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  • Garth Wolkoff

Death and the Living



Aretha’s death has kind of wrecked me. I’ve been listening to her non-stop, making playlists, watching videos, but I cannot explain why I am so hung up. I did not know her, personally I mean. I never saw her live. Went to the movies with a friend the other day and didn’t bring it up. My daughter got home from camp, and in our transcontinental FaceTime conversation, I wanted to tell her, but stopped short because I knew she wouldn't understand. I am not sure I understand.


Aretha died! I don’t know how to explain feeling weepy and heartbroken over the death of Aretha.


When a public figure dies, someone who I have cared about on the continuum between fanboy and reverence, it is much more visceral and starkly sad than when someone I know dies. Maybe it’s the difference between reacting to the bombast of headlines--Aretha Franklin is Dead!--versus a loss in the many tentacles of my experience. I might be some kind of freak in that way. I comfort myself, however, that the process of grieving has no how-to. Fuck the stages of grief. Grief, at least for me, doesn’t have a sensible paradigm.


The death of David Bowie and Prince two years ago, and now Aretha, have had a much more immediate impact than the death of my father in 2005, and the death of my mother this past January.


When my father died, in Los Angeles, while I lived here in Brooklyn, I felt guilty that I had not been in California with him during the difficult time of his dying. I am not sure what I was thinking. Why didn’t I take a leave from work? I was engaged at the time, but my fiancé didn’t need me for that week or month, and I hadn’t had my daughter. My dad died while I was on the plane going to L.A. One of the ex-husbands of one of my sisters told me by cell phone when I landed. While I was able to say goodbye to his dead body, holding him in the hospital an hour or two after he died, I was not really able to say goodbye to him while he lived. Then I felt numb, with spurts of unlabeled and unplanned emotion, while I gave the eulogy at his funeral, or lashing out at my cousin and my fiancé and probably other unfortunate people. But for the next year, I felt like I was living with a ghost. Not a ghost who talked to me or one I could see. But one who replaced the blood in my veins with noxious bile--a metaphor--or attached itself to my body like a weight--a simile--and kept me from doing or thinking much of anything. It was a terrible feeling, this kind of mourning, largely unconscious, something like depression, hard to share.


When my mother died at a nursing home here in New York, I watched her die. Afterward, I took care of arrangements, moved the body to LA so she could be buried next to my father, the funeral itself, getting my daughter to and through the funeral, writing the eulogy and putting together a photo montage, and set up a memorial service in Brooklyn. By the time I got through all that, and exhausted the support, some great and invaluable, from friends, I felt like an orphan, parentless--to describe it in the most purple way I can: alone in the wilderness of middle age. I still feel that way. No outpouring of grief, no rush of tears, no holing up in my bedroom, although I may have wanted to a few times. Just sort of, emotionally… drifting. Parenting went on. Girlfriend. Friends. Job. Bills to pay. There is a numbness to this mourning, and I feel numb about my mother, with whom I had a truly complicated relationship...largely unconscious mourning, something like depression, hard to share.


My parents always wore name tags so they wouldn't forget each other's names. No they didn't.

Both my parents died in their 90s. My father had Alzheimer's, my mother Dementia (my future's so bright I'll need to wear shades, if I can only remember where I put them). Their deaths had been coming since I did the math about their ages, about fourth grade. I used to kiss my dad goodnight, and say, see you tomorrow, and then under my breath, I hope. It was a ritual I practiced every night. He was always old, and I was always afraid he would die. By the time I was 10, he was 61. My mom’s illness took four slow years, from slight disorientation to the absence of recognition of people around her. They both died in their 90s.


Prince, Bowie, and Aretha all died differently than my parents. I didn’t actively follow their health, nor do I read the kinds of magazines that do. One day, Prince is dead from an OD. Boom. I go to the school where I taught and only a handful of kids know who Prince is and so I show Purple Rain, against my better pedagogical judgement. Bowie comes out with an album and then he's dead of cancer. Dead. There's a headline that Aretha is gravely ill, Stevie Wonder and Jesse Jackson are visiting her at home in Detroit, then my girlfriend texts me, "the wait is over." She's dead too.


(I know lots of famous people died in 2016, and that for most people I know, it wasn't a very good year. I want to say they may have knew something about 2017 that prevented them from going on further, but that's probably a disrespectful thing to say. Probably.)


I wasn't a kid who felt happy being a part of my family. I'm not sure how happy I made my family that I was a part of them. It was said of the late photographer, Peter Hujar, "'His experience of himself as a hurt child from a damaged family was lifelong and very powerful'" (Carr, Cynthia. Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz. Bloomsberry: New York, 2012, 2013. Page 182). That resonated with me as soon as I read it--that's me, a hurt child.


I devoted a lot of emotional commitment, then, in my post-pubescent, teenage years, and even college years, to the musical artists that filled me with the emotion I couldn't get elsewhere. Three of the most important, especially in that sensitive spot of 14, 15, and 16, were Bowie, Prince, and Aretha.


At one point around then, maybe it was at my sister's bat mitzvah, although I don't remember for a fact, a few adults asked me what I was going to be when I grew up. I hated that question, I think, because I couldn't possibly imagining being anything, or knew what it meant to be anything. I said lots of things, like lawyer, and, I think, because it made the most sense, writer. But on that occasion, again, I think it was my sister's bat mitzvah, I said I wanted to be Aretha Franklin. I wasn't lying. I only knew one thing about Aretha Franklin, which was that in all the punk rock, and hard rock, and everything else I normally listened to, no one could sing that true. No one represented the truth by singing as much as Aretha Franklin. I don't think I believed anything my parents or my younger sister ever said, but I believed Aretha. Keats wrote: "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' – that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." It was how I felt about listening to Aretha. I can't even say how I first heard her, or when I got my copy of Aretha's Gold, that, like Bowie's Man Who Sold the World, and Prince's 1999, I wore grooves in from constant play, with my heavy, cloppy headphones, protecting me from the yelling in my house or the ubiquitous sound of the TV.


It's not about whether you belong to anything or anyone, especially when you're young, but whether you feel that you do--belonging is feeling, not objective. I think that is what music did for me, when I discovered it, and has ever since. Music is personalized; songs or albums become a part of you, how you understand yourself. You listen to the same song, the same album, the same artist, over and over, and, like the needle mark on those albums of my childhood, an indelible groove gets worn into you like a signature. With Prince, Bowie, and especially Aretha, lyrics weren't the literature. But taken as a whole, the words and the music became my arms and legs and whole body.





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