On examining deaths, stealing souls & creating ghosts

Today five years ago, Michael Jackson had made his transition from a living man to a dead man. He’d died. He’d passed. He’d finished his business on earth. He’d not finished seeing his children into adulthood. If he was aware of dying, I’m quite sure leaving them hurt him the most. Business was enough of a machine to thrive without him.

When Michael Jackson died, we were at the circus Micah’s preschool performed every summer. It felt fitting, like a tribute to the man’s art of total spectacle and loving your audience, giving them the best entertainment you’re capable of. The kids – dressed as lions, mermaids, mustachioed strongmen – did just that.

This April in Las Vegas, Lysle, Micah and I saw the MJ business machinery in action. We got last-row tickets for the Cirque de Soleil show ONE, inspired by Jackson’s work. The boys loved it all – except for the huge, projected clip of Michael’s transformation into a werewolf.

After the show Micah asked me: “Was he there?”
“No, he’s dead. Just like Oma, remember?”
“I thought I saw him.”
“Yes, I did, too. They made it look like he was there dancing with the other dancers, right?”
Micah was bummed by death all over again. His eyes had been tricked by yet another projection – a ghostly, mid-air one of Michael Jackson’s body in motion. Our far-away seats had reinforced the illusion. And at seven years old Micah was able to believe in MJ’s resurrection.
All it made me think was: Would it be okay to see Mama, our beloved dead, technologically resurrected in that way?
No, it would not.
It would hurt to the quick to see such a life-like illusion of her.
We are struggling so hard to manage her absence that it would amount to nothing but cruelty, a cruel joke really, to show her to us in such a way.
Luckily, we are spared that by virtue of our anonymity.

Human concerns about photography or film stealing our souls have all but died out. We have hundreds, even thousands of photos and films of our dead. Not only did they not steal their souls, most of them did not even capture them.
They’re snapshots.
They’re preserved blinks-of-an-eye.
They’re leavings.
The photos and films were already dead, frozen in time, when the dead person was still utterly alive and moving through time.

Don’t get me wrong – I cherish the photos of my mother. I’m glad to have them as glimpses of her story, but I cannot be around them all the time. Though this blog is dominated by a photo of her, it is a blurred vision, and it is one I can choose to go look at, or not. Lately it’s obviously been the latter more often.

Going through our apartment, you will not find a single photo of her on any wall, shelf or table right now. In a strange way, I believe, this has more to do with remembering than forgetting her. That photo would bespeak a finality. The woman it shows is no longer here. Yet her death is anything but final within us. It’s still working through us, sometimes more openly active like a spluttering volcano, sometimes more underground. Either way it’s a process, the work of our grief is a long process that I fear might be short-circuited by passing her photo on the wall many times every day. I feel her more than I see her right now. And that’s how it will have to be for the rest of my life. Feeling her instead of seeing her.

This post was prompted by an encounter I had with my mother last night in my dreams.
She was dead. That was a given.
But she was also there, busying herself with I-don’t-know-what.
I told her how I just don’t understand that she’s dead because when I go certain places in my mind, it’s exactly like that: She’s just there and alive.
In my dream, all I got from her was the sense of a similar confusion. As in: Yes, you’re right. I’m dead, so how can I be here? Shoulder-shrugging.

That’s memory. That’s life-after-death in the minds of those who loved you.
In a final note to her (I will never know whether she was still able or willing to read it), I told her that she would be with us for the rest of our lives. Is that a comfort to the dying or a burden? Maybe you want to be allowed to finally stop being altogether and for good? Isn’t that what resting in peace would be?

This brings me back to someone as haunted by fame as Michael Jackson. He did not get a rest during his life-time. Was never given a break from harassment. If living stars are fair game, are dead stars even more so?
Are we allowed to make his literal ghost in the form of a hologram?
I think the man made it quite clear in the work he left behind that his ghost was his to make, not ours.

Can we already stop the titillating projections and let the dead be? They gave all they had in life. Now they’ve left us to ourselves. They’ve left us their legacies. Let’s leave them alone.

All that’s left for us to do is to respect, protect and honor them and their memory. Amen. And off the soapbox I step.

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