Cancer: mother of my best friend in high school. She died in her fifties our junior year of college. My once-best friend and her two siblings sang hymns during the service as my family watched from balcony seats. A woman I’d never seen before said from the podium that she’d been Cherie’s best friend forever and had encouraged her when she’d felt insecure as a wife and mother. My brother’s running joke: “Seriously, raise your hand if you’re sorry the bitch is dead.” We react as though we are appalled but no one raises their hand.
Double-murder, suicide: WWE superstar turned repressed memory. At forty he hanged himself on a home weight machine after murdering his wife and son. My brother and I watched the tribute to his life and career that replaced the next Monday Night Raw, but when details of the deaths were released, the WWE set to work systematically erasing evidence he’d ever existed. An entire life and body of work preserved only in out-of-print memories. Former wrestler Chris Nowinski proposes his actions were the result of extreme brain trauma, an occupational hazard. A humorous video illustrating the murder went viral. In it Benoit kills his son with his finisher, the Crippler Crossface.
Suicide by gunshot: musical icon. His revolution was a fact of my young life, far from revolutionary. I spent my early life rolling my eyes at the ubiquity of Nirvana fans, but his imprint marked a generation. He condemned himself to death in a greenhouse, hospital bracelet from a stint in rehab dangling from his wrist. I felt a shade of creative failure in turning twenty-eight.
Car crash while pursued by paparazzi: the “People’s Princess.” One week later I began seventh grade and my English teacher assigned a research paper. Topic: Were the paparazzi responsible for Diana’s death? My teacher said this was our JFK so I tried very hard to remember where I was the moment she must have died. I’d been in the basement, working on my summer reading assignment in front of the TV, watching The Golden Girls.
Natural causes: black and white chihuahua mix who routinely knocked me down as a toddler to steal my food. At nine years old I couldn’t recognize her natural death even as I watched it. My parents went to the beach and left me with my crusty maternal grandmother, having warned her that Elvira might not see their return. No one warned me. The night I found her dead, Grandma slept next to me in my parents’ bed and placed an arm over me while I cried, an act I think of when I can’t remember any other kindness she’s shown in my lifetime.
F., Debora M. neé
Schizophrenia: paternal grandmother. My father maintains the treatment killed her, not the illness. My granddad divorced her after the diagnosis but my father says they still loved each other, even as their children cared for her and a woman their own age moved into Granddad’s house. The only memory I have of her is my toddler “accident” on the bathroom floor. I called to my dad for help, frozen in a puddle of urine, and said, “Don’t tell Grandma M.” Cleaned up, I returned to the family room where she sat. She broke off conversation to look up at me and say, “You had an accident. Why did you do that?”
Esophageal cancer: grandfather/alcoholic smoker. Died when I was seven of what my mother called “bad habits.” Alcohol gave Grandpa lazy mouth, cigarettes gave him gravel throat, and he spoke a North Carolina dialect I never understood. He slipped me cash and candy when no one was looking. At his funeral my uncle turned in my direction and twisted his face into an exaggerated sob and I laughed because I thought he was mocking me. He wasn’t.
Car accident: classmate. Van swerved to avoid hitting a deer on the way home from a family vacation in Florida. Lost her leg and still didn’t survive. Six passengers rode in the car. We’d been in the same grade since elementary school, but I took journalism with her older sister in high school. My family attended a school-sponsored carnival fundraiser to help with the family’s medical bills. From yards away we watched the family standing off to the side to receive condolences and well wishes, and it was the first we had seen of them since the accident. My dad shoved me toward them saying, “There’s your friend. Go say hi.” I saw her wheelchair and refused.
Survived: youngest victim of the 2002 DC sniper shootings. We were told to zigzag in parking lots and stay inside when possible. All outdoor PE activities were canceled. I was in English class when the principal announced over the PA that a boy was shot walking into his middle school. For a moment my body seized, then relaxed when I remembered that my brother was safe in class one floor above me. We were in the same school building for the first time in seven years: I was a senior and he was a freshman. The sniper was long believed to be a white man with military background driving a white van. They later apprehended two black men driving a blue sedan.
Drug overdose: the King of Pop. I happened to catch the news within minutes of breaking, a punch in the stomach. My brother and I spent our childhood in front of MTV and VH1, videocassettes cued to record as soon as we saw an intro to one of his videos or, better still, concerts. Sitting on my parents’ couch, I yelled through the sliding glass door to my brother hovering over cheeseburgers on a grill. “Michael Jackson died?” It was a question. The news exploded in such a way that my brother was able to verify it on his laptop and return to the burgers before they burned.
Kennedy, John F.
Assassinated by God knows whom: POTUS. The death by which all other celebrity deaths are measured. Both of my parents remember where they were when they heard the news (see Di, Lady). At the news of every celebrity death in my lifetime I wondered if this would be my JFK (see Jackson, Michael).
Hit by a car: my first pet death. When she ran away my parents made flyers with her picture, “Answers to ROOSH,” placed in newspaper boxes throughout the neighborhood. A classmate’s five-year-old sister carried the flyer everywhere, taken with Lucy’s picture. I listened on the downstairs phone as a stranger said to my mom, “I found Roosh.” Brief elation on both receivers. “She was lying by the side of the road.” I heard my mom’s tears and slammed down the receiver. My dad drove to the stranger’s house to pick up the body kept in the garage freezer.
Car accident, officially: former classmate. Word was he died in our hometown standing in the bed of a pickup truck as it rounded a notorious curve. Drunk, my brother speculated. His mother maintains his Facebook page still with messages to him as status updates: “I miss you more every day, my boy.” In fifth grade we plotted to trip a know-it-all classmate at the end-of-year social causing her, we hoped, to spill tea down her dress. We sagged in disappointment as the event ended: she never poured any tea.
Norma Jeane Mortenson, a.k.a. Norma Jeane Baker, a.k.a. Marilyn Monroe
Overdose: film legend. Shared Elton John tribute song “Candle in the Wind” (see: Di, Lady). Married and otherwise linked to men of comparable influence (see: Kennedy, John F.). Featured in and debatably subject of an acid-trip Warhol painting. Forty years-faded fame reduced to T-shirt prints and a notable dress size, a misguided inspiration to curvy women. I grew up in a flurry of her associated measurements wondering why sizes 10-12 didn’t look as good on me as 12-16 did on her.
In 1995, rippled sixteen blocks killing 168 people: name of the official investigation. Referenced in passing headlines for weeks afterward—the way I witnessed the OJ trial, the LA riots, and other major news stories I was too young to understand. Staunchly anti-capital punishment until two years later (see: Iran Brown), I faked a stomachache and stayed home from school on June 11, 2001. I lay under an afghan on the family room couch and watched the exterior of the Terre Haute Federal Correctional Complex on TV. Coverage of Oklahoma City Bomber Tim McVeigh’s lethal injection went on for hours.
Natural causes: unofficial head of the Westboro Baptist Church and “God Hates Fags” movement. When the estranged son released news of his father’s failing health, smirking was unavoidable. Having avidly protested so many funerals himself, the public speculated about the potential disruption of his own funeral and debate ensued as to whether or not it would be proper. “Phelps deserves it” versus “Don’t stoop to their level.” My husband was in favor of protesting. “But what does it prove to protest the funeral of a man who’s not there to see it?” I asked him. The world watched in anticipation but when he finally died, no funeral was held.
AIDS-related bronchopneumonia: iconic rock band that died metaphorically with the death of singer Farrokh Bulsara, a.k.a. Freddie Mercury. I didn’t realize until later in life that he’d died in my lifetime, that we’d coexisted for the first six years of my life. I’d taped grainy videos for “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and watched them on repeat, mesmerized by his intense toothiness. Bulsara finally acknowledged his years-long waltz with AIDS publicly and died the next day.
Stabbed in the heart: classmate’s sister. Murdered by an “acquaintance” we heard was an ex-boyfriend. I went to school with her younger sister, Kristie, who found Stacie dead when she came home from our middle school for the day. The attacker—still present two hours later—took Kristie to the basement, tied her hands with shoelaces, slashed her wrists and throat, then raped and strangled her. Kristie lived and wore her sister’s high school letter jacket for the rest of middle school. Their mother spoke to the seventh grade in the school cafeteria to explain in vague language what had happened and how Kristie would look when she returned. The mother received condolences at the end. My friends who didn’t like Kristie hugged her mother but I didn’t want to. It wasn’t my place to hug her if I couldn’t squeeze out a tear, I thought, and I’d tried.
Smith, Anna Nicole
Drug overdose: former Playmate, alleged gold-digger, TrimSpa spokesmodel. My brother and I sat on the couch together in front of the TV when the news broke. Stunned, we looked to each other for a moment. Then, like balloons bursting, our faces exploded with laughter.
Car accident: neighbor. It happened driving home from church on Easter Sunday. My mother got off the phone and relayed the oldest daughter’s rapid-repeat message: “I just wanted to let you know there was a car accident and my mother didn’t make it.” My mother had asked her out of disbelief to repeat herself. “She repeated herself,” according to my mom, “but the second time she couldn’t finish the sentence.” I’ve spent my life ever since trying to figure out how a daughter makes that call.
Uncle Bennett, Great
Stroke?: Grandma L.’s brother-in-law. My last memory of him was the hug my great-aunt asked me to force on him. She jerked her head in the direction of his blue corduroy recliner, earlobes like melting wax suspended over her shoulders. “What an asshole,” my dad still says. “We know,” we say, repeating his years-old refrain, “if you could, you would dig him up and kill him again.” “To be clear, I didn’t kill him the first time.”
Heroin overdose: brother’s classmate. They were college-age when he died, but Jared wasn’t in college. In high school they’d played in the same venues and shows in parallel punk bands. My brother wore black nail polish, a Mohawk, a plus-sized thrift store church-lady dress; Jared was acid-washed denim and spike-punctuated leather exclusively. His band was terrible. He was a dick to everyone. Heroin was the only thing punk enough for him.
World Trade Center
Plane crash: 9/11 terrorist attack. I was in AP English 11 at our high school in a suburb of DC when the principal announced the incident and that counselors were ready to receive distressed students. We were to be allowed to leave class to make phone calls if we needed to. Who they could have reached, I don’t know. I will forever remember sitting at my desk in class, hearing the announcement (see: Di, Lady and Kennedy, John F.). My teacher effectively extinguished my panic, as was her duty, but in the following months I was angry my panic had been stolen from me.
Twenty-one shots to the chest: civil rights activist. Shot by his former Nation of Islam brothers. Due to my dad’s contagious enthusiasm, I watched Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992) over and over. I was told the swing dance scene made the movie worth it.
Yellow Ranger, The
Car accident: Thuy Trang. Driver lost control of the car and the actress who played the yellow Mighty Morphin Power Ranger, my favorite, was the only death. My brother and I threw misguided kicks and punches around the family room through the opening credits of every episode of the show. One weekend the Red and Yellow Rangers were advertised as appearing at the local toy store; our dad took us, after much anticipation, to see a line of children extending into the horizon waiting to shake hands with paunchy Rangers in cotton uniforms and conveniently tinted helmets. “Those aren’t the real Rangers!” I shouted. I was promptly shushed.
Zebra, Gumu the
Didn’t die: endangered Grevy’s zebra. Almost killed my uncle; indirectly killed a gazelle. My parents called to tell me the night before the story became public. Uncle Bone (a zookeeper) was cleaning the pen when Gumu (notoriously territorial) bit his left arm, ripping the ligaments. Uncle Bone fell to the ground and Gumu stomped through his stomach. Another zookeeper heard shrieking and distracted Gumu long enough for Uncle Bone to be dragged out of the pen. The screams spooked the gazelle in the next pen, who ran headfirst into a wall and died. He was in the hospital under a pseudonym for a week before his name was released. I thought this would be the occasion to reunite Uncle Bone and my dad and, therefore, me. Friends and family sent cards, flowers and gifts; among the gifts appeared an ever-increasing pile of plush zebras. On the anniversary of the attack I watched news coverage of a man I didn’t recognize returning to the hospital, thanking the surgeon who had operated on him.