed.  Deb was uncharacteristically silent. She didn’t get this. She didn’t get that. She begged to differ on the other. She really didn’t get why X happened to Y. Indeed, she found the whole thing so impenetrable that she hadn’t managed to finish it.

Fast (ahem) forward to the next day and a fiddle with her iPhone. She’d accidentally read – or, rather, listened to – a full three quarters of ‘The Woodlanders’ on shuffle.

She’d persevered though, because that was the essence of our Deb.  Far too modest, too humble, to question Thomas Hardy.

It was also hilarious. To both her and us. But you probably had to be there.

And perhaps that’s the point. That you probably had to be there.

Aww, Deb. We’re going to miss you so much.


First published in the Western Mail Saturday Magazine 8th July 17




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