My birthday was two days ago. I turned 29. For some reason I couldn’t put my finger on why it didn’t quite feel like a birthday. Sure, I had to work, and I didn’t have a party planned, but even outside those factors it just felt like a normal day. For a large part of it I felt like I was in a haze, and just couldn’t quite register that this was another milestone on my physical journey through life. I didn’t realize until this morning why I was so off. That was when I woke up to a million text messages and Facebook notifications. Alan Rickman had died, and the world just felt less. It’s strange to have such a reaction to the death of a veritable stranger, but it’s still there. I realized in that moment, staring at my phone, that everything I grew up with, the formative people who have existed outside of my immediate existence (so not family or friends), the people who have shared a snapshot of their lives with me throughout my own, are dying.
It all started with Nimoy
Like anyone else, I’ve experienced loss and death personally (I wrote the obituary for my grandmother’s funeral), but it’s different to experience the loss of a loved one, whom you’ve known your whole life, and you’ve seen age, suffer, and die. In some cases you can clearly see that it’s better for them to pass, so they don’t have to deal with the pain anymore. No one wants to die, but no one wants to see our loved ones suffer. It’s different for people we’ve never met. We know them through things that in themselves are timeless. We don’t see them suffer.
Leonard Nimoy’s death was the first “celebrity” death that hit me hard. Like so many others, I grew up watching Star Trek. Most of my earliest memories are watching the original series, or the animated series, or one of the movies. Spock was a role model, a real, actual role model. He was a good person, and he was a nerd. So when I heard Nimoy died, I was crushed. It was a piece of my childhood that was once again tainted with mortality, but I recovered, and moved on.
Then there was Lemmy
Outside of Metallica, there’s only one other rock band I like more, and thats Motörhead. They are a hard kicking, hard rock, fantastic band. They embody the spirit of rock. As a kid in high school and middle school, their music spoke to me where I was. It wasn’t a bad thing to be different. When I read that Lemmy Kilmister, the frontman, had died a few days after Christmas, it hurt. But I was able to chalk it up to a lifetime of living the life of a rock star. It was an easy way to cope.
I want to qualify this with one statement: I’m not that big of a David Bowie fan. I like his music, I own some of his albums, but I’ve never watched Labyrinth (and I’ll be correcting that soon). David Bowie, however, was always bigger than his music. He was a larger than life character that embodied the changing tastes of the times, and often heralded those changes himself. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he managed to stay relevant even to his death. He never settled for less than excellence, and he rarely got stuck in a musical rut. He was a giant, and will be remembered as one of the greatest musicians of all time. Bowie’s death is made even more bittersweet by the nature of his music, which ruminates on the nature of life and death, and the shifting permanency of things.
The news of his death came a day before my own birthday. He too, died of cancer at 69. Lemmy had died of cancer at 70 just four days after his birthday. So just like with Lemmy, I’ve spent the following time listening to his music (and even as I write this “Golden Years” is playing).
Now it’s Alan Rickman
Then I woke up this morning to the news of Alan Rickman’s death. As an actor, he’s always been one of my favorite to watch on screen. His classic voice, the gravitas he possessed, and the roles he inhabited will live with me all my days. He will forever hold the part of best non-German actor playing a German villain (Hans Gruber in Die Hard). He also portrays the brave thespian in a movie who donned alien make-up to play a Spock-like character of a Star Trek-like TV show (Galaxy Quest), and will forever be remembered in the hearts of all Harry Potter fans as the definitive Severus Snape. He too, died of cancer at 69.
For me, I suppose the reason It has hit me so hard is that these are some of the cultural icons of my generation, and they’re dying. Not just the ones who have passed, but all of them. One day soon, I’ll have to grapple with the deaths of more of these people I’ve grown accustomed to being there, and by having to do that it speaks to my own mortality. I know that one day I will die. So will my wife, and eventually, my daughter will once I’m gone. I know however, that I can’t get caught up in the finality of it all. People die. Things end. Nothing lasts forever (not even World Series losing streaks). I believe in heaven, and I’m a Christian, so I believe in Jesus. I also like how Yoda says, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” I have comfort in that, but even that isn’t the laurel I feel like I should rest on. Life is finite, and every day that we have some is a blessing. We should make the most of it with what we have, love our family and friends, and when we leave make sure there’s no regrets. That’s something I had to learn today. So I say to everyone: keep making music, keep writing, keep playing, keep doing what you do. Life goes on, even if it doesn’t for all of us.
I think I’m going to watch Galaxy Quest now.