It was a passing thing, the merest of blips in the constantly gushing torrent of news, if even by chance one happened to have noticed it at all. It was simply this: Two widely reported celebrity deaths happened in quick succession, and both persons died at the age of 69. The first was the pop-music legend David Bowie, who reportedly died on January 10th, and the second was the actor Alan Rickman, who we’re told died on January 14th. (Both were also Englishmen.)
What does the age of 69 have to do with anything? Well, in Psalm 90 (“a prayer of Moses”), the modern translation reads as follows:
The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
For baby-boomers and those of us who have succeeded them, 69 or 70 years of age doesn’t sound that old, does it? Three score and ten: that’s the new two score and ten, surely! We ought to just be gearing up for our retrospectives and gala tributes, rather than giving up the ghost and decaying in the ground. Yet, even for the famous, wealthy and widely-admired of this world, there is no saying “no” when the Grim Reaper arrives with that cold glint in his eyes. And whether that is at the age of 69 or—as in the case of Moses—at 120, the final finality of that end overwhelms all else and puts all our toil and trouble into such a different perspective than it daily possessed during our life.
Death is on this writer’s mind even more than usual, as my father died—eight days before David Bowie—at the age of 91. He was nothing if not a tough and determined man, such that I would not have been in the least surprised if he had lived to the age of Moses himself. But all the strength in the world counts for nothing in the end, for any of us.
You return man to dust
and say, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.
You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning:
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.
So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.
But why gain a heart of wisdom, if it will also only decay in the ground? There’s the mystery. The Bible, the Old Testament, so clear-eyed as to our fragility and mortality, also knows there are things worth attaining: those things that God wishes for us to attain. And these will not be for nought. Somehow, we all seem to know that, deep down, or we would simply stop living. You cannot live for nothing.
Thank you to the friend who forwarded the link to this post on David Bowie, which features a video clip of him kneeling and saying the Lord’s Prayer at a concert in Wembley Stadium in 1992. It also includes his quoted remarks in an interview about how he came to do it. There is in fact no pat explanation. It was something mysterious.
Whoever uploaded the actual video clip of David Bowie praying on stage titles it “The Bravest Moment in Rock & Roll History.” I think that might be an overstatement. (It may have been quite a bit earlier.) But certainly it took some cojones to pronounce those words, unedited, in such a context.
Why are the most honest, humble and naked things the hardest to say? One thing is sure: They become so much easier to say in the moments before death. Then they are very clearly the only things worth saying. There’s a mystery there, too.