Death doesn’t just go away.
The other day I heard a gossip show host declare that one of Glenn Frey’s friends ‘still wasn’t over Glenn’s death.’ As the over-exaggerated shock of headline gossip news dripped from the host’s voice, I knew I was supposed to be feeling shock, maybe sympathy. But mostly shock. How could this man still be mourning for Frey? After all this time? I was not supposed to remember that Glenn Frey only died in January.
This idea that death goes away, that it stops hurting after awhile, that it is supposed to stop hurting, is pervasive in US culture. When a (not very close) relative died, my job at the time graciously gave me three days off. By the time the funeral and burial and wake and family dinner (and subsequent family fight) finally all wrapped up, I needed to take two more days off just to recover from it all. I wondered what people do when close family like parents or a spouse dies. How do you bury a loved one in three days? Do you need to take vacation days if you can’t squeeze dying into three days? What happens if you don’t have any vacation days left?
A dear friend of mine died five years ago this past April. She was the same age when she died that I am now. In our last conversation, she tried to tell me that she was dying and that it wouldn’t be much longer. But I had never had to look death in the eyes before, so I had no idea what she was trying to do. She said she was sick again, I said well thank God they found it before it was out of control, she paused, I said I love you, she said she had to go. My body flinches whenever I think about it. How I wish I could’ve been there for her. How I wish.
Death doesn’t go away. You just learn to live with your regrets. And somehow manage to go on living in a world where your loved one isn’t there.
What would your Prince tribute concert look like? What would you wear? What would your stage look like? What songs would you play? Who would be on stage with you?
The answers to these questions work their way out slowly. Friends and I share a thought here, a concept there. We build on each other’s musings. A friend says her outfit would be filmy, ethereal. Like what she know’s Prince is wearing in heaven. I follow up later that he’d be like the goddess Athena, with a bow and arrow to protect and defend musicians from unscrupulous music corporations. Neither of us is sure who says that the arrow would be shaped in his symbol. But we both know it is the plain truth. Prince is in heaven, and he has a bow and arrow. And his arrow is the Prince symbol.
We laugh a lot contemplating our tribute stage. We finally decide there’s no one perfect tribute outfit–we’d have to have multiple costume changes, just as Prince did in his performances.
Because there is no one look that encapsulates Prince. No one single style that pulls together almost 40 years of artistic theorizing, creativity, and work. People have tried to force Prince to be one single thing. Madonna is, sadly, not the only artist that tried to get away with some tired Purple Rain homage. It’s easy to understand that people have their personal favorite Prince era and it’s easy to understand why Purple Rain is the favorite era of so many.
But at the same time, what responsibility do we have to Prince as an artist? What responsibility do we have to 40 years worth of work? What responsibility do we have to a worker that may have sacrificed his body’s well being in the name of his work?
When Prince’s death was confirmed, I immediately pulled up his music, began listening and crying, crying and listening. Remembering. It was what I needed at the time.
But one friend felt overwhelmed by the flood of ‘remembrances’ when she’d only just begun to grasp that Prince was gone. She said she needed everything to slow down. Half of her tears came from being unable to accept what everybody else seemed to accept so easily.
Another friend said they loved seeing all of Prince’s music played on MTV, but that it was also painful. Once people got ‘over’ the shocking news, you’d never hear his music on the radio or tv again. The music would be gone, this friend said.
I couldn’t imagine that my friend’s words could possibly be true. There’s no way that Prince’s music would stop being played. Didn’t his death just prove how much we all loved him? How we couldn’t live without his music? I knew his music wouldn’t be played on a 24 hour loop, but to not be played at all? Unimaginable.
But my friend was right. There was a week of non-stop Prince…and then he was gone. And now you’re lucky to get Red Corvette on the oldies station. MTV has gone back to 16 and Pregnant reruns and eternal commercials.
But now is the time I need to hear those songs. Now, as the shock has worn off and I am finally getting used to the idea that Prince has moved on. Now is the time I need to talk to others. To sit with his music, to reflect on his artistry and skill. Honor his work through theoretical analysis. Reckon with his legacy.
Prince knew and talked about how music corporations took advantage of and even destroyed the careers of black musicians. What I know as a woman of color writer is that pop culture critics and academics have killed just as many careers by refusing to engage with the work of black artists or artists of color.
The desire to understand, the desire to interpret and integrate a piece of artistic work within the realm of ‘culture,’ the desire to ‘frame’ a person/their work so that they might be understood by future generations…this is part of what keeps an artist and their work alive, even after death. It is also what gives artistic work ‘merit’ or ‘value’ in a capitalistic world. If people don’t respect your work, you don’t get paid for it. And what shows more respect than interacting with and deeply thinking about an artist’s work?
A legacy is a “thing handed down by a predecessor.” There is a reason, a purpose, for the lack of critical interaction with the work of black artists and artists of color by the thinkers of pop culture. If no black children or children of color are ‘handed’ the legacy of black artists like Prince, how will they know they must and can take on corporations and to protect their name and work at all costs? How will they know brilliance started with them? How will they know they can do it too?
There is so much work to do in death. And when you’re in shock, it’s hard to face doing that work or even know which work needs to be done. By the time you’ve moved into acceptance and are ready to dig in, everybody else has moved on. Or worse yet, declared you ‘irrelevant.’
It took Eliza Hamilton the rest of her life–fifty years–to compile all of her husband’s letters and testimonies from friends/coworkers and finally get it turned into an analysis that could be handed down. A legacy. Fifty years for a legacy. Fifty years of work. Fifty years of work on Eliza’s part alone that informed the musical about Hamilton. 210 years of work by historians.
What does it mean then, that we’ve moved on from Prince after less than two months?
What does it mean when so few are willing to put in 50 years of work plus 210 years of work for black artists and artists of color?
My friend tends towards Prince’s ‘naked fairy on a flower‘ look for her tribute concert outfits. I tend toward his penchant for bold colors. The throbbing red accent on an otherwise drab stage. The burst of orange of the perfectly tailored suit at the Super Bowl. The color that makes you see and appreciate everything else all around it.
I love the quality of contrast of his outfits, the fine minimalist lines the contrast creates. But I love more that in the contrast of bold choices, you see the choice. You see that Prince made the choices that lead to the moment of orange bursting through rainstorms and television. You see that he made the choice to draw attention to himself without disrespecting the person he played with.
When the choices are visible, so to becomes the person who made them. I imagine Prince to be thoughtful. Playful. I see the way the red of his hat perfectly accents the red of the stage behind him, and I imagine he was probably a diva, like many stars are. Insisting on perfection. But I also imagine that he had a sense of purity about that perfection. A desire to make something beautiful, if only for a set worth of music. Perfection so that others can experience beauty. Because even everyday people have the right to experience beauty.
His early outfits where he shows off his glorious butt cheeks amid laced yellow, or where he accents his scantily clad nether regions with a diamond dew drop chain show the same thing. Even amid what was surely a desire to shock, to cause fear (a man that is willing to dress like we expect women to?), there is the playfulness, the beauty. A willingness to care about the details.
It’s easy to go for the shock and not care if people say they hate your shit. Our culture thrives on shock. The person creating the shock doesn’t need to actually care about his work because the work isn’t the point. The shock is.
But when you care about the details, you show care for what you are working on. You show it’s the work that’s the point. When you care about the the work, it’s then taking a chance to put your work out there for others to see and have opinions on. It’s taking a chance that nobody will like what you made the choice to create.
And it’s even harder to take a chance and put your work out there when you can get blasted as a ‘fag’ or ‘disgusting’ or ‘indecent’ or ‘pussy’ or any other of the multitudes of names we have for men who wear dew drop diamonds lightly embedded in the fringe of their pubic hair.
What risks Prince took. What choices he made. Over and over and over again for 40 years.
Death doesn’t just go away.
Another friend of mine was killed in a car crash two years ago. She was the sort of person that noticed the choices people make. She was the only one who noticed when I started wearing dresses. I was going through midlife exploration of Self and wanted to try something different. So I bought a few cute spring dresses at Target and did my hair up and sucked myself up into some Spanx. I felt uncomfortable and awkward more often than not, but I didn’t think anybody really noticed what I was doing, so I kept experimenting. But one day my friend told me that my entire aura had changed, and I was walking around looking sexy as hell in these dresses she’d never seen me wear. It got easier for me after that, to wear those dresses.
I never got to tell her how much I appreciated her words. I never got to tell her goodbye either. She was hit by a guy who was driving and texting one day, and I never got to see her after that. I’ve learned to live with those regrets. But I still struggle to live in a world where she is not here.
Big things, like the anniversary of her death, bring tears. But more often, it’s the little moments like when you hear a song. Or somebody posts a forgotten video or picture of her they found while cleaning out storage space. Or when you’re eating a grape and you remember the day you laughed for a solid 20 minutes over a joke about grapes with her.
The laughter that twists into a painful ache. Sometimes it lands in the throat. Sometimes in the chest. Then there are the tears that I can’t breath through.
I haven’t deleted the emails of my first friend. But I also haven’t read any of those emails since the day she died. Sometimes I search for unrelated email and an email from her pops up on my screen. Her name slices into me and I can’t breath until I scroll her name off the screen.
Maybe it’s less that you learn to go on living without your loved one, and more you learn to stay alive through grief.
It’s what I long to be. But it has taken me a long time, decades, to finally figure out that the fearless I admire is complex. There is the fearlessness of knowing you’re too powerful to fail, like Superman. And then there is the bold burst of color against a drab rainy night. The dew drop diamond against wet skin. The choices you make even though you know you can and probably will fail. Or that even if you don’t fail, nobody will support you and many will make fun of you.
When you make the choice to do it anyway, even when you are filled with fear.
Prince was that kind of fearless. My friends were too. It is what drew me to them, what made me want to be their friend. I still admire the hell out of all of their choices. Their fearless choices that brought out the best in others.
As my friend and I continue to imagine what our Prince tribute concert would look like, we start imagining what fearless choice making would look like in our own lives. Then like newborn kittens with weak heads and barely functioning eyes, we dip that first toe into the milk. We’ve both been taught to not make choices. We’ve both had our choices beaten out of us. Choices can bring devastating consequences in this world.
But to make choices is to become who you want to be. To make choices is to construct your ‘self.’ It is to be human. To be fearless making those choices is to be the best of humanity.
We’re both terrified. But we try anyway.
I’ve been writing this essay for a long time. Weeks. Every time I think I’ve finally figured out what I want to say, another person dies. Then another. Then another. And then the mass murder in Orlando.
As I struggled through the day after, I spent a lot of time being appalled at what horrific human beings white supremacy creates. I cried and was angry, cried and was angry some more. I cried and got angry at the same time. By the time I watched the Tonys that night, I was a mess. I cried through most of the broadcast. But something was different. The opening number especially had me crying so hard I was choking on snot and couldn’t get words around the hard knot in my throat.
That could be me,
that could be me,
and that could be a lot of fun.
I went to sleep feeling more soothed, not realizing the soothing came from a cycle broken.
When I woke up the next day, I started to fall right back into that cycle. Crying, anger, crying anger cryinganger. But then I saw it for what it was. A cycle. A cycle imposed upon us all. I remembered the days after 911, the days when we were all so stunned and shaking and crying…and then George Bush told us to get over it. Go shopping. I remember how outraged we all were. What kind of a dick tells grieving people to get over it? To…go shopping??
Of course the answer is everybody. Everybody tells grieving people to move on.
The only thing that helped then was a poet.
there is life here. anyone reading this is breathing, maybe hurting,
but breathing for sure. and if there is any light to come, it will
shine from the eyes of those who look for peace and justice after the
rubble and rhetoric are cleared and the phoenix has risen.
we got to carry each other now.
you are either with life, or against it.
I took a breath.
And then we were at war, and then another war, and things never slowed down again. More war, more bombings, more shootings, more shopping shopping shopping. And then we were just used to it and forgot the olden days when we needed and expected time. Time to go to church and mourn and pray and cry. Time to be with friends. To light candles and build alters. We forgot that it used to be normal to mourn. To be soft. For many of us, we were forced to forget our mourning rituals long before 911. Centuries before. For others, 911 was the slap in the face that kept us down.
But now here we all are. No matter how we got here. We find out horrific news, we cry, we get angry. We demand something ‘be done.’ And then we move on. Even though it doesn’t feel quite right…Even if we didn’t get to spend enough time loving.
The music stops playing.
And we pretend not to notice.
In honor of the victims of murder, terror, white supremacy, toxic masculinity. I notice. In honor of a black man who made 40 years of fearless choices, I notice.
And I choose to take back my mourning, my grief, from war mongers and white supremacists.
I choose to become who I have forgotten to be.
And I do it with the help of my elders, who remind me that loving in the war years isn’t easy.
Loving in the war years.
We are at war. And I chose to love.
we got to carry each other now.
you are either with life, or against it.