Honey, I give good memorial; I really know how to work the room ... but feel like a cheap, crowd-pleasing fraud

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The Independent Culture
I spoke at my friend Shauna Brown's memorial service last Saturday. It was my second such speech in the past four weeks and my umpteenth in the past few years. I've gotten good at it. Practice makes perfect.

I still haven't been able to get through a single address without crying, but that's kind of expected. It's almost a signal now for the painfully lost faces in the rows clustered before me to let go, too. I know how to work the room. I cut the sobs with apparently ramshackle stories about the dear departed, but actually I'm artfully building to a killer punchline, something intimate and telling and impeccably timed that maybe calls forth a fleeting spirit, because laughter and tears is the best combination in the world - and hopefully in the next world, too.

Anyway, I did my speech, from notesscribbled in the taxi on the way to the service, because you don't want to sound stiff but spontaneous, as if it mattered (it does). I talked about the first time I met Shauna - I asked this butch vision if she had escaped from Cell Block H and she snapped, "That's not funny ... I didn't escape, I got remission'' - and about how I had grown to respect her as we worked on television programmes together and she blossomed into this wonderful director.

Then I hopped, skipped and jumped to those conversations we'd had in the wee small hours about the big sleep - because her cancer was running unchecked - and about how she once told me that she sometimes awoke in the nights, sweating from the chemo and her body's betrayal; and suddenly, for just a second, she was there on the mountain and she could see the landscape of her life and everything made sense. Every adolescent question was answered. Who am I? Why am I here? What's it all for? And Shauna felt alive.

Only the unbidden equation would disintegrate in her head as quickly as it had formed and then Shauna would feel destroyed. She said the moment's single lasting virtue was that she knew that love was finally the most important thing. She realised, without qualification or complication, that what she felt for her lover, Harbinder, counted. That this feeling was the essential.

I said all this at the very end, after everyone else had done their bit, because I sort of demand the top of the bill; honey, I give good memorial. And afterwards I was effusively congratulated and, for the second time in the past four weeks and for the umpteenth time in the past few years, I felt like a cheap, crowd-pleasing fraud and asked himself again what I thought I was doing, for Christ's sake, and what the gathered together thought they were doing. Because Shauna wasn't there in my words, or in any sweet anecdote, or even in the television work she'd wrought and we'd witnessed on video, or even in her own postcards and letters, delivered aloud with zest earlier.

Shauna was gone. That's all. Gone. Like Robin and Brian and John and Tom and Tony and Crispin and Harry, and it didn't matter any more, all right? I couldn't summon her back. No one, nothing, could. God, more often than not I didn't even recognise the Shauna who walked through other people's reminiscences, as graceful as a ghost and about as substantial.

The genie had escaped the bottle, and besides, that was their Shauna, not mine, and I wasn't even completely sure of mine. Yes, she said and did the things I had spoken of, but why had I chosen those tics, mannerisms and memories rather than, say, an example of Shauna's legendary bad temper, a feature so vital to who she was as to demand research grants and learned essays, no, entire libraries of work, before exhausting its interest. But I merely made an aside ("She knew she could be grumpy") and was rewarded with knowing laughter, only what did anyone know? Really?

Shauna knew herself, at a terrible cost, but something - that essential - keeps eluding me. I suspect my Shauna was fabricated from scraps, from what she chose to show and from what I wanted to see, and yet there I was remembering her and being thanked for it; although I wasn't sure who I was remembering anymore, if cheap sentiment had made me create someone else. Or whether I had returned the genie to the bottle, if briefly: look, this is my beloved.

I know what Shauna would say. She would say, "Cuddles, you worry about the dumbest things". Or perhaps she wouldn't. I do know she would understand why such things gnaw. I had some X-rays taken a couple of weeks ago and the doctors found "a shadow". By which they probably mean lump. I've got a feeling about it, a feeling called despair, and I've been thinking (incessantly) about what people might say about me one day.

And, false alarm or no, I want to tell those who think they know me now - you have not been to the mountain. You cannot answer my questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What was it all for? I don't know yet. Not yet. So, please, if and when the time comes, won't you simply read a poem or sing a song and not do what I have done - what I've always done - which is to presume.

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