Today is my brother Bobby’s birthday. He would have been 62 today, had he not died at 20. But even 42 years later, I remember his birthday. I remember everyone close to me who’s died, many times a year. Not as some sort of memorial, or tied a particular date, but just because they were a part of my life – and always will be. Burris, Dooley, Pat, Kenny, Chip, Russ, Toni – and of course, my parents.
Life is hard, and then you die. I’ve never entirely subscribed to this notion, because it is so harsh, so glib, and so incomplete. But I’ve also been with it in spirit, because, well, it’s true. Fuck. Life isn’t always hard, but unless we dodge the bullets flying at us right now, it’s going to get hard, and soon. We can’t even grasp what that might mean, the numbers seem impossible. I hope every day that that’s not true, that those numbers aren’t possible, but of course, they are, and every day, it gets closer. We will know in a couple of weeks.
So today seems like a good day to address this. To face death.
When I did my concert Saturday night, I mentioned death a few times – two of the songs I played are about the deaths of people I loved, I didn’t realize that until recently – and a couple of people were bothered by that. People don’t like to think about death. I don’t like to think about death, but I think about it every day. It’s just so…present. So inevitable. So incomprehensible.
The fact of death, or the threat of death, or a kind of mental death, or perhaps just intimations of death, have been a factor in the lives of several of my friends this week – quite apart from COVID-19. One friend has been diagnosed with a rare dementia; another, with a brain tumor; and a married couple very close to me lost their in utero baby mere weeks before her delivery.
This is crushing, horrific stuff. I think about all of those people every day as well, because…how can’t I? There it IS. With any luck, the first two will be around for a long time still, but how can we know? Death is all around us, death is there for us in every moment of every day. The old saw connects it to taxes, but it is far, far more inevitable than taxes.
I accept that. In the abstract. Having faced death young, with the death of my brother – which I (and my mourning mother) thought hadn’t affected me as much as it should have – I became cavalier about it. I have taken chances I might not have taken otherwise. At the very least, I came to accept it as matter-of-fact, which might have read as callous to some.
What other choice is there? It is a fact. THE fact. Part of the design. Who am I to challenge that? Peter Thiel can spend his millions trying to live forever, sure, fine. Go for it. At least he’s doing something about it (he thinks). But worrying about it seems ridiculous, even though avoiding it is certainly advisable. My brother’s death, and then my best friend’s, at 27, and then another, and another, right up to last year, has made me used to the idea. You do get used to it, I guess.
No, you don’t. You’re always shocked, always dismayed, always confused. Saddened, of course, but also…shaken. So sudden, so final.
I will probably be as afraid of death as it approaches as anyone else. I hope to face it with grace, but I can definitely say I’m not ready for it. I have things I want to do! I just redid my Bucket List! I have literally framed my life as four 20 year acts in an 80 year play (with room for encores). I have planned around this, this makes me feel like I’m in control. Might as well PLAN to live for awhile, right? I intend to rock it even harder than the first three (though the third may be hard to top). That’s why I started this blog this week; I’ve done a lot of things, but I’ve put off many others. I intend to do a lot more of them. I intend to do what most people do when they contemplate the inevitable: Work on something to survive them. In theory.
While I feel quite sure C-19 won’t get me, it’s gotten younger, healthier people, and it will get more. I refuse to be subject to my age, but I know that it matters. Except when it doesn’t.
None of us is immune, and this is a reminder of that. As I sang in one of my songs, “By the bullet, the bottle, or the luck of the draw” – it’s like that. I’ve had friends die of stupid things, or dramatic things, of chronic things; the opening of the TV series Six Feet Under was so brilliant for that reason: Death will surprise all of us. Oh shit. And fade…
As things get worse over the next few weeks, as more and more people die – which at this point is inevitable, sad to say – we’re all going to have to get a little more comfortable with, or at least conversant with, the idea. Allow me to be the among first to bum you out. You’re welcome.
It will be interesting to see how people react to this. I suspect it won’t be pretty, but it could be beautiful, depending on how we take this cruel twist of fate. As my friends above are discovering, as I have discovered, as most of you have discovered, this current threat is just an extreme, more-shared-than-usual expression of a basic fact: We’re all going to die. Not anytime soon, knock wood, but probably sooner than any of us would like.
I would like to say that death is what gives life its flavor, and it’s meaning, and I suppose that’s true. But it’s cold comfort in the face of the cold hard fact of death. I hope and pray for everyone reading this that they stay safe and alive; but might I suggest that perhaps this is a good moment, when you’re all caught up on your Netflix binges, to reflect on this cold hard fact.
Because it’s the defining fact of our lives. You may or may not be looking forward to an after life; if that comforts you, I’m happy for you. But the death part everyone can be sure about. Pretending otherwise can be nice for awhile; but facing this fact, and the terror of it, can be where great art comes from. And perhaps, great relief.
I quoted W.B. Yeats’ gorgeous “Love and Death” in my show, but now I’m struck by the lines of John Donne, the metaphysical poet (who I studied in college, lucky me, not being facetious, thank you Dr. Bertonasco), a famous couplet that is often quoted, in whole or in part:
Any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind;
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
But while I appreciate the solidarity in the lines, I feel the opposite, particularly concerning the first line: Each person’s death, especially the death of people I know, does not diminish me; it ennobles me, it emboldens me, it even inspires me. I hesitate to “make it about me,” because of course, it isn’t. And yet, because I, and hopefully you, are “involved in Mankind,” it of course it’s about us.
We can run from it or we can face it. We can do everything right, or do everything wrong, be smart and cautious or crazy and wild – it doesn’t matter. My brother died too soon, my friends died too soon, and right now, people I don’t know are dying too soon. It’s always too soon.
But my brother had a damned good time while he was alive, and I still remember him every day. If living well is the best revenge – on whoever did you wrong – then it’s not a bad thumb in the eye of death, either.
Here’s hoping that you and your loved ones all come out of this unscathed, but do so with a deeper sense of what it means to be alive and what it means to love. Love is a palliative, not an antidote, but it works wonders for those in pain, of whatever kind.
Happy birthday, Bobby.