There’s no doubt about it: 2016 has been a terrible year for the deaths of noteworthy people. As lovers of books and intellectual pursuits, we can obtain, most of the time, some emotional distance from the stark reality of the end of all things, but even so fascinating an historical study as Phillippe Aries’ The Hour of Our Death or the ornate yet stunningly-intimate language of Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia cannot remove the sting of many of this year’s deaths. Whatever else the end of our existence may represent, it will forever be, for someone, somewhere, the most personal of events.
Yet, there’s a paradox at the heart of every death. Each one stands as a loss for us of human knowledge, judgment, and experience that we’ll never get back, never be able to replace, no matter how hard we try. Vera Rubin, the discoverer of dark matter in the universe, died on the evening of Christmas Day. She would have been the first to tell us that such a discovery was a team effort, but it was really her baby, her life’s work; such an immense contribution to science and to the lives of everyone on the planet should not go unnoticed. Yet, she died. We can no longer draw upon the unique skills and insights she offered; we cannot replace the dogged enthusiasm she brought to her daily work. We can follow along in her footsteps, perhaps, but none of us can walk exactly as she walked or go precisely where she went.
Deaths in the creative arts are a little bit different, in that they reveal the full nature of the paradox of which I speak. As wrenching as all of the deaths of 2016 have been, most of them have been the deaths of performers whose gifts have already been fully given to us, whose talents have long formed part of our mental world. In that sense, I cannot grieve overmuch, whether it’s for Alan Rickman or David Bowie or Prince. I’m sad that they are gone, but I am glad, glad until the end of my own days, that they lived. The death that troubles me the most from this year, aside from Vera Rubin’s, is that of actor Anton Yelchin, whose life and career were snuffed out just as they were starting to take off. This was a multi-talented, multi-lingual actor, fully capable of taking on a wide range of roles. There is no telling what kind of contribution he could have continued to make to his profession. Yet Yelchin, too, had already made an impact on many of us. I should be glad that he, too, had lived, if I were honest with myself. But there was more that could have been for him. I know it.
Perhaps the death of Carrie Fisher represents for many people the problem of mortality itself. She is, of course, in that category of people who had made a major contribution to popular culture years ago. Princess Leia is a pleasant part of our memories. Yet her death is a grievous one to her family and to those of us who are thinking of such matters because it is, after all, Carrie Fisher who died, not Princess Leia, and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, still lives. That is a terribly-hard thing, indeed, to bear: the death of one’s own child. We make a bargain with nature and with death itself when we bring children into the world. The bargain is that we agree to die before our daughters and sons, and allow them to carry on the work of the world. But death doesn’t care. It’s no respecter of any bargain we make with the living, the dead, or with life itself; and it routinely violates our sense of decorum, propriety, and justice to remind us that it is a law unto itself, and will take whomever it will, whenever it wants.
We can go on, however, if we want to, and I believe, especially this year (though don’t ask me why) that the dead want us to. That is partly why they showed their talent to us. It belonged uniquely to them, that talent, but it also belongs to us. They were showing us, all these years, how to tap the talent inside of ourselves and bring it to the surface. They’d be pleased, knowing we’re going to do that. It would be the kind of commitment that does a final honor to them but one that reminds us that we, too, have work yet to do before we join them at last.
[Postscript, Dec. 29, 2016 3:20 p.m. As much of the world knows by now, Debbie Reynolds died mere hours after her daughter. Reynolds’ last words were, according to her son, “I want to be with Carrie.” Parents love their children until the very, very end.]