“Like a wind crying endlessly through the universe, Time carries away the names and the deeds of conquerors and commoners alike. And all that we were, all that remains, is in the memories of those who cared we came this way for a brief moment.”
– Harlan Ellison.
2016 was that year when our childhood really started to die. Those of us in the “Generation X” range, in particular. Their names were instantly recognizable and often tied to strong and important memories from our youth.
As the year wore on and more celebrities died, a meme was born which led to the creation of the Year-as-Serial-Killer. 2016 came alive and was stalking our idols. I read posts about older celebrities where people demanded 2016 leave him or her alone. I found it poor taste. I found what I considered an unfunny bit of gallows humor to be old and tired by March.
At some point, like a lot of people, I pointed out that it isn’t a massacre or a celebrity plaque but the passage of time. These were not young celebrities. Late sixties…seventies…into the nineties we acted like it was unfair or unreasonable that people would die so young. It was sad but – hey! Let’s pay sympathy and respect for their loved ones and not turn their deaths into the latest iteration of an internet fad, okay?
Well, someone I respect as an artist and thinker went off saying people like me “get no points” for pointing out the reality and (somehow) denying people the right to grieve in their own way. After all, we lost these people from our lives and we FEEL things, damn it.
That made me angry. I saw his point. No one should be made to feel bad about their method of grieving. On the other hand, I was being made to feel bad about my method of grieving. My point, buried in the “reality” that people eventually die, was that we don’t celebrate people enough in life.
In my anger I wrote a long reply that I never sent. I mean, for fuck sake, people. My social media was never ripe with discussions about Patty Duke’s filmography or her on-screen chemistry with William Schallert. Sure, we all loved the Willy Wonka memes featuring Gene Wilder’s face, but until 2016 he was otherwise absent from my discussions until her died or when someone wanted to point out how vacant he was during his last public interview.
Yes, the rest of the dish was as horrible as that sample is. I am glad I didn’t send it. No one would have benefited from my anger. Once I wrote it, however, I understood why I needed to.
In the early weeks of 2016 I lost my mother. She made it to her 90th birthday and passed quietly in a nursing home surrounded by her family. Unfortunately, I was not there.
When I think of most of the notables who died in 2016, I can load an MP3 or watch one of their movies or TV shows. I can google their art and there it is to remind me of my life now and back when I first experienced it. All those memories are intact there. They are non-transferable, however. My children will never understand that relationship. No one inside my mind will feel that connection in the same way.
But that experience is just a click away for me.
When my mother died, it was at the end of a long battle with Alzheimer’s and dementia. She had lived to be about my age now before I was born. My father had lived half a century before I was conceived. I have the memories of surviving relatives and siblings born in the late forties-early 50s to share their memories about them.
I cannot just fucking google those memories. I cannot download those faded experiences. If not for the foresight of my brother to record their memories to VHS in the 90s, I would have nothing of them but paper and photos. I am lost in their deaths because they only left tokens behind representing all the moments of our lives, all the things that made me who I am (better or worse) and all those small details. And all those years before I was born – lifetimes lost before I became that impudent child who didn’t feel the strict, conservative views of their obsolete age were worth committing to memory.
You want to talk grief?
I love Carrie Fisher and I am sad that she died. It does hurt because of this phantom connection I have with a human being I never met. There’s an ache rooted in my own mortality. But she wasn’t someone I’d call late at night in my darkest moments. She wasn’t someone whose absence from my life would prevent me from feeling like a whole human being. She was never someone who kept me awake at night worrying about where she was or if she was using drugs again. I didn’t call off work to fish her out of jail. She never mentioned me at an award ceremony or even answered the fan letter I sent in 1978.
Carrie Fisher didn’t tell me I could do anything I set my mind to. Prince and I never drove 99 miles per hour tailgating an asshole for ten miles just because he pissed us off. Alan Rickman did not stand in his seat at the end of my performance of Young Patrick in “Mame” (1979) when I thought I’d blown it and was terrible. Gene Wilder didn’t run off the bullies and offer me a hand off the asphalt and a tissue for my bloody nose. Leonard Cohen didn’t sing me to sleep when I had chicken pox and felt so bad I couldn’t move without pain. Florence Henderson wasn’t my mom who sang “I love you/a bushel and a peck/a bushel and a peck/and a hug around the neck” to my infant son the same way she did me when I was little.
But I still get chills thinking about the time I accidentally triggered an answering machine message from my father a few days after he died. I remember the unreasonable anger I felt at the men from the funeral home who tossed my father’s bagged corpse onto a cart like a sack of lumber or garbage. I still remember the smile on my mother’s face the last time I ever saw her and a lucid moment when she looked so proud of me and pleased to see me; that look of pure love from someone I will never see again. I remember the permission to cry upon seeing my siblings, people who I’ve known to be more in control and restrained than most people in my life, breaking down.
And I remember sobbing and screaming over a young man far, far too young to die who seemed to be very close to leaving us forever…days wondering if a good and decent kid wasn’t going to come back from smashing a car into a tree at high speed.
So. I’ll grieve how I want, thanks. There is nothing strange about 2016. “2017” has already claimed a few high profile people. We’re getting old and our archive of media is vast. At LEAST we are left with that body of work. When your closest friends and family are gone, will you add them to the meme? Or will you genuinely grieve? More importantly, how has the lesson of 2016 changed how you treasure those who the big bad year left behind?