When I heard of Carrie Fisher passing, I didn’t feel much. Which is maybe not so strange. I didn’t know her. I wasn’t a friend or family member. I glanced over the many tributes on Facebook and various webpages, and oscillated between bummed and slight annoyance. I know that sentence makes me sound like an asshole, and I have never denied the title. But let me explain.
Had she passed a couple of years ago, I would have been the first person changing my profile pic to my favorite portrait of the star. I love Star Wars. I mean LOVE. My husband and I opted for Princess Leia and Captain Kirk action figures atop our wedding cake, a nod to a long waging Star Wars vs. Star Trek debate. But I am not just a Star Wars junkie. I am a fan of Fisher. I’ve read all of her books and admired her skill for intertwining raw emotion with comedic levity. As a person who battles chronic depression, I am grateful for her efforts to normalize mental illness. Her daughter wrote that “She was loved by the world and will be missed profoundly.” I wholeheartedly agree.
I guess it started after David Bowie died. A friend asked me how I felt, knowing I enjoyed his music. I told her it was too soon after Chris’s death, and I had no grief to offer anyone else, including celebrities. Which she understood, and I think most people could comprehend. At that point, I was overrun with grief.
When Prince died, my mood changed from despair over my brother to borderline anger. I read post after post on social media by people proclaiming they simply couldn’t go on. My inner skeptic immediately questioned the viability of these emotions. I understood the enhanced drama from simply typing a few words. I didn’t expect them to go into full mourning over Prince. But had these people purchased an album since “Diamonds and Pearls?” If not, I felt their relationship to Prince was much the same as it was the day prior. I was fed up with people being upset over celebrities when their were real people dying. Namely, my brother. As if I had a monopoly on grief. How dare you feel saddened when Chris is gone.
Last week, Zsa Zsa Gabor passed. I saw a post from someone saying “2016-enough already!” in relation to her death. My annoyance was reignited. Zsa Zsa was 99. We all have to die sometime. As I repeated this story for the third time, I realized, first, I sounded like a real bitch. Second, grief was making me cold.
George Michael died on Christmas. My husband mentioned it as we prepared dinner, and to my surprise, I gasped. George Michael? But he’s so young! I felt something. Not for long. But something.
Later, I read a post from a friend, who described being a young teen and having a huge crush on Michael. She mentioned posters on her wall and listening to his music over and over. It seems to easy to comprehend, but it took me time to remember that celebrity deaths really have little to do with the celebrity- they are about connecting us to another time in our lives. If I found out a high school boyfriend had passed, I would most likely have a few moments of reflection, even if I hadn’t spoken to him in decades. Was that really so different?
One of the things I am challenged by in this process of grief, but also in just being human, is that emotions from other people can be completely different from my own, and yet just as valid. I remember my sister-in-law once remarking on a boyfriend. They would go wine tasting, and if his palate didn’t match up with hers, he felt a bit like a failure. I hear phrases thrown around in conversation like “undeveloped palate” or “acquired taste,” and I understand why he might feel that way.
When my SIL told me this story, she couldn’t really understand it- a palate simply had to do with the genetic hand you were dealt. What he liked might not be what she liked, and that was fine. But I totally got it. When someone reacts to a situation differently than I do, it means my reaction is wrong. There is something defective in me. I can’t take that, so I become determined to see my reaction as the one and only correct emotion to have. Like many people, my lack of esteem is manifested in the outward appearance of an overbearing ego.
I’ve read several memoirs on death in the past couple of weeks. I was particularly struck by one titled Half a Life by Darin Strauss. When Strauss was a senior in high school, his car hit a girl on a bicycle who happened to be a fellow student. He killed her, and coming to terms with that experience has colored most of the other aspects of his life, even decades later. What I loved about his writing was how he perfectly described the confusion of the onslaught of emotions surrounding death. Our society likes things in neat, easily comprehended packages. But death is messy. Its a multitude of emotions and no easy way to decipher them. He described holding his head in his hands, acting out the motions of grief, because as an 18 year old, he thought that was what he was supposed to do. But he didn’t realize the real work that would await him for the rest of his life. How much was he supposed to think about this girl he killed? If he thought about her too much, it affected every moment of his day. Not enough, he felt guilt. Was it fair to think of the experience as something that happened to him knowing that she had no life left to experience anything?
Last night, in a fit of boredom, I began to read a few of the tributes to Fisher, and to my surprise, I felt something. I teared up, and once again felt that conflict of emotions- thankful to feel what the rest of the world seems to be feeling, but also feeling like I was being disrespectful to Chris for wasting one moment of mourning on what amounts to, a complete stranger.
But as I read, I was reminded of what it felt like as a little girl, so see a female that was a hero. I didn’t associate the metal bikini with the sexuality of Princess Leia. I remembered her being the bad ass that killed Jabba the Hutt. That image had an impact on me. To be strong, to be powerful, to be female. More than that, I was connected to seeing “Return of the Jedi” in the movie theater with my siblings- a rarity for our family. I thought back to countless times of acting out Star Wars with Chris and I as the key players, Luke and Leia.
I read another memoir recently titled When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Kalanithi started college as an English major, with a strong focus on philosophy. Fascinated with words, he wanted to learn what gives man the ability not only to function but to create art, to not just live but to have a soul. This quest led him to the study of the brain, and he eventually became a neurosurgeon. Many creatures have brains, but do they also have souls? He ventured into medicine hoping to find those answers. At thirty six, he was diagnosed with cancer and lost his battle within a couple of years. He left behind a wife and daughter who was not even a year old.
Reading about Kalanithi’s love of words inspired me to read poetry again, perhaps another step on the quest to find my own soul. I’ve started with Leaves of Grass, a favorite of Kalanithi’s, reading a page or two every day. I try to savor the words, letting their meaning coat my mind and heart. Today, I read this:
I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprout shows there really is no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.
All goes onward and outward….and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.
RIP Carrie Fisher. I did not know you. I was not a friend. But your life did impact me. You were indeed loved by the world, and you will be profoundly missed. And if in some distant galaxy far far away you happen to run into a long haired, tattooed guy with a frog voice and a quick wit, tell him I love him and think of him every stinking day.