Was it just over a week ago? My son woke me up at 3 a.m. because he couldn’t sleep, and then, he quickly fell back asleep in my bed. By then I was awake worrying about money and a strange sore on my leg that had been bothering me, and the environment, and my husband’s job stress, and my daughter, and summer camp schedules, and my son.
I went downstairs and checked Facebook and learned that David Bowie had died of cancer.
I do not like the the way we mourn celebrities and artists, especially on Facebook. It seems selfish and self-centered. We are not their children or spouses or friends, or even co-workers. We did not know them. We still have access to all of their genius, to everything we loved about them. How dare we complain that there is not more? Why do we decide that we get a say in the meaning of their death? I do not generally cry for celebrities, I do not generally comment on their deaths, but I saw the news and I laid down on my son’s bean bag chair and cried myself to sleep.
My very first memory of Bowie is from Jewish summer camp. I was sick with a high fever. For several days I stayed in the infirmary. I knew I was sick because I was allowed a special privilege, a counselor was allowed to bring me his Walkman to listen to music.
I don’t remember what cassettes he had, except for Changes One. I had a high fever and I stared at the beautiful face and I listened to the album over and over again. I dreamed I was in a space ship, I dreamed I was being chased by dogs, and then, I dreamed I was dancing in a basement with a beautiful man. I was eleven and I remember very clearly listening to “John, I’m Only Dancing” and realizing, “Wait, he’s dating the man, but he’s dancing with a woman.”
When you are eleven in 1980, maybe even when you are eleven in 2016, your world is fairly black and white. People fit in to categories that you’ve learned about. If you are being raised in a liberal home you don’t judge them, but still there are categories. Male and female, black and white, Jewish and not Jewish, straight and gay.
But then, you are eleven and you have a fever and right in the middle of a Jewish camp where everyone has more beads on their add-a-bead necklace than you do and everyone knows how to play tennis, and probably everyone in the cabin will get their period before you, right in the middle of that camp you meet a space alien who tells you that it’s not really like that. You meet someone who tells you that you can look and feel any way you want. You meet someone who tells you life is not just about studying and violin lessons and preparing for your Bat Mitzvah. You meet someone who tells you that you do not have to fit in with these people. You do not have to grow up and do all the things normal people do.
Eventually, the camp had to take me to the nearby hospital where they gave me antibiotics and within a day or two I was back at camp activities. That same summer I had my first French kiss, a boy named Marc, in front of the library, before the dance festival. I went home and bought David Bowie albums, and cut pictures of Bowie out of magazines.
I went to a Performing Arts High School and there was no shortage of would-be David Bowies to date. Dancers and singers and actors with fluffy 1980s hair and eyeliner. It was the early days of cable and I stayed home from school to watch David Bowie in Just a Gigolo and Tallulah Bankhead in Lifeboat. I kept two scrapbooks, one of pictures of Bowie and the other of ideas for decorating Windows, Tallulah Bankhead’s house in upstate New York. I wore a locket, on one side a picture of Bowie, on the other Tallulah. I went to my first high school dance, a costume party, with a tall thin blond boy. He was dressed as Errol Flynn in Robin Hood and I was dressed as Tallulah.
I grew out of the fan stage, because you have to, but I never outgrew Bowie. He was always there as a symbol of everything life could be, if I could just figure out what I wanted. I was not beautiful or glamorous enough to be Tallulah, but being Bowie was a constantly changing act, you did not have to be anything but fearless. I never truly figured out what I wanted, and I am not fearless and so my life is decidedly lacking in glamour. But I have still always felt like Bowie was there as much for me as for those who were truly creative and risk taking.
The morning that I found out Bowie died I went to the doctor about the strange sore on my leg. I spent the day in doctors’ offices and waiting for surgery and it all seemed somehow surreal, what I originally thought was a pimple now required surgery. But it also made sense. This is what happens in a world without Bowie. In a world without Bowie your life can be derailed by something as mundane as a pimple. A world without Bowie lacks glamour and magic.
I did not know David Bowie. I will still listen to his music and watch his movies and when I see a picture of him or hear his voice at whatever stage, it will still make me smile and melt a little.
My life will not be different because he is gone, but it is different because he lived.