Monday, February 03, 2014

On Losing the Strangers We Love

I was upset when Pete Seeger died last week because of what he had meant to me since childhood.  But his death was not a tragedy.  He was 94 and died of natural causes after a creative, productive, meaningful life.  But I am very sad and very angry about the death of 46-year-old Philip Seymour Hoffman – a stupendous actor and by all accounts a very sweet and decent man.  He was one of my favorites and his death is a tragedy, because he should have had at least another 30 years to work his craft on screen and stage, not to mention being a loving father, son and spouse.  Forty-six is just too fucking young to die.

I feel like my head is stuffed with ants and cotton balls, but I need to communicate several ideas here.  The first is that, of course, all of us must find a way to cope with the deaths of those we know and love; the second is that the deaths of public figures we never knew personally can sometimes be as wrenching as the deaths of family and friends; and the third is that some people are callous and judgmental when someone dies because of drugs, which pisses me off, because they have no understanding that addiction is a disease and it plays out in a confusing assortment of genetic and other physiological, emotional and behavioral ways (and that’s all I’ll say about that).

All of my blood relatives are dead, as are several people who were former lovers or close friends (or both).  A dear friend of over 30 years died last August and I was sad.  But she was 99, so it was also manageable and acceptable, if you know what I mean – in a way that the death of another close friend of over 20 years who died of AIDS at 40 was not.  I was extremely close to my mother and it took literally 17 years before I had fully coped with her death and integrated that loss into my life.  When my father died, I grieved for him too, especially because we hadn’t had a good relationship until I was in my 30s and I felt cheated out of an ever-increasing closeness that was suddenly ended.  But his passing just didn’t tear my guts out the way my mother’s did.  Death and grief, like life and love, have broad scope and many levels.

One of the things I’m keenly aware of is that the assassinations of President Kennedy (when I was 11) and Martin Luther King Jr. (when I was 16) genuinely shaped my life, gave me a view of the world as an unsafe and unjust place.  Years later, the murder of John Lennon drove me over the edge.  It reinforced my cynicism, existentialism and warped sense of humor.  I mourned him actively for more than a year and in many ways still do – just as I still mourn King.  Do we ever fully recover when a uniquely bright light goes out?  I’m an habitual obituary reader, and whenever the death of a favorite writer or artist or other public figure is announced, it takes a piece out of me – especially if they were fairly young or committed suicide.  If they couldn’t go on, with all their gifts and glory, how can I be expected to keep going?  But I have to nonetheless.

I’ve heard it said that when we loose the ones we love – the ones we know and who know us – we lose the witnesses to our lives.  I feel that when we lose the ones we love whom we don’t know, we lose a part of the structure and meaning of our lives, those who inspire in us respect, admiration, affection, and a desire to be our best selves.  You would think their passing might give us something solid to hold on to, the stability of memory.  But more often, at least for me, the loss just lessens.

It has always given me great pleasure and comfort just to know that I’m living in the same time as strangers I love, and living in New York City, I’m often living in the same place.  New York will be a little more empty without Philip Seymour Hoffman – and those of us who loved him without knowing him will just have to live with that.

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