The news of Whitney Houston’s death comes out of the blue, yet is not surprising. Like the news of any death, it comes on a regular day amidst ordinary activities. I was at the cash machine making a deposit when I received a text message from my boyfriend. “Did you hear that Whitney Houston died?”. As always when hearing such news, my mind scrambled to understand and deny. WHO died? This cannot be true! It must be a mistake! Is this a joke? and so on. Celebrity deaths are personal to us in that they remind us of other deaths, and of our own mortality. If a celebrity can just up and die, so can I. If a person so remarkably talented and beautiful and rich could not stave off the powerful grip of an addiction, an illness, or an accident, then clearly we are all in trouble.
I vividly remember times when I’ve received the news of the death of someone much closer to me than Whitney. Of course each time is different, but they are all linked together in my mind by the clarity with which I remember the time when the news was delivered.
Both my mother and father-in law died in the space of five years, and in the middle of this time, I was separated from my husband. I had been very close to both of them, having known them since I was 19. My mother-in-law succumbed to a difficult battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease as a young and vibrant 61-year-old. The night she died was a cold, clear, early February night in 2001. My husband and our three young children made the 30 minute drive to her suburban island home to see her. She was in her bedroom with hospice workers present and we knew the end was drawing near. What I remember about that night most of all, other than her smile and her obvious comfort and delight in having us at her bedside, was the beautiful moon shining on Lake Washington as we drove back home. I remember the moonlight shimmering on the water, making us a path across the lake, and beaming through our bedroom window after we put the kids to bed and drifted off to sleep. I remember how it illuminated the bedroom as we were awakened several hours later to the sound of pebbles hitting our second floor bedroom window. Our friend was standing outside on the street, in a puddle of moonlight, to deliver the news of her death.
Her death was expected, but of course still a shock. More shocking however was the news five years later of the unexpected death of my father-in-law. He was a doctor and had traveled to Botswana with his new wife to offer his skills in the battle against the AIDS epidemic. Again I was awakened abruptly in the night. My estranged husband was the one to deliver the news. It was 5:30 AM. Why was the phone ringing and ringing? I answered it. “There’s been a terrible accident in Africa” he said to me in a tone I cannot describe but will never forget. My mind scrambled to understand. It flipped through the possibilities, “an accident in Africa“. Why was he saying this? What could this mean? For some reason the image of a nuclear reactor appeared in my mind. Then his voice continued “…an accident, and my father has been killed by a crocodile“. At this point, I relaxed. This was clearly NOT true. It was absurd. He was teasing me. But then his voice continued to talk and talk and to tell me the details, and it slowly began to dawn on me that this seemingly ridiculous nonsense was actually a true fact. From somewhere outside of my own body, I heard myself asking more questions. I watched myself pacing around the room, wringing my hands, uncertain of what to do next. I remember it all in surreal detail.
One thing we can count on in life is that the news of death will come, whether it is a slow, anticipated death from a long illness, or a sudden, shocking death in the jaws of a wild animal. It may be delivered to us gently or dramatically, but it will always come to us unexpectedly in the middle of our ordinary life. It is almost certain though, that when we receive the news, time will become crystalline and we will remember the details in a most extraordinary way.