My little sister should have been forty today. I should have been able to Skype her over in the Netherlands and razz her about becoming an old fart like her brother. She should have been able to tell her headstrong daughter to stop running around for ten seconds and come say hi to her cousins. She should have been able to tell me how her Dutch was coming along in between sips of soda, and I should have been able to bring up an occasional memory – the time she pulled a sapling barehanded from the soil of our front yard when she was twelve, or the rusty fishhook which imbedded itself in her finger because I left my fishing rod out on the dock an hour after I should have put it away. We should have mundanely logged off with the promise that we’d talk again soon.
All well and good, except for those two words: should have. They imply entitlement, rightness, a logical order to the unfolding of the universe. Children grow up and call their parents for advice. An entire family’s collective memories are shared by a group of thriving members, not left in the sole custody of one somewhat flaky son who wasn’t really paying attention a lot of the time. Little sisters and brothers outlive their big brothers.
We are, of course, not entitled to any of those things. Read your Yeats – things fall apart. Pieces of our tapestries come untacked from the wall and peel away, and we are left to make what we can of of their remnants. Tears in the rain, dust in the wind, sands through the hourglass – pick your favorite and print it on a bumper sticker.
I’ve been dealing with being a remnant for a long time now. I’m getting pretty good at it. I’ve had a lot of opportunity and reasons to think about legacies and inheritances. What we leave behind, the scraps and dregs of advice and whatever artistic manifestations we can summon, the echoes that people remember us by. I’ve considered them, but I’m not sure that I’m closer to a resolution than anyone else is. But I know how to look around. Literary study taught me to learn from those who operate on a much higher level than my own. For example:
Bridget loved music both as a fan and a performer. She got a record player and a Jermaine Jackson album (shudder) at the age of seven and never looked back. She also played the oboe in high school band and came within a hairsbreadth of being her graduation class’s drum major. My sister appreciated music as both a distraction and an artform, and I’m fairly certain that she would have found David Bowie’s Blackstar to her taste. Cryptic, experimental, a final statement not just for us, but to us. Anyone who has seen the video for “Lazarus” understands what I mean by this. Dark and haunting before last Monday, so much more profound and heart wrenching afterwards. The low-key lighting, the stark hospital imagery, the saxophone moaning alongside his beseeching vocals.
Yeah, Bridge would have LOVED this piece. It was right up her alley.
When he shot this video, (which you can watch here) Bowie clearly knew that he was dying. The visuals suggest this in retrospect, and the video goes from an artistic statement to a message of perhaps greater urgency. The moment that struck me occurs at around three minutes in. Gaunt and clad in black (maybe the shadow of his Thin White Duke persona), he sits down at a weathered desk and picks up a fountain pen. Anguished, frantic, rushed, he begins to write. Intermittently, the image of Bowie lying in a hospital bed, eyes covered with wrappings, juxtaposes this feverish scribbling, which spills down off the page and onto the desk itself as a weathered skull looks on: memento mori – remember that you must die, I knew him, Horatio.
Bowie’s time was short. He knew this, yet he still had so much to say. Still had so much to create, so much legacy to carve into the world’s scarred desktop. For somebody who said as much as he did, who lived so many lives and inspired so many of us, this is beyond humbling. If David Effing Bowie didn’t get to do everything he wanted to, didn’t share as-yet-hidden pieces of himself…what about the rest of us?
Were she here, my sister would tell me that I’m overthinking this. It’s just a song, God, Scott, shut down and enjoy it. But she also knew how I was wired, my meandering, somewhat self-important ruminations on the importance of art. And I guess that a carpe diem (and here she’d certainly roll her eyes at my pretentious Latin literary terminology) is probably trite to most of us. The closer we get, though, to our own mortality, the less trite it must seem.