10 days ago, Deb Dawson, a great friend & generator of much laughter in my life, died. It was after a return of the cancer she first had diagnosed 14 years earlier. Though I teased her often about her age, she was still relatively young.
Deb & I met, just six short years ago when I joined a local youth circus as the General Manager. She was already working for them as their Workshop Coordinator. After many years working in administration roles for a range of businesses, including a long stint at a hospital, Deb had finally found her spiritual home among the freaky world of carnies.
In my role as one of the executors of her will, as well as friend to her to children, I have been primarily responsible for the planning & delivery of her funeral, in consultation with her family. I want to talk about this process a little more after we get through the poetry side of things.
Two of my poems were performed as part of the service, Baby Elephant Blues & It. It helps getting them on the bill when you’re the booking agent for the gig. But in all seriousness, both poems had a special meaning to her; & the first one, more broadly to her family.
After numerous requests from a range of people who attended asking for copies of one or both poems, I decided sharing them through my blog was a nice idea — taking what, originally, were two quite private poems, out to a wider audience.
I’ve written several poems for Deb over the past few years. She liked me reading my latest effort to her (even ones where she was not the subject matter :) ), I’ve read dozens in her pink bedroom where she spent so much time recently; but she especially enjoyed ones about her.
One of these, concentric circles or: “we have you surrounded” was a finalist in this year’s Mindshare Awards — she was thrilled by that, although annoyed with me for not winning.
That’s not the one I’m going to share here (though here is a link to it, the formatting isn’t perfect – but oh well).
The first I am sharing is Baby Elephant Blues. [clicking on the image will enlarge it]
Though Deb liked my poems, she once asked why don’t you write rhyming poems. I said they weren’t really my thing. She said. I like rhyming poems. They’re easier to understand. She was being funny — she usually got what the non-rhymers were about, & if she didn’t, that was more likely my fault for trying to be too wanky.
Anyhoo. I spent last Christmas Eve at the Dawson Menagerie. I was due to arrive between 6.30 & 7. About 5 o’clock I get a phone call from her daughter’s boyfriend saying I’ve bought a book for mum & I want to put a poem in the front. Is there anything you’ve written I could use. Maybe something about elephants. I said, not really. But I’d give it a go. Sometimes adversity produces great results. This wasn’t one of those times. Actually it’s ok. It’s not my best poem by a long shot. But it was the poem that made Deb cry the most.
It was Christmas morning last year. She had been given her book. The poem had been read to her, & she had cried. At first, she didn’t even realise it was about her nor that I’d written it. When Deb realised it was about her, she asked me to read it again & she cried even more. For while everyone around her all knew our Deb was wonderful, she so often doubted that … & found it very hard to acknowledge how many people loved her.
It certainly seemed to hit the mark as it opened the proceedings on Friday. [Though, like any poet worth their salt, I have tinkered & tweaked it, even since then.]
Note: Although this poem depicts an elephant in a circus (it blends two of Deb’s loves), please be aware I don’t condone the use of performing animals in modern circus. I justify it via the excuse that the poem is metaphorical & that no animals, except the poet, were harmed in the making of the verse.
The second is It. [Remember, click to enlarge]
It was the last poem I ever read to her.
The final thing I want to say is this. Deb was a quirky, glorious, crazy lady. She was determined that her funeral was going to be a celebration.
It was, though I hesitate to use the word but it was, ‘fun’ planning her funeral. Obviously, I would have preferred not to be organising it, but if we were gonna do it, we were gonna do it right. She wanted a celebration hey, alright then, challenge accepted. It felt like Deb was egging us on — if we thought, is that idea too much, we responded — what would Deb want … & we went for it. [Perhaps I have created a new career for myself, Funeral Entertainment Coordinator.]
To this end, the service began with an acrobat tumbling & saulting down the centre aisle, followed by 3 hula hoopers. So many people told me afterwards, it was at this point that they knew, they weren’t in Kansas anymore …
6 pall bearers followed, carrying Deb’s coffin — resplendent with a striking black & white print of elephants on the African savannah round right the box & a hot pink lid. Her entrance was accompanied by the “Eye of the Tiger” belting its base through the sound system.
We had the regular moving eulogies from friends & loved ones; but we also had a SPONTY — spontaneous handstand competition, a homemade video consisting primarily of blurry photos with the subtitle OOPS, a range of props, a round of applause & cheering for her life. Yoda. We had 4 talented acrobats perform a 3-high via video from Europe. We laughed. A lot. We cried. A lot. We had a professional actor who moonlights a civil celebrant deliver her lines with the perfection of scripted play. We didn’t have any dusty old hymns no one knows the words too & even less people sing along with. We didn’t, I’m not sorry to say, have any hollow words from contradictory & hypocritical “Holy Books”. We did, however, talk about how elephants care for their babies.
At the end, we invited the ‘mourners’ to come & take, in memory of Deb’s glorious laughter-filled life, one of the 150 figurine elephants that had previously occupied almost every shelf & flat surface in her house. This was one of Deb’s personal suggestions.
Finally, she was carted out again, after an hour of laughter, tears & reminisces & driven off very slowly in the hearse to the tune of “Another One Bites the Dust” (again her choice) to the, at first, incredulous looks of everyone who had come to wave her off, before they gradually got the gag, & realised it was one last joke from the Dawson repertoire.
Oh, & did I mention, her favourite colour was pink — & everyone had been instructed to attend wearing a little (or a large) splash of it. Looking over the audience was like looking at a rose garden.
Now I’m not saying everyone has to have a service like this. For one thing, circus performers don’t come cheap.
But maybe it really is time we reconsider the rituals we use to farewell our loved ones. Having attended a few funerals now in the past 18 months, it does feel a little bit like we are stuck in a drab sepia-coloured, perhaps Victorian-esque photograph of what a funeral should be … & maybe it’s time we moved into a more modern, more joyful, more vibrant HD multimedia-VR-holographic celebration of what it means to have lived …