Today’s a day that’s had a lot of deaths in it. The first was the death of someone I hadn’t known of before, a woman named Jerri Nielsen, an ER doctor from Ohio who was working in Antarctica and had to treat herself when she discovered she had cancer. That was in 1999, & she survived, but today a friend of mine — herself a breast cancer survivor — posted a link to Jerri Nielsen’s obituary in the Washington Post: she died on the June 23, the cancer having returned and spread.
Someone commented on my friend’s link to the story: Farrah Fawcett, who had been fighting for her life against anal cancer since 2006, had died this morning. I felt sadness for both, & for their families, & for my friend who first posted the Jerri Nielsen obit; & I felt sadness for myself too… for my family, for my dad who died last month, also of cancer. About whom I have a deep sense of peace, for complex reasons I’m not ready to write about… but right now, writing this, there’s tears… if he is at peace, still, for us, there is loss. I thought about my mom, too: she was a breast cancer survivor, but died in November 2005 of complications of diabetes. My dad was with her when she died. Now he has died, and is with her again.
Later, by way of another friend’s tweet on Twitter, I heard that Michael Jackson was reported in a coma, possibly dead. I did a quick check of Google News and found that in fact he had died. Facebook & Twitter have been full of that news & reactions to it ever since. So I’ve been reminded of other deaths. David Carradine, who died just last month — as sudden, as much a shock. But especially John Lennon: he, like Michael Jackson, was a figure I’d been aware of virtually all of my life, whose music I had always heard, but I had no idea of just how profoundly either of them had affected the lives of many around me, to the point of tears at their deaths. I still remember have clear memories of a night in December 1980, being in Info Box, a ticket & information agency I headed up during my senior year at Wellesley College, coming down off one of my few experiments with speed (in other words, I was deeply & horrifically depressed, because as I learned in those days, coming down off speed is a very powerful way of sending oneself into depths of despair, at least for someone like me already vulnerable to it), just keeping my head above water, & getting the news of John Lennon’s murder. It’s a good thing he wasn’t as influential in my life as he was in the lives of some of the people I knew — I’m sure I would have gone to the very worst depths. As it was, his death, & the sorrow people had for it, haunted the campus for weeks.
I have no idea if Michael Jackson’s untimely death will have a similar lasting effect on the people around me: he was a much different man. The kinder words I’ve heard of him are troubled, weird, eccentric. But no doubt about it: talented. And comes down to this: that for all the troubles of his life, & the crimes of which he accused about which I don’t know enough to judge his guilt or innocence — he was, like every other person, a human being deserving human compassion. He has three children left behind, & family, & friends; as did John Lennon, David Carradine, Farrah Fawcett, Jerri Nielsen. My dad. My mom.
All of us live at the center of our own lives, & bear so much influence on the lives of those we love, & those who love us even if we don’t know them. Not knowing any of these famous people as well as I knew my mom & dad, I can’t say the tears I’m having tonight are for them: my tears are for my mom & dad. But I know there are plenty of people crying for their loss, & the losses of other people who aren’t mentioned in this post of the papers. Life is so strange, that death is so much a part of it, & then those of us still this side still go on, remembering the dead or not, writing obituaries, writing elegies, or just dancing to what’s left to us of those lives.
That’s one thing I’ll do for Michael Jackson. Not tonight — it’s getting late. But other times. I remember hearing him, a kid singing with the Jackson 5 when I myself was a kid — I’m the same age as him, 50. But it’s the Thriller-era music in the mid-1980s I remember him best for, when I was in my 20s & dancing up a sweat in the local queer bar four or five nights out of the week, all the way to last call. I’ve got a snippet of poetry from a series of couplets about my old bar days with him in it:
Smoke, sweat, the glitter ball, Donna Summers, Michael Jackson —
make your fun, but I lost 20 pounds there one summer, dancing.
Rest in peace, Michael jackson, John Lennon, David Carradine, Farrah Fawcett, Jerri Nielsen, Dad, Mom. And I, thinking of you, will keep dancing, for as long as I’m still able.
A postscript about dancing
This is the last photo I have (that I took) of my parents together when my mom was still alive. It was in my hometown of Columbia Falls, Montana, on August 7, 2004 at my niece Cassie’s wedding. As I wrote in the description of this photo in my Flickr photostream:
Right after I took this photo, Dad & Mom wheeled smack dab into a big group of post-wedding revelers who were enjoying themselves dancing. Mom & Dad just started boogeying down right along with them! But unfortunately my camera battery ran out of juice before I could catch them at it.
Boogey down, Mom & Dad!