Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Sudden Death (March 2009)

When somebody big and famous dies suddenly, dies before his or her time, dies in an unusual fashion, or some combination of the three, the world takes notice. Not that it is more tragic for a famous person to die in this fashion than you or me, but when everyone sees it on the news, talks about it at work, and reads the full story in People Magazine the next week, you just can't get away from it. You feed off each other. You talk about it at the "water cooler," you talk about it with your neighbor on the elevator, and you just feel.... bad.

Such was the case with Natasha Richardson. She achieved the trifecta, and it hit people even more because she was a beautiful woman. She was famous--an accomplished actress from an accomplished acting family. She certainly died before her time. Forty-five...my age, for Christ's sake. She died after a fall on the bunny slope, suddenly, unusually. A fall similar to a fall any number of well-heeled novice skiers took on the same slope that day. A fall probably not too different from the fall I took when I slipped in the lunchroom on an errant french fry a couple of weeks ago. I probably fell harder than Natasha did, as it was linoleum, not snow. A simple fall. It happens. I was lucky. Or, more accurately, she was supremely unlucky.

It reminded me immediately of two other notable ski-deaths, which coincidentally took place within a week of one another. Ski deaths are inherently unusual. Maybe not as unusual as, say, badminton deaths, but unusual all the same. You can get hurt skiing for sure, but deaths are infrequent. You have to fuck up pretty badly to die.

Michael Kennedy, the scandal-laden son of Robert Kennedy (Kennedy men and teenage babysitters don't mix) died ten years ago, while goofing and tossing around a football on an intermediate ski slope in Aspen. Ran into a tree, broke his head open, severed his spine, and died immediately. Dumb. Tragic too, certainly too high a price for being stupid and reckless on a ski slope. But dumb. Sonny Bono ran into a tree on a ski slope a few days later and died too. Or, actually, off the ski slope. Off piste. Powering between the trees, being a big shot. Oops, missed one. Stay on the slope! It's a rule for a reason!

It surpassed the trifecta, really, that these similar occurrences happened so close to one another. To increase the drama even further for my friend Janet, who thrives on celebrity mishaps and drama, Paul and the kids and I were away on a ski trip, of all things, when these accidents occurred. Out of touch, pre-cellphone. I called her as soon as we returned, and she was reduced to tears at the sound of my voice.

"Oh my God! Oh my God! Are you OK?"

"Of course we are Janet. We had a great time." I stay calm with Janet, trying, somewhat arrogantly, to lead by example. "And how have you been?"

"I've been trying to call you! Isn't it awful what happened to Sonny and the Kennedy boy? Unbelievable. Unbelievable. So sad. So sad."

"Oh yes...I heard something about that. It certainly was sad, and pretty wild that it happened while we were away skiing, of all things."

"Well, that's why I was trying to call you. I was so worried, so worried..."

"I'm sorry, Janet." I conceded. "I knew you'd be upset, and I probably should have tried to call you sooner. But what would we have talked about??"

"Well...." said Janet, "I needed to know if you had heard about the terrible accidents, and whether you planned to come home. I was going to beg you to come home. Skiing is dangerous, and with all that has happened this week..."

"All that has happened this week," I said gently, "didn't make it any more or less dangerous for us this week. It was just a big coincidence they both happened this particular week, and happened while we were in Vermont. You know that. Think about that dopey behavior. We're much more careful than that. We've gone on ski trips before, and we were no more likely to get hurt on this one than on any trip we've been on before..."

She knew, Janet. She did. She worries about her loved ones, goes over the top, but when all is said and done, she can admit it when someone (usually I) calls her on her histrionics. I think she is relieved when I do.

"I know, I know....OK...I'm just glad you're back in town. I don't like it when you're away....So when are we going to the movies??"

Back to business. Crazy accidents happen. Janet stopped and thought for a second, and realized that our family wasn't one which lent itself to falling victim to horrific outcomes, because we were us, we took proper precautions, and....well....we were us.

We're us. We don't just die just like that. We all believe we're above it.

You do, too. C'mon, you do.

Though not too convincing an argument, of course, when you think about someone like Natasha Richardson, who fell in what must have looked like at worst, an ungraceful galumph into the snow. And died. On a family vacation. Just died.

Not being reckless.

Not being dumb.

Just being unlucky. Supremely unlucky.

The kind of accident, which, if you mull it over too much, makes you think twice about even leaving the house. But of course you do, and you can't over-think it. Because shit happens. Shit you can't control and shit you can't let scare you from getting on with life. Terrible shit happens sometimes.

It just does.

It just happens.

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