Tuesday, January 29, 2008


My seventeen year old daughter went off to work as usual one recent morning. Twenty minutes later, the phone rang and she said, in a harsh voice that hung between astonishment and bewilderment, “Mum!” It was a tone you don’t want to hear from your teenager when you are not nearby. It was a tone that clearly said something was very wrong. I thought she’d had a car accident.

“What?” I said, panic ready to rear its ugly head. “Honey, what is it?”

“Heath Ledger’s dead.”

I made her say it again. It didn’t register as believable. “What?”

“Heath Ledger’s dead.”

It’s funny how we need to hear these things at least twice before they begin to enter our consciousness as being possible. At the first telling, it might be a joke. When you make the teller repeat themselves, you assume they will grin stupidly and say, “Nah – just kidding.”

However, Heath Ledger’s death is not something my daughter would ever joke about. We’re on first name terms with him in this house - even though we’ve never met him. We love him here – even though we know we never really knew anything about him. She has a giant poster on her wall of those two beautiful boys, Heath and Jake, both in profile, looking away from each other, so convincing and heartbreaking in Brokeback Mountain, one of the greatest tales of love that can never be that was ever told.

I felt bad for my daughter after she called me, knowing she would have to scan groceries all day and put up with random rudeness from customers who neither knew nor cared that she was in grief. Furthermore, if they did know, they would more than likely ridicule her for it.

But I remember that I was about seventeen or eighteen years old when John Lennon died. I was working in a Queensland town where, just like the pub in the Blues Brothers, there were both types of music – country and western. I was driving along with a workmate and I had to pull over to the side of the road when I heard the news on the radio. I looked at my passenger, a born and bred local girl and waited for her face to mirror the disbelief on mine. But it didn’t. It showed only bemusement.

I said, “John Lennon’s dead?’

She said, “Who?”

I mourned in private for John. Don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t a deep mourning or a prolonged grief process. I felt no need for counselling nor even many tears. But there was no one in that tiny western Queensland town who was terribly interested in the fact that John Lennon had died. I felt silly, seeing everyone else’s indifference, that it had touched my heart at all.

Since then, I have mourned quietly for many celebrities, some more deeply than others and for many different reasons.

Princess Di stands out; but not because I was any great fan.

I was the same age as her and still working in the same dry dusty town. I was serving beer in a public bar full of jack and jilleroos when she got married in that fairy tale dress and walked down that mile long aisle with the most eligible bachelor in the world. The TV was on above the bar and we all thought she looked rather gorgeous. Not that any of the girls there wanted to be her - imagine how hard it would be to get into that dress! None of the blokes wanted to actually marry her themselves either – imagine how hard it would be to get her out of that dress!

But we all agreed she looked bloody beautiful - like a doll or like an actress. Or like a... a... a PRINCESS!

She quite obviously didn’t live happily ever after however. The marriage turned out to be one of the worst in the entire history of bad marriages and if Princess Di can't make it work with a grand start like that, what hope does someone like me have?

Then she went through all that other stuff; the affairs, the royal intrigues, the AIDS hugs, the land mine publicity - most of it happening on the cover of glossy magazines with her looking stunning and then ...

Splat! She dies. Just like any other commoner! Wow! We were astounded. We went splat right along with her for a short while.

We couldn’t believe it. That’s how the story ends? If Life had an awards night, Princess Di's would get the award for most unexpected final twist! If it were actually a screenplay, the script doctor would send that development back to the drawing board for an emergency rewrite.

"She can't die!" the script doctor would say. "The audience will never believe it!"

I mourned for Di not because I loved her - not like we, here in this house, loved Heath – but because life never seems to live up to its promise. The Princess Di story was paradise lost for me. The little girl, who somewhere deep down still believed that the prince would come along and carry her off to never ending safety, sniffled as she waved goodbye to the last of her illusions.

Then there was Steve Irwin. What can we say about Steve that hasn’t already been said? I had a chequered relationship with Steve over the years. It ranged from me being embarrassed by his gaudiness to admiring his audacity to being grateful for the many environmental stands he took.

Then quite suddenly, after Andrew Denton interviewed him on Enough Rope, I found myself actually liking him. Once I realised, after watching him talk for half an hour, that he really was just like that, that it wasn’t an act, I no longer found him embarrassing but funny and sincere.

I was so sad about Steve Irwin’s death. I’d never watched one of his nature shows in its entirety and I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to shake his hand if I saw him in the street. But I recognised the passage of a human being who had truly lived, with passion and belief and joy and love, one who wore his heart on his sleeve, one who put his money where his mouth was.

But as sad as I was about his death, I was also more than a little creeped out. It seemed so gothic that such a patently big hearted man should be stabbed through that big heart by a creature that all agreed was among the most placid in the sea. It seemed so mythic; as though Poseidon had smited him for daring to roam freely and fearlessly through his domain.

I think it is this epic quality that accounts for the way we can sometimes get caught up in the drama of the death of someone we don’t know. These are archetypal stories played out by heroic personalities. Diana is the princess who was supposed to live happily ever after; Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty. Steve Irwin is the jungle man who understands the wild world so well that he can never be taken by it; Tarzan, Mowgli. It is when the story ends contrary to the template we hold in our subconscious memory that we are so shocked.

So, what timeless story was Heath Ledger’s life supposed to play out for us? What archetypal character did he represent? He’d had many love interests according to gossip magazines but he just couldn’t settle down. He appeared to be a man who loved deeply but simply couldn’t bear to be around people full time. He was the taciturn cowboy, the solitary range rider who disappeared into the sunset every evening alone. According to legend, Heath Ledger was not supposed to die at all, and certainly not in his bed. He was supposed to live according to his own rules and to fade away with his boots on, many many years from now, a wily wiry old loner, in some dusty place we comfort-loving city folk have never even heard of before.

I confess that I cried when I put the phone down after my daughter told me this news and despite my search for the reasons behind it, I’m still not entirely sure why. How do these people we don’t know find their way into our hearts? And who is to judge as false or misplaced, the emotion we feel on hearing of their loss?

In my house, we loved it every time he visited. We adored having him with us, right here, in our lounge room. We loved him even more when we saw him on the silver screen, his face godlike in close up, as large and magnetic as a rising harvest moon in a country sky. I loved him as Ned Kelly, righteous and fiery, the widow’s son outlawed. And I loved him as Casanova, relaxed and funny, the world’s greatest romance hero. But I loved him best of all as Ennis del Mar in Brokeback Mountain. I’ve wept each of the three times I’ve watched him take his dead lover’s shirt out of the closet and say through the closed mouth of a man who is not at home with his emotions, “Jack, I swear…”

And I couldn’t be more certain that I will weep again, even more, the next time I watch it.

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