This is a sad reality. 2016 has had its share of celebrity deaths so far. With Prince Rogers Nelson the latest of many “greats” reported by the press, even the media has asked the question why this year? Why does 2016 feel like the year Death was informed of an impending performance review?
According to quora.com over 151, 000 people die every day in the world. They make room for the 360,000 people born in the same period. It sucks that the longer we live the more people we will know who are dead, some closer than others but even on a bad week, you didn’t know a significant fraction of the one million people who left us. Some of those one million people played songs on the radio or starred in our favorite movies. Others were great fathers, children full of potential, victims of war or disease, or were totally anonymous beings who grew up, worked, loved, and played until they suddenly didn’t anymore.
It hurts when they are close to us. It hurts when a lot of people we know (or have been part of our lives indirectly) leave us. There are some logical reasons why it seems more people are dying now and those reasons are pretty simple.
We’re getting older. The generation of Baby Boomers is entering their sixth or seventh decade. The pioneer musicians and artists we grew up with in television, radio, and film are dying at an accelerated rate.
Visit a National Cemetery. Go back the following week and look at how many fresh stones have been planted. The Greatest Generation is dying off quickly. Despite the extended lifespan, our grandparents (and great-grandparents) are claiming pastured real estate at a frightening rate.
In that generation, people were not connected in the way we are today. The number of Friends on my Facebook who are no longer alive has jumped in the past five years. Those pages are a reminder of our loss. Up to about a half-century ago people were still localized to city neighborhoods, small towns and suburban enclaves. Long distance phone calls were a luxury expense and letter writing kept us in touch with our loved ones. Now, we travel further, connect and work globally and are acquainted with perhaps ten or even a hundred time more people than a generation ago. We can literally track our children and family by GPS, call anyone from anywhere, see their faces, laugh with them in real time…we are more connected as a people than at any other time in history. In a decade we’ve gone from turning in film rolls and waiting a day for 36 images to shooting selfies and a dozen pictures of every meal and sharing them all on Instagram. Even if we don’t really KNOW a person, our exposure to snapshots of their lives can make us feel like we do.
And media has expanded so much since radio began sharing news and information across time zones. Every day, a new song plays. Every night, a new star is born. Every week, a new story is told and becomes part of our modern mythology. We add to it every single day dating back a hundred years when we began recording modern entertainment and news, even further when you consider the classic arts. It is a collective of celebrities from the obscure to the universal.
Just like life, an artist passes on and two take its place.
We’re living longer, too, with greater vitality. We can work and live into our nineties and share our lives to an age we would consider astonishing a half-century ago.
I grew up with much older parents. My father was fifty when I was born and closing in on retirement by the time my hormones kicked in and I began thinking I knew everything there was to know about life. By then the people my parents grew up with and admired, their families and friends, all were starting to pass away. It got tot he point where they dressed up more often for funerals than weddings. At least once a week someone – a musician or an actor I never heard of made them stop reading the morning paper or breath a weary sigh during the evening news because their Alan Rickman or David Bowie died.
My father told me that we reach a time in life that’s like autumn. You see the leaves are changing and it’s so beautiful – but then the leaves begin to fall. They fall slow at first, but as time goes on winter approaches and the limbs are left naked. Sometimes you get so wrapped up in life that you don’t pay attention and then look up to find a big patch of beauty plucked from the tree.
It was a sad thought, but I think it’s true. When I lost mom in January I missed a lot of 2016’s obituaries. It does seem like a lot. Looking back on the last ten years, a significant number of people who influenced me and meant something to me emotionally left this world. At least I still have their art and their art connects me to memories in profound ways. It reminds me of the importance of artists in our culture.
I started writing The Citadel Boys posts a long time ago on Livejournal because my heroes were dying off. I lost Douglas Adams, Hunter, Warren, George Harrison, so many Jazz and Blues artists…. it hasn’t stopped. At one point I had to leave Harlan Ellison’s web forum because it was becoming a non-stop scrolling obituary. Users were posting notices about Harlan’s contemporaries, influences, and friends almost every day to the point it was ghoulish.
The last thing my father told me was very Neil Gaiman – “Enjoy the colors while they are bright. It’s the most beautiful part because its like everything has been working toward this moment when everything works together and it all makes sense. But it won’t last.”
Maybe that’s why we forgive a little easier, understand faults and transgressions. Maybe it’s why we look for the people we lost contact with over the decades. Perhaps this unavoidable experience is what softens us in a good way and makes us look up at that tree and appreciate the changing colors more than the empty branches. We know all things must pass so we should love what we have while it still flutters in the breeze.