The Extraordinary Ordinary Death by Rebecca Chamaa

David Bowie died on January 10, just two days after his 69th birthday. I cried when I heard the news. It may seem strange to cry over the death of someone you have never even met or seen, but my emotions are easily ignited, and, although I didn’t know Bowie personally, I felt like he represented a part of my youth that had died and a part that I would never get back again.

As an adolescent, when I loved and lost, Bowie was in the background singing “Absolute Beginners.” When I was exploring my body and the bodies of men and teenage boys, Bowie was there with “China Girl.” When I was experimenting with drugs and drinking enough alcohol to cause me to become sick, Bowie was singing about rebels, hot tramps and dancing. His music was the backdrop to many scenes in my life — some good, some bad, all significant.

The day David Bowie died, my Facebook feed filled with hundreds of videos of his songs, and people’s personal encounters with the man. Some church bells in Europe played out “Space Oddity,” one of his most famous songs. Newspapers and magazines rushed to print old photos, last photos, old interviews, last sightings. Poets wrote tributes to him. Bands covered his songs. The world mourned David Bowie.

I don’t miss David Bowie. I never touched him. I never looked him in the eye. I never heard his voice on the telephone or even exchanged a good morning or goodbye. I didn’t know him, he was a stranger to me, and although I loved some of his music and that music holds profound memories for me, I won’t miss David Bowie, the man.

There are others who have died, though, whom I do miss. I miss their faces, some old, some young. I miss their voices, some soft and light, some deep and forceful. For some, I miss the stories that they told. For others, I miss the touch of their skin. And for still others, I miss the possibilities of the years that have gone on since they became invisible — living only in a space inside those of us who remember them, think of them, dream about them, imagine them and miss them.

I don’t think I am alone in wishing that when someone I care about dies, the world would mourn alongside me. I wish church bells would toll out my friend’s, lover’s or relative’s favorite songs. I wish the impromptu shrines would pop up for the person in the cities or towns where they lived and that people, strangers would hold candlelight vigils. I wish that millions of people on social media would post something, anything, having to do with the person I cared about and their life. I would be comforted if statuses on Facebook were simply filled with my loved one’s name.

It is nice to know that there are people who touch so many other people’s lives, but, in death, it would be far more comforting if the world paused a moment for the ones we love, rather than the ones they never truly knew. This is all unrealistic, I know. The world stops for very few, and none of them are people I know or knew.

I have often felt I was born into the wrong culture, where death is concerned. Friends of mine from Mexico frequently post pictures of their parent’s or grandparent’s grave sites. The same people post pictures of themselves and their kids picnicking in cemeteries — food, flowers and balloons. Their dead are not put into photo albums and urns to be taken out when memory strikes. I, too, need the dead to walk with me, to hold my hand, to comfort my heart, to guide me.

Americans are always running, faster and faster away from the realities of death, while I long to embrace them. I don’t want to be afraid of passing from this life to the next. I don’t want to rush toward it, but I don’t want to fight against it either. When my time is near, I want to be fearless — no, more than fearless — I want to accept and, yes, even welcome the change.

I want stories of graceful deaths. I want stories of transitions. I want stories where death is not to be feared but held in high esteem.

Standing in a store in Old Town in San Diego, I walked among the brightly painted skulls and skeletons painted on tiles, sculpted out of ceramic, hanging from key chains and necklaces, arranged in tiny boxes like a miniature stage. I ran my hand over the flowers painted in the eye sockets of one skull. I bought a necklace. The white skull on the black rope has empty green circles where eyes should be. I also bought a blue tile, one inch by one inch, with a skull with flower eyes and a yellow daisy painted on the forehead, the nose a black triangle. I took these Day of the Dead trinkets home and placed them on my desk, next to my computer. I am hoping my new souvenirs will help me remember the dead in my daily life.

Many cultures honor, celebrate and remember their dead. I want to be a part of Obon in Japan. I would like to clean and decorate the graves of those who passed on before me. I would like to light a lantern and watch it float off into the night sky — leading the spirits safely to their homes. I would like to see the ceremonial dance.

My brother says that when our mother or father dies we will complete the Jewish mourning ritual of sitting shiva. We are not Jewish, we are Protestant, but there are no traditions in our religion that helps us with the grieving process.

I feel rituals and ceremony are missing from my life. There is a longing, a cavern, a wasteland of emotions where there should be grounding, celebration, inclusion, memories, shrines, lanterns, painted skulls, visits to cemeteries, food.

My cousin says death is a celebration for Christians. I suppose that is because Christians believe in heaven.

I am Christian. And I can’t tell you much about heaven. Jesus said there were many rooms in heaven — enough space for all of us. What does that mean? I have a difficult time believing that I will live in a condo or mansion that resembles anything that I see or experience now.

Last night I had a dream. I was holding my husband’s aunt’s hand. I imagined her thick nails painted bright red. She is currently in the hospital connected to an oxygen tank. Her heart is having trouble doing the job of a heart because two of her main arteries are blocked. She’ll have surgery to unblock one of them within a week.

In the dream, his aunt died. I must have died, too, because I was with her in heaven. I recognized the people there, and everyone was happy. Memories returned to minds that had suffered from dementia. People who’d lost the ability to walk long before they passed were on their feet greeting me. It was happy, and I was happy even though in the dream I must have been dead. My husband wasn’t there. He must have been having dreams of his own while he slept next to me. I doubt he was dreaming about death or heaven.

I think of death, mine and the deaths of others. I fear the death of my husband. I am afraid that his death will bring with it a relapse of my schizophrenia and a lengthy stay in a psychiatric ward. It is possible I would never make the journey back to reality. Since my late 20s, I have always lost touch with this world in response to the punch and slice of trauma.

I think the preoccupation I have with death is a splinter — a piece broken off from my soul from the lack of mourning or actions of remembrance. I am going to have to write death into and out of my life. I am going to have to get the stuck part flowing again, and I am going to have to face my fears, fight them like a mighty warrior until we can bow down and accept and honor each other as powerful forces but not enemies.

What do I have that reminds me of the deaths of friends and loved ones, or of situations that mimicked death in some way? I have artwork all over the walls from the last time I was psychotic. I have a People magazine article written about me when I was looking for the men who saved my life from an attempt at suicide. I have a green guitar pick from Billy. I have a white Bible that my grandma and grandpa gave me when I was little — they gave it to me for my then-future wedding. I have pictures of my first husband, of my cousin, Richard, and of my brother’s partner, Rodney. I have a Carpenters song that I used to sing that brings back childhood memories of Bruce and Alan. I have no trinkets, pictures, artwork or songs to remember Sheldon.

I sit in the middle of all of these things in my living room. Karen Carpenter’s voice is asking, Why do birds suddenly appear every time you are near? Just like me, they long to be, close to you. I have a journal and a pen. I take out nine pieces of paper. On the top of the first one I write, Death Is Like Psychosis. I write Grandma and Grandpa at the top of another. I go on like this. On the last one, I write, Sheldon, my adolescent love. There are no pages about David Bowie, Michael Jackson or Robin Williams. No famous people or situations are on my list.

I am preparing a Day of the Dead and Death. Not only will I honor those who have gone before me, I will also honor things that have resembled death, like psychosis and divorce. These deaths and situations that contain a bit of death have been tangled up inside for so long. I hope my pen will unknot, untie and straighten out this clump of yarn inside. Yes, it is time to make something out of this mess, each word like a stitch moving me closer and closer to something to keep me warm as a sweater or scarf. Winter, death, has kept me shaking, but clothing myself in bright colors about the most certain thing about life may bring me comfort from this ache and all the cold.

* * *

Rebecca Chamaa is an essayist and poet. She has a regular column on Drunken Boat and she has been published in Manifest Station, Pearl, Structo, Voice Walks, Role Reboot, Good Housekeeping, Woman’s Day and many other websites, journals and anthologies. She has a prose poem forthcoming in Luna Luna. You can find her among earthquakes and sunshine.