Celebrity Deaths Like Debbie Reynolds Make Me Think Of My Father — And What We Still Need To Talk About
On Wednesday night, Debbie Reynolds died, just one day after her fabulous firecracker of a daughter, actress Carrie Fisher. 2016 is not going out without a fight, death doesn't take a holiday, and this daughter-mother one-two has me thinking a lot about my relationship with my father (pictured above, opining on ice cream recipes). As we get older and people start dying left and right around us, it inevitably turns our thoughts to some of the oldest and most important people in our lives, the ones who have known us the longest: Our parents.
The first time I saw my father in the ICU was after his myocardial infarction several years ago, I felt like someone had turned me upside-down, fast forwarded a few years, and then plopped me right-side up again. The frail man with wild hair and papery skin, glasses set aside by a careless nurse who didn't realize how naked he felt without them, couldn't possibly be my father. I'd had dinner with him the week before and he had been vital and alive, and now he was like a shadow of his former self.
It was the first moment I realized my father was actually mortal. Not in an intellectual "I understand how aging and humans work" sense, but in a more visceral one. They'd extubated him the day before and his voice was a raspy whisper, forcing me to lean close to hear what he said, running up against IVs and catheters and heart monitors. The whiteboard on the wall that listed the names of his care team had my old name in the corner, my phone number scrawled underneath it. I'd had to fight with the nurses to be allowed into the ICU, all the scraps of paper that linked me to that long-dead identity many miles away. My father could remember seven digits, but not my own name.
"I hear you got to ride in the helicopter," I said.
"I hope Medicare pays for it. I'm tired," he replied, and closed his eyes.
Given everything else that's happened this year, I'm in a state of kind of quiet shock that he appears on track to make it through 2016. But I'm not going to lie, hearing that Debbie Reynolds was headed to the hospital after an apparent stroke made a sharp little chill run through me. This year, it seemed like I was constantly waking to the news that pop culture icons of my youth were dying, and the deaths of celebrities inevitably turn our minds closer to home. It doesn't help that many of my contemporaries lost their parents this year. The thing about my father is, you see, that he's older than many of the celebrities who've passed this year, so when people talk about how seeing celebrities die off like this makes them worry about their parents, I can see that.
Many of us — myself included — are talking about how 2016 is "the worst year ever" — and it does feel like an unusually large number of people are dying this year. That's not really the case, though. All of us are growing older, and subsequently, the artists and creators who shaped our lives are also growing older. The size of the Baby Boomer generation coupled with the renaissance in the arts that allowed so many people — like David Bowie and Prince and Leonard Cohen and Alan Rickman — to flourish may make it feel like we're losing all our faves, but in fact, 2016 is pretty on track.
It just feels more intimate, somehow, because the people we love are hitting their expiry dates, just as generations before us started losing huge numbers of beloved figures as they hit their 30s. Last year, we lost Yogi Berra, Wes Craven, Leonard Nimoy, Oliver Sacks, Bobbi Kristina Brown, and many others. This year, the holdouts of a golden age in film and television, like Debbie Reynolds. In 2017, the process starts all over again.
A few years ago, just before his heart attack, my father's contemporaries started dying off one by one, and because they were ever-present in my life since childhood, they felt like my contemporaries, too. With each one, a little sliver of something dark and knowing pushed at my heart. Like my father, a lot of them lived hard lives, so they were dying in their 50s, and then their 60s, and now the slim remainder are rushing toward their 70s. Pragmatism tells me I should be shocked if any make it to their 80s.
Even as we talk about celebrity deaths in an abstract sense, he can't bring himself to talk about his own mortality, and I have only a scattered sense of what he wants for himself, gleaned from between the lines.
I've been reminded of the reality of our aging parents ever since the day I was walking down the street in Portland eating a doughnut and I got a call from a nurse telling me that my father was on a ventilator in the ICU; he hadn't wanted anyone to bother me about it because I was at a conference, but she thought I ought to know. I wasn't really sure what to do with that information, but I did spurt jelly filling all over my jacket. I've always hated filled doughnuts and I never did get that stain out.
Our parents always feel so distinctly immortal to us that the moment we realize that's not actually the case can be really jarring. Before, it was my father bringing me soup and weird thrift store finds while I sprawled in bed after surgery, which becomes a recurring theme in your life when you're disabled and your body hates you. Then, it was me trying to coax him into seeing the respiratory therapist and yelling at his cardiologist. This strange role reversal happened sometime in my mid-twenties without any sort of conscious awareness. In childhood, my father walked on the street side of the sidewalk to keep me from drifting into traffic, protecting me from an imaginary car jumping the curb. Now, it is the other way around, and I cannot pinpoint the precise moment when that happened. It makes me strangely sad.
Oddly, my lengthy intimacy with the medical system makes me less shy of death, and less distressed about my mortality — I sign consent forms with barely a glance at the slim statistical probability of dying, because you cannot live through the health care system in the U.S. without compartmentalizing. But before my last surgery, I had to update my advance directive — the document detailing what I want to be done for me in the event something happens and I can't advocate for myself, and yes, you should have one. It's a document that forces you to think about things like when you want people to withdraw medical care, and under what circumstances — if you're in a coma? How long should they wait? After you die, what would you like people to do with your body? Because my father is one of the health care proxies designated in the document, I went over it with him in painstaking detail.
"You should really decide what you want for yourself," I said.
"Oh, I don't know," he said. He worried his toothpick between his teeth for a moment like he does when he's thinking. "Sometimes I regret letting them do that surgery, you know, the bypass."
His coronary arteries were so badly occluded that it had taken hours, blood vessels fraying apart in the surgeon's hands. My father hated everyone else on his medical team, but he liked his surgeon. (Probably because he was asleep for the bulk of their professional relationship.) Had he refused treatment, it's unlikely he would have left the hospital by any means other than the back door out of the basement morgue. That would have been his choice — but without an advanced directive to work from, I might not have made it for him if I'd been put in a position to do so.
Our response to these events shouldn't be to recoil from death, but rather to look it in the eye and to embrace it.
Watching his friends die off, punctuated by the deaths of celebrities who shuffle off the mortal coil at shockingly young ages, my father and I talk about mortality a lot. Most of this year's celebrity deaths haven't unsettled him like they have me, because they aren't his celebrities — he didn't quite get how poleaxed and dismayed I felt. Writing about Prince in April, Lesley Kinzel noted that he taught us to refuse to compromise, a lesson that has informed so much of who I am in adulthood, just as Bowie had a profound influence on my gender expression and sexuality. They weren't just icons, but beacons.
The only death this year that really seemed to surprise him was author Richard Adams, who wrote Watership Down, a book my father read to me as a child. He was only surprised because he was startled to hear that Richard Adams had still been alive. We haven't talked since Debbie Reynolds died, but I suspect I am in for a rambling treatise on movie musicals and '50s cinema. We talk sometimes about the quest to keep people alive at all costs, the extraordinary measures people take to avoid confronting death. Yet even as we talk about celebrity deaths in an abstract sense, he can't bring himself to talk about his own mortality, and I have only a scattered sense of what he wants for himself, gleaned from between the lines.
The death of yet another person who should have been around much longer makes me realize that though those conversations are not enjoyable, I really do need to pin him down, confiscate the toothpick, and get him to answer a few simple questions. Because the only thing more paralyzing than scrambling to make arrangements for someone who is dead or dying is not knowing what that person would have wanted.
Millennials are growing up now. (Sorry, millennials.) And though people like Caitlyn Doughty are sparking conversations about death, dying, and facing mortality, many people are still deeply afraid of death. Our response to these events shouldn't be to recoil from death, but rather to look it in the eye and to embrace it. And when death is in the public consciousness because of a beloved icon's passing, it's a good time to talk about it.
Carrie Fisher is dead. Throughout her life she talked about mental health and addiction. Maybe we should talk about those things — and about how the signs of heart attacks in women are often ignored or mischaracterized. And maybe too we should talk about the kinds of deaths we want — do we want to die at home? Do we want to be in a hospital, surrounded by intensive medical interventions? Do we want our friends to wash our bodies, have a party, and then drive us to the crematorium? Does thinking about these things make you feel creepy-crawly and unpleasant? That's a sign you should think about them more, because death can be a friend dropping by for a cookie and a cup of tea, or a hated enemy, but it's coming either way.
Image: s.e. smith