Three and a half years ago I got my first tattoo. A few months before that time my father had fallen very ill, and while his condition eventually stabilized, at that time I was thinking a lot about things I’d wanted to do, things I’d put off doing and the danger that a life could end, incomplete.
I’d also been progressively putting on weight since I’d left university, and since my father’s illness was a complication of diabetes I was growing worried that I didn’t want to start down the same path. I stopped drinking pop. Bought a bicycle. Failed to lose weight. I got more tattoos, traveled to Cuba and back to China, had a daughter, published a book. Reassessed my health needs, started using calorie counter apps and measuring exercise. Lost sixty two pounds.
For three years I frantically ticked off things I’d always intended to do and made sure I got them done. In part because, at the age of 33 I’d felt the first breath of mortality in the frailty of a man who’d been a constant in my life.
It’s been a rough winter. At the start of it, a casual friend, who was a very close friend of some of my close friends died suddenly and unexpectedly. I’d dealt with sudden death before, a few of the friends in my youth committed suicide, but this wasn’t somebody deliberately ending their life. This was illness claiming a peer. Then Lemmy Kilmister died, David Bowie died, Alan Rickman: artists I’d followed to one extent or another for my whole life. It was a kick in the teeth.
Today I heard about David G. Hartwell. I didn’t know him that well. We’d met. I was one of probably a multitude of emerging authors who he provided some personal advice to at World Fantasy Convention. I’d seen him around on panels and in room parties a few times. He seemed like a good guy. I have friends who knew him much better. And for them I feel the deepest sympathy.
We are, none of us, immortal. And that’s terrifying. But I learned something through this bitter season of grief and pain. It was something hovering around my consciousness for the last three years.
We have the capacity to carry things on for those who pass before us. When Bowie died Choir! Choir! Choir! brought together hundreds of people at three events to sing re-arranged versions of his classics. As tribute to an artist, who constantly re-shaped his image and his art over a decades spanning career, other artists helped a group of people create new art.
A form of immortality can exist, though it’s a tenuous one. A lot of people suggest it lives on in the memories of people who knew them. But even that fades in time. Rather it lies in the deeds a person inspires.
So what I want to do, what I hope we can take away from this season of grief, is that we can build something beautiful even on a foundation of pain. We can create art. We can sponsor a cause. We can try to build something, accomplish something with our own lives. Life is brief and fleeting, and loss hurts whether it’s a close friend, a friend of a friend or a revered celebrity. So let’s build something lasting on foundation of that loss as a bulwark against the erosion of time.