There are well-known people who die and in their passing a thread to an earlier time is snipped, a thread you thought was already gone. Shirley Temple died yesterday and I had to admit that I hadn’t known she was still here. As with Esther Williams, who died recently, I had a sense of surprise that our hash-tagged, hydroponically grown world still had any connection to that of a tap-dancing girl about whom FDR said: “For just 15 cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.”
There are others who pass and it’s the thing you dreaded but knew was inevitable, the passing of someone who is growing improbably older despite remaining stunningly relevant. Pete Seeger, you were amazing. Katherine Hepburn, I kept fearing your death until you were actually gone. And I’ve calculated the Dalai Lama’s age and possible life expectancy an embarrassing number of times.
There are people who pass too soon and whose death comes like a punch to the gut because they seemed beyond death, bigger than death, a mighty opponent. Lou Reed, really?
And then there are other people whose oeuvre serves as a reminder of who you were at different times in your life, who seem so human that of course they would die and yet you feel connected to their suffering, it inspired you to grapple with your own – and hearing of it, of their pain and the darkness, you wish you could cover them up, protect them, shield them. You wish you could have bought them a sandwich and a cup of coffee – talked them off the bridge. You wish you could trace a tear down their cheek and hug them to your chest and tell them what it’s meant to you that they’ve shared their gift but, really, they don’t need to share it any more. Just breathe, just sleep – feel the warm earth underfoot, bite into a July peach, kiss the warm hair of a daughter, hum a favorite tune. Take in every simple thing, Philip Seymour Hoffman; be alive and joyful in the smallest moment. Alive. I so wish you were.