This Christmas, I'll attend the funeral of a friend I never expected to lose - and reflect on the last time I saw her
The freight train of grief hits you at the most mundane times: when you’re making the teas at work, or driving home one night, or decorating the Christmas tree, or feeding the guinea pigs, or shopping for a new pair of trainers
This Sunday, I took my partner and children shopping for Christmas presents, when I received a text from a good friend.
It simply read: ‘Sorry to say Dawn left us an hour ago. RIP.’
If ever there was a before and after moment it was that.
I was in a shop that sold shoes and trainers. I went from admiring a colourful pair of Adidas Hamburg’s (the fact I even recall the inane minutiae of the moment is disturbing), before I received and read the text - to being so shocked I held the yellow-and-green piece of footwear in my hands as dumbly as if it were a loaf of bread.
I couldn’t even tell you how long I stood there, stricken in numb disbelief, as festive shoppers passed me by. It was almost as if I was in a time-lapse video, where I was the only constant in a blur of movement – as I stood there stunned, holding those bloody trainers.
My partner, who had been busy herding our children around the busy store, saw my face and knew straightaway - and asked me if I needed some time to myself. I nodded, expressionless in the midst of a herd of happy, busy, focused, stressed Christmas shoppers, and stumbled off to attempt to drink a coffee I didn’t want.
My dear friend Dawn John died at the Whittington Hospital only days after being admitted to treat the cancer she didn’t even know she had. The doctors told her family she had ovarian cancer which had moved to her lungs. And though we - her family and friends - had heard it was terminal, we had carried on with our lives during the following week because it felt impossible to accept. We expected that she might be given more time.
Where I went and what I ordered on Sunday, after receiving that final text, I have no idea – all I could think about was the fact that fewer than four dull, dark weeks had passed since Dawn and I, along with a large number of other friends, sat down in a North London pub after attending an Arsenal game.
The atmosphere was convivial. Our team had just won, spirits were high and drink was being taken. But despite our large crowd, I made a beeline for Dawn. Not just because of her ability to put the dramatis personae of this maddening game we all love into a calming and intelligent perspective – but because she was a kind, warm, jovial, generous, emotionally intelligent person who always made you feel better about the frustrations of life after spending time in her company.
Dawn’s parents came from Dominica and settled in London – Stoke Newington, deep in Arsenal territory, to be precise. She had two sisters, Mandy and Claudette, and a brother, Curtis.
She was a regular on the 80s and 90s London club scene, particularly at Feet First at Camden Palace and Paramount City, and a successful career in the music business. She worked with artists including Jamiroquai, The Fugees, Reef and Madonna. And in the years before she died, following a redundancy, she showed her tenacious qualities, and vast reserves of inner strength by obtaining a degree in Digital Media Studies as a mature student.
As the drinks flowed on that night I sat next to her, and the conversations became louder, a touch of sentimentality drew us into its occasionally welcoming embrace. We talked about matches won and lost - but it was never just about the bare statistics for Dawn.
It was about the laughs and adventures we had enjoyed over the long years we have spent following our team – a dedication that’s taken us up and down the country and across Europe.
We talked about ill-fated trips to Paris for the agonising defeat to a star-studded Barcelona side in the 2006 Champions League final, and of a Wembley cock-up that saw us denied by Birmingham City in the 2011 League Cup Final.
We also laughed about a riotous South Coast trip to Brighton for a cup game, and a memorable away day at the majestic San Siro, when our heroes netted an unlikely triumph against Milan’s Rossoneri. We could have continued, reflecting on good times, but the night was progressing and our large group was dispersing to different parts of London and the South East.
I didn’t think twice about saying goodbye to Dawn because I knew we would always have the next home game.
But that was the last time I spoke to Dawn. For by the end of the weekend of our next home game, she was gone.
This isn’t the first time I’ve lost someone to cancer: my sister-in-law died of the disease last year, leaving behind three young children. As I gathered with my family to remember her last week at the Royal Marsden Cancer Hospital, we stood in front of a fifteen foot tall Christmas tree decorated in hundreds of stars – each star bearing the name of someone’s loved one lost.
I wondered how many of those standing in the cold night air had experienced the God-awful wave of despair that envelopes you in the most mundane of situations. The freight train that hits you when you’re making the teas at work, or driving home one night, or decorating the Christmas tree, or feeding the guinea pigs, or shopping for a new pair of trainers. The train you never hear coming.
The truth is that even in Christmas week, grief is unrelenting. Its only certainty is that it will return.
Dawn was a good friend to so many people. She was one of life’s ‘good guys’. Her death has left hundreds of people stunned and shocked.
Which is why, when we all raise a tearful glass to her in our pre-match local - Islington’s Highbury Barn pub - before tonight’s match, her ‘family’ of Arsenal friends will give each other a silent hug and try to celebrate the joy she brought us in life.
And when we all gather at her Finchley funeral tomorrow morning in Arsenal colours – her family requested that it should be colourful affair, reflecting the love and dedication she had for our club and the wonderful sport that is football – along with all her friends from the other equally important spheres of her life, we will treat her passing with the requisite solemnity a death always demands.
I have no doubt everyone who knew her - tonight at The Emirates, and tomorrow morning at her funeral - will also reflect on the absurdity of it all.
The absurdity of losing someone special. Someone who you only saw a few weeks ago, and someone – all of a sudden, unexpectedly – who you will never see again.