Mourning is very personal, yet it is unflaggingly universal. Not how we mourn but the fact that we do. How we choose to do it is a whole different story. Well, actually, many different stories.
The HBO broadcast of The Normal Heart, coupled with the death of Maya Angelou and our seemingly bi-monthly mass murdering spree by a mentally ill young man with gargantuan firepower, made this past week feel like it was all about death. Which meant it was really all about life. Or, to be more accurate – how we all really feel about our own lives.
No, this is not a greeting card homily because Hallmark, American Greetings and the like do not specialize in those kinds of phrases or in short, tightly written sermons that speak to our true thoughts and issues. Can you imagine that?
Too bad they’re gone but you got to admit, someone like you was lucky that they even talked to you.
If they were so great – how come they’re dead and you’re not? Hmm, maybe you are better than you think.
OR my favorite —
Live it up because if someone as fantastic as her or him died, you clearly will not be living forever. In fact, obviously you are already dead – inside.
I could go on but I won’t. Or maybe you want to make up one of your own?
___________(fill in the blank)___________
As playwright Marsha Norman confided to me decades ago when I was working on the film version of her Pulitzer-Prize winning drama about suicide, night, Mother, there is nothing wrong with gallows humor when you spend day after day around death. In fact, it’s necessary.
Still, it’s easy to feel as if all of this stuff is happening just to you, isn’t it? Or at least more deeply to you. For instance, aside from all of the above indignities in the past week I also heard about the passing of a lovely young woman in her twenties who was the wife of one of my former students, the brain cancer diagnosis of an old friend, and various other serious illnesses involving both my parents. Add to this all the dredged up memories I have of all of the young men my age in the 1980s who literally disintegrated before my eyes from complications of AIDS that were, ironically, brought to life so accurately in The Normal Heart, and you could say I was leaning heavily in that direction and starting to lose it. In fact I did lose it – meaning broke down and cried from the grief – for about 10 minutes – out of the blue – the following afternoon. (Note: Don’t fret. I felt a lot better afterwards).
Oddly, it was another death – that of the writer, poet, actress and activist Maya Angelou several days later – that really brought me out of this. It’s something different for all of us, right? The only thing you know for sure is that if you are really participating in life, something will indeed not only come to rip you back into the only rat race that we have but to make you feel inordinately lucky to once again retain your rodent status.
I was 14 years old the first time I saw and heard Maya Angelou speak and it was on The Mike Douglas Show, a nationally syndicated talk show out of Philadelphia that I promise you no other 14 year old boy in my neighborhood was watching at 3:00 on a weekday afternoon. Still, that’s what made Ms. Angelou so riveting to me – she was different. All 6 feet of her, dressed in some colorfully patterned dress from head to toe – her voice booming in full articulate sentences as she spoke about her loneliness as a child and the brutality she endured and held in – until she finally found her voice. She then read a passage from her book, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and all I remember thinking is, Wow – she wrote about her life and all the secrets she had that made her feel alone? Hmmm, maybe one day if I get up the nerve, which I probably never will, I can write about what’s happened to me and feel better about things and, well, get recognized too- or at least feel less alone.
Oh, of course all writers want attention and to get recognized. There’s nothing wrong with that. And no – I am not comparing my life to a woman as accomplished as Dr. Angelou, who was raped at the age of 7 by her mother’s boyfriend and who then did not speak for six years because she felt responsible for his murder by other family members who had found out from her what he had done. Or, perhaps, in some small way – I am.
What I began to realize – decades later – (and still have to remind myself of) is that this is, indeed, what life, and death, are all about. That small connection. Maybe only a tiny similarity but a connection nonetheless. It’s also what the creative arts – both great and small (Note: is there small?) is about.
You never, ever know who you will reach with your little story, do you? Yes, that means you. No doubt Dr. Angelou did not write Why The Caged Bird Sings thinking that some young, Jewish gay boy in Queens would be helped by it. Or perhaps she did.
Well, none of that really matters, does it? What’s important when we think of people like Dr. Angelou is not if they intended to speak to us but how they spoke to us – in what way – and what they left behind that to us makes the greatest sense This is also the case for our friends and loved ones. It’s how they live on and how we manage to go on.
How did they touch you? Help you to understand life? What did they inform you of? Enlighten you on? Entertain you with? Were they honest? Did they tell the truth in life and in art – or both? Or neither? Do you?
And finally, when all is said and done – what one thing did they leave behind with you? Not with the world but for you – yes you. For as lofty as it might sound, you are the world they leave behind.
If I learned early on about the power of speaking the truth from Dr. Angelou, I was taught the real value (actually, necessity) of speaking your own truth from the deaths of so many young, dear friends and colleagues I lost from AIDS in the period depicted during The Normal Heart.
…that I would gladly agree to spend the rest of my days never speaking one ounce of my truth in return for being able to bring them all back and to have had that period of history erased is, of course, the ultimate paradox of life.
So here we all are – faced with a world where everyone’s actions and deeds and truth speaking do matter. Never has this been more clearly seen than in the recent events at the University of Santa Barbara, or at the Boston Marathon, or in Sandy Hook Elementary School – or at countless American locales each year before them.
One cannot pretend to have known what was truly in the heart of our most recent mass murderer in Santa Barbara – 22 year-old Elliot Rodger – despite the vast human wreckage, extensive written manifesto and plentiful You Tube postings he left behind. Perhaps that truth was a mystery even to him and is the very fact at the heart of his actions. On the other hand, it might be much more simple – something that brings to mind one of the most memorable quotes I can recall from Dr. Angelou:
When people show you who they are, believe them; the first time.
If nothing else, this brings to mind the imperative of really listening. Not only to the people we care about or are paid to listen to but to each person with whom we come into contact. I usually learn the most from moments with people from whom I don’t anticipate learning anything at all. Just as I have often been hurt the most by those from whom I never would have expected such behavior.
Yet every so often you meet a person you adore and you get to spend time with them – and even love them for a period of time. Sometimes it’s a short time and sometimes it’s a lifetime. It can also be from afar, or even up-close but not personal enough. And then, suddenly, they’re gone.
No matter how many greeting cards you get, tears you shed or words of wisdom you read or hear from concerned relatives, friends or anonymous bloggers — It’s hard not to miss that. Or them.
Eating pizza helps. Though certainly ice cream or cookies are a good temporary fix, too. You do what you can. And then try to have some fun again.