“I hate it when people die in January.” An odd statement? When my mom blurted this out fifteen years ago I thought it was. Her brother-in-law, Errol, a beloved uncle of mine and a dear, dear friend of hers, had finally breathed his last. In January, obviously. He’d been sick for some time. With emphysema.
“Would it have been better if he’d waited until February or March?” I blurted back. I couldn’t help myself. I mean, “I hate it when people die in January.” It’s like saying, “I love it when babies are born in May.” At the time, my thinking was that people are born when they’re born, they die when they die, and, while various interventions, like inducement, assisted suicide, murder, war, etc. happen, in the majority of instances mere mortals have little say in the matter of deaths and births. Well, okay. With births, there is that union (done in a petri dish sometimes now?) hopefully performed in a loving way, approximately nine months prior. (In the 1950s, in the case of shotgun weddings, I’ve heard that parents explained it to the kids this way: “Well, Mike and Johnny. Yes, of course, the second child takes nine months. But the first one can come at ANY time.”)
But there are lots of unions – according to what I hear (and okay, my own personal experience) – lots of the time that don’t result in anything at all happening approximately nine months later.
Mom was right, though. Moms always are, aren’t they? You can actually “hate it when people die in January”. Three years after Uncle Errol, she had to go and do that very thing. To prove her point? Nah. I don’t think so. Going through her papers, I was reminded of the date of the death of my grandfather – her father – in January, 1981. Digging further, it turns out, she’d lost many other relatives and friends in that particular month.
So what gives with January and death? We’ve just past mid-January – perhaps I was premature in predicting the Best Year Ever – and how many greats have we lost?
David Bowie on the 10th, just two days after his 69th birthday, the same day on which his final album Blackstar – debuting at No. 1 both in the US and the UK – was released. Imagine. Creating – and creating well – under that kind of a deadline? In 2003, although he didn’t keep his cancer diagnosis under wraps like Bowie, Warren Zevon wrote and recorded his final album The Wind – which includes guest performances by close friends such as Bruce Springsteen, Don Henley and Jackson Browne – under a death deadline.
For me, a couple of memories of David Bowie resonate. Before I was married I had a friend who was. We worked in a clothing store – with the bulky rhyming name Very Very Terry Jerry – in Westmount Mall, a thriving mall at the time. I dropped by her apartment after work one day and on her turntable a male was singing:
(turn and face the strain)
Don’t want to be a richer man
(turn and face the strain)
Just gonna have to be a different man
Time may change me
But I can’t trace time
She told me it was David Bowie and handed me a Brador – you know, those beers in the stubby bottles from the late 1970s, with the gold foil over the cap and the high alcohol content? I felt so adult, sitting in my married friend’s place, sipping beer and singing “strange ch-ch-changes”. And right up until I just googled the lyrics, I assumed the word was “strange”, not “strain”. I love that song.
Oh, and on May 14, 2004, David Bowie played what was then called the John Labatt Centre here in London, Ontario, Canada (our apologetic little city with the big city name that comedian Tom Segura is currently having a blast making fun of). My late husband Hugh was still alive and had tickets and big plans for this event. Despite being upstanding members of the community, owning and running a successful roof truss manufacturing plant, with Bowie, Hugh wanted to recapture our youth. After work, he snuck me upstairs to our bathroom en suite, handed me some cocktail concoction containing ‘shrooms and lit a dube. (Please, don’t tell my kids. Or my fiancé B. He ran the John Labatt Centre back then too, but it is the Budweiser Gardens now, so don’t EVER call it the John Labatt Centre OR WORSE the JLC, as “they pay big naming rights for a reason”. I’m quite certain ingesting booze and/or drugs prior to entering the building is in violation of so very many rules.) Then had a limo pick us up. Once there, in the concourse, I recall running into our nephew – sadly deceased now too – and trying to appear normal, but being paranoid and thinking, Omg, I have to be an aunt now? Who else might we run into? Is there no going back?
But Bowie was great. He looked good then, too. Had a bit of weight on him. He started off with Rebel Rebel and ended with Ziggy Stardust.
Four days after Bowie’s death, English actor Alan Rickman, 69 as well and best known for his role as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series, passed. And then the next day, Dan Haggerty, 74, best known for his role in The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams.
Celine Dion took a double hit. Her husband, and also manager, Rene Angelil, 73, died of cancer on January 14th, then on the 16th, cancer claimed the life of her brother Daniel Dion, 59, as well.
And January 18th? Glenn Frey, 67, of Eagles fame. Really? I guess I was more in tune with Frey’s music than his personal life, as I didn’t know he had severe health problems, like diverticulitis, which he blamed on 4 Big B’s – “burgers and beer and blow and broads”. Oh wow. A good message to young fellas out there? In later years, Frey became a fitness advocate.
Bandmate Don Henley, who’d been estranged from Frey for many years, used to insist Eagles would reunite when “hell freezes over”, hence the name of their 1994 album, the result of their unexpected reunion. Upon his death, Henley had nothing but praise for Frey, saying, “He was funny, bullheaded, mercurial, generous, deeply talented and driven.”
There are rare songs you remember hearing for the very first time and Eagles’ Hotel California is such a song for me. It was afternoon, I was 18. Alone and driving. Probably away from my high school. I recall being drawn into Hotel California by the long and tender instrumental start, then having to pull over to the side of the road as the beauty of it kept revealing itself:
Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before
‘Relax,’ said the night man,
‘We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like,
but you can never leave.’
As noted earlier, with me and Hugh and Bowie, there is no passage back to the place you were before. And as the night man in Hotel California says, “you can check out any time you like”, but when checking out due to natural causes, statistics indicate your departure date will likely be in winter.
And I’ve always wondered about that last line. “But you can never leave.” Is it because once you’ve been, you can never not have been? Traces of you and your pathetically brief time on Earth will remain.
Like Bowie, like Frey – like all of your personal greats, human and animal (we’ve lost so many four-legged friends in fires this month too) – make those traces of you the very best traces of you you possibly can.