Another Death in the Family

I have only cried three times when learning of a celebrity’s death: Nora Ephron, Robin Williams, and David Bowie.

Losing Nora was like losing your favorite aunt. She was the one with a real knack for telling stories about her life that taught you something important and also made you laugh. Aunt Nora wouldn’t sugarcoat it — Harry and Sally were not supposed to end up together because that never happens in real life — but she’d still give you hope that maybe, when it’s the right Harry and the right Sally, it can work. And sometimes fate will lead you from Baltimore to Seattle to the top of the Empire State Building for an improbably beautiful story to tell your grandkids. She made you feel cared for. She talked to you like a real person from the time you were little. You always felt like an equal with Aunt Nora.

Losing Robin was like losing your favorite uncle. He was the one that talked so fast you could barely keep up and had you laughing so hard you’d forget to breathe. Sometimes, he made others uncomfortable with one of his jokes or his personal demeanor, but not you. Not you and your cousins. Uncle Robin was everyone’s favorite uncle, and somehow he made each and every one of you feel like the favorite niece or nephew. He’d remember something funny or important you said quietly to yourself, years ago at an awkward Thanksgiving, when you thought no one was listening. He’d encourage you when you didn’t know you needed encouraging. Uncle Robin smiled at you like he knew a really wonderful secret about you that you hadn’t discovered yet.

Losing David was different. David wasn’t your uncle. David wasn’t your aunt (although on occasions, he may have seemed that way depending on how he dressed). He wasn’t a father, grandfather, brother, son.

David was your second cousin.

He was the one you only met a few times in your life. Second cousins aren’t at every event, but there are special times when you get to meet them. It’s always a little weird, because you know you’re relatives and have very important people in common in your lives, but you barely know each other. You would hear about that “cousin David” from time to time, probably from your parents, saying something like, “Oh, cousin David’s reinventing himself again!” or “David’s gotten into cocaine again,” or “I hear your cousin David’s in a band now.”

You might have been friends on facebook, but you didn’t really talk. He always seemed a bit too cool, too above anything you’d have to say. You didn’t want to bother him with mundane things. Your other relatives might have thought him really weird, but you liked that weirdness. He was bold with his strangeness. And the thing was, on those rare occasions you actually saw him as opposed to just listening to his latest song he posted on his website, you realized he was oddly normal, too.

He was quiet. He preferred laughing at Uncle Robin’s jokes and Aunt Nora’s stories instead of talking about his newest album. David liked to have personal conversations instead of half-assed superficial chitchat with a group. He surprised you in the way that Uncle Robin did by remembering something you had said when you thought no one was listening. It was always something philosophical, something you thought you couldn’t talk about with everyone else. Maybe you couldn’t. But David wanted to talk about it.

Your conversations were always too short because everybody else wanted to talk to him, too. So you’d just stalk his facebook and see what he was up to and listen to his songs and think, “Wow…what a cool person I have in my life.” You couldn’t believe you were related — hell, you couldn’t even believe you were the same species. But there he was, being weird out in the world and being normal with you. That mystery, that strange dichotomy of characters he played, that haunting look on his album cover with the beautiful laugh you remembered from the last family gathering…all of that made you want to get to know him more.

“One day,” you’d think. “One day, I’ll get the guts to go see him. One day, I’ll just be chill and ask to meet up and hang out. One day, I’ll really get to know my cousin David.”

It was always one day.

A lot can happen in one day.

Losing David was hard because there was so much more you wanted to know. There was so much more you wanted to say. It wasn’t fair when you lost Aunt Nora or Uncle Robin. It was shocking and horrible each time. But you didn’t expect this one to be just as shocking and horrible. Some part of you thought your cousin was going to live forever. You couldn’t say why. It was just this gut feeling, this idea that he would always be around — that even though he was older than you, he’d still outlive you by at least a few centuries. 

Maybe he’d leave the world in a spaceship. Maybe he’d shape-shift into another identity. Maybe he’d do something you couldn’t even imagine if you tried. Your weird, somehow famous and somehow normal second cousin David was always going to be extraordinary in everything he did, and then he died in an ordinary way. It didn’t make sense.

Second cousins are strange. They’re family, but they have a lot of different branches on their own family tree. Sometimes they’re people you get to know so well that you don’t consider them any more distant than a first cousin or sibling. Sometimes, they’re people you never get to meet. Even then, a loss is felt. A family member has died.

You go to a bar or maybe just your living room to reflect on that. Family, but non-immediate family, is gone. Aren’t we all non-immediate family in the end?

You ask for or make yourself a custom drink he always had at those rare family gatherings. Or maybe it’s just something that reminds you of him. Or maybe it’s the drink of choice when you’re in a state like this.

Just to yourself, you raise your glass to the man you knew and never knew at the same time, the man who had made you feel acknowledged and appreciated even if it was only for a few moments at a time and you never got to thank him for it, the man whose weirdness let you explore your own, the man you promised yourself you’d get to know and now he’s gone so you listen to all the songs you didn’t listen to before.

Here’s to everyone’s second cousin, David Robert Jones: the man with a lovely and ordinary name with an equally lovely and extraordinary alter ego known as David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Man Who Sold the World, The Man Who Fell to Earth, the Thin White Duke, a piece of a Tin Machine, an Outsider Earthling, The Elder Statesman, and a Starman from a Blackstar, waiting in the sky.