The tragic death of music icon Michael Jackson at age 50 is for me the culmination of almost a week’s worth of contemplating life, and death.
It comes as I reflect on what one of my mentors told me once when I off-handedly asked how he was doing. He replied, “You know, I used to go to lots of weddings. Now all I do is attend funerals. My friends are leaving me, one by one”. Michael Jackson is metaphor for people passing away before their time.
Like my mentor, my friends have been leaving me, one by one. In most cases, they are dying way too young. This was brought home to me by the picture below. It was taken almost 26 years ago. It’s a picture of a drum and bugle corps, the New York Skyliners.
Look closely, and those of you who know me will see my smiling face. There are people in that picture that were some of my closest friends outside of family. After all, we marched together, laughed together, and yes, sometimes even fought with each other.
What struck me looking at that picture is that more than a dozen of those people are dead. Only one or two made it to age 60. Some died of heart attacks, including one who passed away two weeks ago. Several died of various forms of cancer. Suffice to say they fought their illness to the very end, with the dignity and strength that made our organization what it was. Another group died of complications from HIV-AIDS.
It’s in this context that Michael Jackson’s passing makes me so sad. He was, like so many of the Skyliners in that picture, younger than I am. Maybe it’s me, but I wonder how I made it this far, when so many others haven’t. What I’m about to write next is something I ordinarily wouldn’t share with people, because it’s so personal. It’s about a dream I had the other night.
In that dream, I was with a lot of the people that are in that Skyliners photo. We were all laughing, joking, goofing just as we did in 1983. I was as happy as I could be, thinking those dozen or so people weren’t really dead, not gone from my life. I won’t bother with names, since few of you would know them if I did. But they were a colorful, integrated, wonderful bunch of people. I said to one of them, “Geez, it’s great you guys aren’t really dead”!
He turned to me and said, “No, man, we are dead. I guess you don’t realize, you’re dead too”. At that point I awoke with a start. I’d never dreamt of being dead before. I was lucky to have an understanding wife to help me try and make sense of it all. Yet in the days since the dream, others have passed away, including one young man of 42, who we would run into periodically at family gatherings. He died Tuesday, his heart stopped beating on a basketball court.
I could write here about the need for people to look after their health, about diet and exercise and the like. It would all be true. Then I look at that picture, look at myself smiling and seemingly care-free. I look at others, some laughing, some stoic, too many gone.
And then, I think of Michael Jackson. Do you?