It’s been a big month for deaths. We’ve lost film reviewer Roger Ebert, mouseketeer Annette Funicello, hypnotist Reveen, evil slag Margaret Thatcher and Canadian theatre artist Greg Kramer. But the death that affected me most was the 25-year-old nephew of a dear friend. The young man died from a completely unexpected brain hemorrhage. It was devastating for everyone who knew him. Of the above list, he’s the person I know the least about, and yet thinking about the anguish his loved ones are going through breaks my heart in a way none of the other deaths did.
As a child, Hollywood and Sunday school taught me to believe women and children hardly ever died, and if they did they usually got an Oscar for it or a lamb from Jesus. However, the unexpected death of my paternal grandfather when I was 12 taught me just how messy the process can be. The orgy of genuine hysterical grief (to say his family had unresolved issues is like saying Travis Bickle had a blood sugar problem) combined with a certain level of “it has to be about me too-ism” essentially turned me off funerals for the rest of my life.
Like any young writer, I contemplated death a lot. It was romantic and mostly something that happened to other people. But by the time I was in my early 20s, the entire gay community was living some kind of unspeakable horror story. We grew up being assured repeatedly that the magic of modern medicine would cure us of any sexually transmitted disease we might catch. So when reports of gay men dying of strange afflictions started to leak out in the gay press, we all assured ourselves it was something that happened to guys in New York and San Francisco. But we were wrong, and suddenly too many men I knew and loved got sick and died horrible, agonizing deaths. It was a decade of abject fear, crippling paranoia and functional despair — made worse by the fact that most straight people were indifferent to what was happening. Some even celebrated it. Those of us who came through it are like the survivors of a war that the majority of people never even saw; shell-shocked, angry, traumatized but alive.
And then doctors found better ways to treat HIV and AIDS. People stopped dying. The disease wasn’t cured, but it was controlled and the whirlpool of hideous demises dissipated to a mild current for nearly a decade.
Then people I knew started to die of cancer and heart ailments at an alarming rate. It was happening with my queer friends but not at the same levels it seemed to be happening with my straight friends. Both communities were decimated, but it seemed the theatre world, with its mingling of all types, was the hardest hit of all. Now it’s rare for a month to go by without some person I’m in some way connected to shuffling off this mortal coil — which I suppose is natural at middle-age.
People disappeared from my world all the time when I was growing up. Personalities were explosive. Adults were young. The lifestyle was transitory. Friends, aunts, uncles, cousins, sometimes even parents, could disappear without warning. Perhaps that history, coupled with the plague years, explains why I don’t hang on to the dead. Whatever unfinished business, extreme emotion or profound connection I might have had with the deceased ceases to affect me after they are gone. If I loved them, I mourn them profoundly; if I knew them, I acknowledge them respectfully; if they were adversaries, I note their passing as accurately as I am able. The best of them are missed too much to explain, but I know they are irrevocably gone so there’s no point in allowing them to be anything more than a memory. Ongoing relationships with the departed — and many people have them — seem one-sided and pointless. You can’t maintain a relationship with someone who no longer exists.
On the cusp of 54, I know death has moved closer as the road ahead of me becomes shorter and the one behind me longer. Sometimes that bothers me. Most times it doesn’t. Ultimately, no one, no matter if they’re a beloved entertainer, a ghastly politician or just an innocent young man with everything to live for, gets off the hook. It’s one of the few things every human and every living thing on the planet Earth have in common. I find an odd comfort in that. But it’s still a bitch.