Death and the Living
Gene Wilder is dead, but I am not.
I think about death on a daily basis, but not in a suicidal, macabre sort of way. I’ve just always been acutely aware of it’s existence, of this inevitable thing that will never stop coming for me, no matter what I do, and I have no idea what will happen when I die. I can’t fathom what it feels like to not exist inside this body, and so I can’t imagine what death will be like.
If you happen to be a person in my life, you will undoubtedly be able to vouch for my incessant, obsessive plans for my own death (as well as everyone and everything care about) – not that I’m planning to off myself or go on a murder spree, but I feel the unending need to have a plan in place about what will happen with my loved ones, my pets, my belongings, my books, my body once I’m gone, etc. I am constantly trying to prepare for something while simultaneously being certain that it’s impossible to ever truly prepare for.
In my house, I have requested that my husband bring me my cat before telling me about a celebrity or person I care about dies (which means he’s bringing me my cat a lot this year). I think the general obsession of celebrity is two fold: one, it’s the loss of someone who touched your life, either profoundly or abstractly, and two, it reminds of us our own mortality. Especially when folks like David Bowie and Prince – who truly did seem immortal – die, there’s something unnerving about that.
There’s a great quote from the film Synecdoche, New York: “Each of us knowing we’re going to die, each of us secretly believing we won’t.” While most humans are aware that they’re going to die, we all generally like to pretend that we don’t, and we live our lives distracting ourselves so we don’t have to think about the slow march of death, secretly believing that somehow, we will be able to outrun it. But when somebody like Prince dies, we think, “Well, if Prince can die, then what chance can I possibly have?”
And the brutal truth is that we don’t. None of us ever did, and for me it’s important to remember that this life is a fragile, impermanent thing. My mom has always been very fond of the quote, “This too shall pass,” but I think that humans as a whole – or maybe just Americans or millennials, or maybe just me, I can’t speak for everyone – try very hard to disregard that. We want to believe every moment we’re in is permanent, so we take it all for granted. We rush to fill the empty minutes as if we have an endless supply before us, that there will be plenty of time in the future to do all the things we want to do and hope to do. Boredom is a uniquely privileged malady, one that allows us to take the precious few moments we all have on this earth for granted.
I, for one, am guilty of giving myself over to mindless activities so I don’t have to think about responsibility or the uncertainty of time and my rapid march toward the end of everything. When you’re a child, time seems to drag on forever. Summers felt endless, but days in the classroom felt even longer. Since I’ve graduated high school, time has hurled forward, and then since I began my publishing career at the age of twenty-six, it’s seemed to race on like a rocket ship. I’m thirty-two now, and some day soon, I’ll wake up forty-two, and if I’m lucky, on a day not too far from now, I’ll wake up and be sixty-two.
All of the books I’ve written are really about one brutal truth: The unavoidable nature of death and the inability to save everyone from it.
But when my thoughts turn to the likes of David Bowie and Gene Wilder, I realize that there is more than one way to be immortal. There will never be a world in which they didn’t exist, that they didn’t leave their indelible marks on those around them, on an entire generation of people to carry it with them in ways both large and small.
Not too long ago, I was discussing with my husband my frustration that if we ever had children together, they would never get too meet my grandmother, that my stepson will never get to meet her (Nanny died before I started dating my husband). I was actually angry about it, because I feel like every story I tell of her, it doesn’t do her justice. I can’t capture what it is about her that made her so special and wonderful, and in that regard, I’m often envious of celebrities and their massive bodies of work so everyone can see them, see in explainable glow that have within them.
But my husband, in his wisdom, pointed out, “But she made you. You don’t just carry her with you in your memories. You act the way you do because of her, the things you say and enjoy.” I’m not the sole creation of Nanny – to paraphrase Chuck Palahnuik, I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known. But I am parts of them. I’m her wit and her heart, I’m mother’s love and worry, I’m father’s stubbornness and love of books, I’m David Bowie singing “Dance Magic Dance,” I’m best friends and my pets, and I’m all of them and none of them, because nobody else was put together with the exact same pieces of everyone else that I was, the same way none of them are me but they all carry bits of me with them, too.
We’re all going to die, but we all carry one another with each other, passing bits of us onto the rest of humankind long after we’re gone, so we’re all sort of immortal too. And there’s something beautiful in that.