Death and My Birthday, or What I Learned from David Bowie and Brent McDonald

As some of you may know, it was my birthday yesterday. My forty-third, to be exact. So I was already in a contemplative mood, thinking about where I’m at and where I’m going, and whether or not any course corrections are called for.

Death was already on my mind. See, a friend I’d lost touch with was murdered not long before Christmas, and his memorial service was scheduled for yesterday. His partner was someone I was once close with, so of course I had to go. I missed the service (seating was limited, and I didn’t think it appropriate to take up a spot), but I went to the reception after, which was a lovely, well-attended affair. Sad though the reason for it was, it was good to reconnect with my friend, and to see her daughter, who I’d known since she was an infant and who has grown into a quite impressive young lady.

I had dinner after with my girlfriend and father, and swung by a party not held in my honor, and both were quite lovely. Later, on my own, I went round the corner to my favorite watering hole, and sipped on some single malt and did some thinking.

That’s where I was when I heard about David Bowie.

Now, I’ve never been his biggest fan, but have always held him in the highest regard. He’s gone through so many moultings and changes and different incarnations, and of course, as with so many of my contemporaries, Labyrinth was a watershed artwork for me. I remember one summer at camp (which was held on a college campus), the tv in the back of the student center had it on continuous loop for at least a week, if not the whole month, and I watched it over and over until I knew it backwards and forwards.

Like everyone else in the world except his family, I had no idea he’d been sick. When I read the press release about how he’d died after a long battle with cancer, surrounded by friends and loved ones, I was sad, yes. But to be honest, I couldn’t think of a better way to go. I went onto Facebook, where the news was just beginning to spread, and I wrote:

Don’t mourn. Celebrate. He died surrounded by loved ones after releasing what sounds like the most vital and groundbreaking album of a long and prolific career. He’s an example of a life well lived, and we should all be half so lucky and blessed. It’s sad he’s gone, but he made the best of the time given him, and then some. Celebrate, then go forth and emulate. What better tribute could you offer?

He was creating right up til the end. The album he released on his birthday last week was his parting gift, fraught with meaning whose significance was obscured til the rest of us found out what he already knew.

My friend Brent, who was murdered, was the same way. He lived his life according to his calling. He taught art to children, touched lives, made the world better. And though he never achieved the kind of fame David Bowie did, they both in their way have the same lesson to offer us, a lesson that death makes even more abundantly clear:

We must each of us follow our own star, live our lives in our most authentic truth, give ourselves over to that thing that would use us as its way into this world, whatever that thing might be.

I’ve known all my life that I wanted to be a writer. I’m lucky, in a way. Many people don’t have that kind of clarity. They live in too much noise to hear their calling. Because let’s face it: the forces of Resistance are powerful, and it takes a great deal of will, faith, and devotion to counter them.

I know all too well from my own experience. Even knowing from a very young age what I wanted to do with my life, I never took it seriously til I was almost thirty years old, and even then, it wasn’t until my mother died six years later that I truly began to understand the urgency of it all. She spent her whole life doing what she thought she was supposed to do, getting married, having me, a career, saving money, paying mortgages, the whole nine yards. She also spent her whole life convinced she had the soul of an artist, but never found her medium, never managed to do more than dabble at it. Then cancer caused by the cigarettes she smoked in order to deal with the sadness that came from putting aside her calling to do what she thought she should killed her at the ripe young age of sixty-three.

I was devastated — as who wouldn’t be? — but the lesson was clear. I realized I didn’t want to die without doing the thing I was called to do, and have made it a priority — the priority — ever since.

I remember, back in college, I came up with a way of making hard decisions. I pictured myself on my deathbed, looking back on my life, no time left, all my decisions made. From that perspective, which would I rather have done? Which choice would I wish I had made? You’d be surprised how much that can clarify things.

When my mother died, I realized how right I had been.

My friend Brent died too soon. I don’t doubt he had plenty of work left in him. But he made good on the time he was given. He loved deeply, and he did his work. And though he never achieved the fame and recognition someone like David Bowie did, he touched innumerable lives, left a legacy that will survive him. He made the world a better place.

David Bowie did that, too. Even through all his morphing and changing, his constant reinvention, he was always authentic, always true to his calling, his truth. And as much as his body of work, his legacy is that: that he was always true to himself, in a way that gave others permission to be true to themselves, whether they ended up famous or not.

As for me, I am grateful to all of them, and determined to live out the truth that is given to me. Whatever your calling is, I urge you do the same. We only have so much time.

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