I went to sleep early on Sunday night, probably the one night in the last two months I've actually kept my pledge of in bed by ten, asleep by eleven, so I slept the night away in blissful unawareness of what I would wake up to: The news that David Bowie had died at 69 after a painful course of liver cancer, just a day after his birthday and the release of his last album.
Celebrity deaths tend to trigger two kinds of reactions on social media. The first is that outpouring of tribute and remembrances that comes with the deaths of public figures in general, as the public exhibits a kind of ownership of their legacy and of them as well. The second is the disdainful comments about those tributes, and by the time I was up and reading Twitter, both were well underway.
Like many of the people in the former group, I wanted to express something about David Bowie because he was incredibly important to me, culturally.
I could tell you any number of things about David Bowie and what he meant to me, joining numerous people writing heartfelt and wonderful tributes today — like members of our own staff. But that's not what this is about.
Last week, I got a slim envelope in the mail, with a smeared San Francisco postmark, neat ballpoint lettering betraying the hand of a draftsperson or a comic artist, with a short note and a little present inside. I won't reproduce either here — they're not relevant to the story, and they're between me and the person who sent them — but it was a random, beautiful thing to get in the mail, a quiet moment between the two of us. A spontaneous gift from someone who wanted me to know how much I mattered and the kind of influence I had.
It's not the first time I have received little things like this in the mail, and I treasure every single one in a box of correspondence that lies by the door — in the event I have to evacuate my home in a hurry, it's not the first thing I would take, but it's high on the list (cats, computer, legal paperwork, go bag with supplies for at least a week, love notes). Those things are important and irreplaceable to me, and so are the emails I save, which I stash in their own particular folder.
Sometimes I pull these things out and look at them. Notes from complete strangers or people I know only a little, people I've interacted with a bit on Twitter or perhaps even seen at an event or meetup, not realizing that our brief brush with each other meant a great deal to them. Just last week, I wore a scarf that a reader sent me many years ago, hand knit from delicate, lacy yarn. Once, a reader sent me chocolates from Switzerland, and I Charlie Bucketed them out with care, which is exercising considerable restraint for someone who can rarely leave a chocolate bar half-eaten for more than a day.
People send me things. More hate mail than love notes (the hate mail gets stored somewhere else), but still, they send me things. And they don't realize how much these things mean to me. People often tend to assume that semi-public figures get enough praise as it is, but these things aren't praise, exactly, reflecting instead a deeper connection between the reader and the writer. Maybe after I die, many of these people will say nice things about me on the social media of the future, may even talk about the time they sent me a thing and I replied.
But I'll be dead, so it's unlikely I'll be paying attention — those kind words aren't going to come on a day when I feel depressed and question whether anything is worth doing, on a day when something terribly invalidating has happened, on a day when things just seem impossibly hard.
Tributes to David Bowie and his outstanding legacy were published and widely circulated long before his death — read Sarah Jaffe writing on David Bowie's radicalism in 2014, for example, and then her eulogy to a beloved pop culture icon. For highly visible figures, outpourings of love from fans are common and take many wonderful forms. Some even lead to outstanding collaborations, like Lesley's celebration of Mystery Science Theater and subsequent connection with Joel Hodgson.
But that's not the case for everyone, and I talk not just about celebrities and public figures but about each other. Several years ago I lost a friend to a senseless, pointless car accident when he fell asleep and veered off the road, and while we weren't close, I had fond memories of the times we'd spent together, of sitting on back porches at parties, of his glorious, righteous, famous moustache (those who knew him instantly know who I'm talking about). I don't think I ever told him in life how much I appreciated him, but in the wake of his death, I watched hundreds of people who'd loved him coming forward to talk about what he meant to them. I was out of town, sadly, for his memorial, at which people ate cupcakes decorated with little moustaches and celebrated his role in their lives.
Several months later, I nearly ran off the road myself because I felt tired, and I almost felt him tapping my shoulder thinking of the eerie coincidence. It's what drove me to seek attention for my constant fatigue, and what led to my subsequent diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea. I was tired all the time because I was suffocating at night.
I don't believe that anything happens to us after death. I believe that our constituent components break down and become something else. That's it. In that moment in the car, I thought of him, that's all. There was a corollary between what happened to him and what almost happened to me, synapses fired to connect the two. They say we're only truly dead when people no longer think of us, so I guess he's going to live on just a little longer. I didn't think he was watching or cast my eyes to the heavens in thanks. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe something does happen and a few years down the line we'll meet up somewhere and he'll call me out on this one.
"To the well organized mind," Dumbledore says, "death is but the next great adventure." But maybe, I think, maybe we should tell people we appreciate them before they pass away, just in case they really aren't there watching after they die. Maybe Bowie's hanging out watching Twitter repeatedly go over capacity and digging the Labyrinth reruns queued up, wondering if he'll get a hat tip in the State of the Union. Maybe not, though.
In the wake of my friend's death in 2014, I made a point of reminding myself to tell the people around me who had been important to me how much I loved them, but also of reaching out to the people who have been huge influences on me with their life and work to tell them what they meant to me, too. Some of them wrote back. I'm even friends, of a sort, with some of them now.
David Bowie reminds me that it's always worth telling people what they mean to me today, rather than waiting until they die to do it. And sure, lots of people are echoing these words, or something very like them, today, and that's okay. Death does that to us, jostling us with the immediacy of mortality and the desire to do something about it, often in the hopes that it won't chase us down like a thief in the night. I know that telling people how much they mean to me — that Kristin Cashore gave me courage to stand up for myself, that Julie Murphy brought fatness into the common sphere, that Mary Doria Russell gave me strength of conviction, that Louis De Bernieres helped me understand my tangled relationship with my own country, that Nikos Kazantzakis taught me about compassion, that Rae Carson pushed me to think about faith and society, that Tadeusz Borowski taught me about suffering, that Stratis Myrivilis taught me about the horrors of war, that so many people did so many important things for me — I know that telling them these things won't keep death away, but I also know that they mean (or would have meant) more to them alive than they ever do dead.
It might feel performative and weird and ridiculous, but try spending the year picking someone you know every day — a close friend, a random author, a television showrunner, a movie director, an artist, a journalist, a musician, a gardener, someone — and telling that person what they've done for you, and how much you appreciate it. It doesn't have to be public, it doesn't have to be elaborate, it doesn't have to come with gifts and choirs of angels.
Today, I'd like to thank AH, for being with me through dark times and light, for sharing in cynicism but also in delight, for talking me down from terrible ideas and encouraging me when I falter, for being a good cook and a splendid friend and a ferocious advocate, for working tirelessly on things that matter immensely, sometimes in the face of really grim odds, for introducing me to wonderful people and things without which I would not be who I am today. Thanks, A. Bees don't lie.