It Tolls for Thee

I did not have strong feelings when Queen Elizabeth II died. I understood the people who celebrated the end of the last remaining vestige of the British Empire. I understood the people who mourned the end of an era. But I did not have strong feelings of my own.

I do not believe in Monarchy as a form of government, but I don’t see a huge problem with it as a form of entertainment. Obviously, the idea that someone is better or more worthy because of their birth is a problem, but it also seems baked into us. Why else do we care about the children of celebrities? Why do so many people feel so strongly about their biological roots? Why are so many democratic-minded people members of Ancestry.com? The Queen of England was a celebrity for almost 100 years, and now she’s gone.

My own grandparents died in their 90s and there is something disorienting about having someone that old die. You almost forget that they can die. For almost a century someone survived. They survived two World Wars, Depressions (both Great and personal), deaths of loved ones, and miscarried children. In my grandparents’ case, they survived the complete destruction of their homelands. They survived crossing the ocean. They survived the systemic murders of their extended family members. It seems unbelievable that something as basic as old age could eventually kill someone who survived everything else.

About two weeks before the Queen died, a man I knew died. Actually, he wasn’t a man I knew. He had been a boy I once knew, or sort of knew. A guy I went to grade school and one year of middle school with. He had bright red hair, and something about him that in my memory was rough. Not mean, just rough. Once, in 8th grade, he and my best friend were at a party and they played spin the bottle and that was my best friend’s first French kiss. If you knew either of them, you would know how unlikely the kiss was.

He was a National Merit Semifinalist. He dropped out of high school before graduation. For years, that’s what I knew about him. He was a little thing I knew about my friend that other’s didn’t. He was a cautionary tale about what happens when someone is too smart and too bored.

When he died of a heart attack in his 50s, I learned that he had been a chef and then a lawyer. I learned that he knew a lot of the same people I know. When I wrote my best friend to tell her that he had died, we talked about the weirdness of it all. We do not know him. We can’t miss him, but we are still so sad that he died.

Somewhere in between this man’s death and the Queen’s death Luke Bell, one of my son’s favorite country singers, died. He was 32 years old. I know even less about Luke Bell than I do the man I once went to school with or the Queen of England. But I find myself thinking about him.

I think sometimes that we try to limit acceptable grief. We look askance at people who mourn a pop star or a problematic symbol of the 20th Century. When I taught English 101 my fellow grad students and I joked about the inevitable Freshman Paper about the death of their high school best friend and how it changed their life. When you talked to the students you found out that it wasn’t actually their best friend, as their papers claimed, it was a kid they barely knew. It was the real life equivalent of Scott on Beverly Hills 90210. As disorienting as it is to lose someone in their 90s, it is more so to lose a teenager, even someone you barely know. But because we have no language for losing an acquaintance, especially as a teen, these deaths take on a new meaning.

I have not thought about the red-haired boy in years, possibly decades. I have thought about him every day since I learned he died, and here I am, writing the equivalent of a Freshman English essay about it. I think I’m ok with that.

To quote John Donne, as any good English 101 student will, “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

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