My mother is not one of those melodramatic women you expect to see crying and pulling their hair out over the death of a celebrity. She doesn’t remember where she was when the Kennedys were killed (actually she was just barely alive). She shed not one tear for John Lennon, Princess Diana, or Ronald Reagan. Outside of when Kurt Cobain died and she, knowing that I loved Nirvana, tried to break the news to me gently by telling me something had happened to “one of my friends,”celebrity deaths come and go without so much as a blip on mom’s radar.
So imagine my surprise when she called me moments after network television stations starting announcing news about Michael Jackson’s passing. I was standing in a store when she called and quickly shooed her off the phone with an “I know, mom. I’ll call you back later.” Imagine my even greater surprise when my phone rang about 90 seconds later and I heard her small, shaky voice admit: “Roxanne, I’m not okay.”
Naturally, I took that call. I learned in that emotional conversation that her favorite MJ song was (inexplicably, I thought at first) “Ben,” the one about the rat; and that she was glad he had died in a way that couldn’t really be mocked; and how she was worried about the kids. What I didn’t learn was why Michael’s death was having the effect it had or what exactly he meant to her.
Since then, mom has called me on the verge of tears because she heard Smokey Robinson sing “Never Can Say Goodbye” and in the middle of deep, hiccupping sobs upon hearing 12-year-old Paris profess her love for her father at his memorial. And I’ve been left trying to sort out my mom’s uncharacteristic, celebrity-induced emotion.
It’s not so much that mom was Michael Jackson’s biggest fan—she’s never been to a concert and, to the best of my knowledge, never sported one glittery glove. But he has always been there for virtually her entire life. “” hit her five-year-old ears all the way in Jamaica. “Ben” (which was really about a little-boy-lost without a friend to call his own) came out in the year my granddad died. Thriller dominated the radio her first year living in the United States. And I distinctly remember the DJ playing selections from Dangerous at her wedding.
In fact, if my mother’s life had a soundtrack, it would be largely scored by the late King of Pop. And I know she’s not the only one.
In our wall-to-wall news world where the bad news comes hurtling at you 24-7, it’s all too easy to tune out tragic deaths, of ordinary people and celebrities alike. But mourning for MJ has been tremendous. In my mom’s case, I think it’s because she—and perhaps many like her—is reacting not to the death of a celebrity but of a lifelong friend.