When I was about four, I saw a ceremony on television. We were in the high-ceilinged living room of our apartment on the outskirts of Hanau, watching grainy Armed Forces Network footage of a black, station-wagon-like vehicle solemnly proceeding down a city street, servicemen in white hats marching behind it. “He used to be president,” my mother explained. “He died.”
Most of my life, I assumed that it was the immediately previous president, Lyndon Johnson, reposing in that slow station-wagon. It was only as an adult, once the Internet made looking up such trivia infinitely easier, that I learned that Johnson was still alive in 1969, roaming his ranch outside San Antonio, chain-smoking and nursing the heart condition that would kill him four years later.
In fact, the dead man was Dwight David Eisenhower, Ike, whom we all supposedly liked, but who had been out of the public eye since before I was born.
That was the first public funeral, or even death of a notable figure, that I remember. As I get older, of course, they come faster and faster. I know more people by name.
I didn’t know Eisenhower’s name the day he died, but I knew there was such a person as the President and I knew he was somehow important. Allen Dulles, Conrad Hilton, and Walter Gropius also died that year, but nobody told me, and I wouldn’t have understood who they were, or what significance was held by their lives and therefore their deaths. I don’t remember if I heard that Judy Garland died, but certainly, they would not have even tried to explain to a four-year-old why Dorothy, who had seemed so happy to finally be home, had to overdose on barbiturates. I probably would only have asked what happened to her little dog.
Now, I’m older. Maybe I still don’t understand suicide, and maybe I still worry more about pets than their owners, but I know more people, I am familiar with their name and work, so I feel more deaths. Nat Hentoff died last year; so did John Hurt, Mary Tyler Moore, Bill Paxton (“Game over, man, game over!”), Gregg Allman, Chuck Berry and Chuck Barris, Roger Moore, Glenne Headly, Sonny Landham (who, unlike his Predator castmates Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger, lost his bid for the governorship at the primary), Jerry Lewis, Tobe Hooper, Monty Hall, Tom Petty, and Sue Grafton. All of them, even Jerry Lewis, I missed a little.
This year, George and Barbara Bush both died, as did John McCain and Ron Dellums. Honestly I cannot say I really cared. Politicians, a few more or less make little difference to me. Anthony Bourdain, Stephen Hawking, writers Tom Wolfe, Harlan Ellison, and William Goldman, and directors Miloš Forman, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Penny Marshall all died and I felt a twinge for each.
Philip Roth’s death actually struck me hard. Anyone who had read Exit Ghost, or even considered the title, would be surprised that he hung on a long as he did, but I could not — cannot — imagine that voice stilled.
This morning, someone casually mentioned that Aretha Franklin had died back in August. I was shocked. I’m not a huge Franklin fan, but I would have thought I would have heard. Another voice.
Googling a little, I saw photos of Louis Farrakhan, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and Bill Clinton feigning mourning at Franklin’s funeral and then giggling together when they thought the cameras were off, and I realized, I did know, I did hear. I saw those photos and shrugged and forgot about it. I’ve just become inured to the process. People die, people whom I admired, people whose work made my life better. They die and their deaths are grist for conversation for an hour or a day and I note it and I forget it.
Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning? Quite ‘chapfallen’?
Now get you to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come.
Make her laugh at that.