Yesterday, Diff’rent Strokes star Gary Coleman, 42, died after suffering a brain hemorrhage on Wednesday, May 26. On Thursday, he slipped into unconsciousness and was put on life support. Yesterday, Friday, his family took him off life support and stood by his side while he died.
As soon as I read about his death, I posted a link to the story on my Facebook page with a simple note that said, “Crap. I feel sad about this.”
Immediately, people started making jokes. My friend David suggested that all flags should be flown at 4’2″ for at least a week. My friend TJ asked, “With this tragic loss, how can you not feel a bit shorted?”
The jokes were funny and not mean spirited, and I didn’t feel bothered by them at all. Would my friends have been making these jokes if someone I’d known personally, who I was close to had died? No, probably not. I get that Gary Coleman was a television celebrity (a short one) who’d melted into relative obscurity in the last years of his life. There’s a bit of cognitive dissonance that occurs when a celebrity dies – you don’t know the person, so there’s a certain discomfort that may occur if you feel emotional about their passing. Jokes help create distance between you and the discomfort of death. I get that.
But then another friend posted the following:
“Really? Why does everyone get so broken up or emotionally affected by people who are complete strangers? Yes, we saw them on TV as fictional characters. As far as I am concerned this displaced behavior is just another reason why you all should KILL YOUR TV. People are more invested in characters than the real people in their lives.”
And that…well, that one bothered me.
Yes, Facebook friend, really.
When I was a kid, the men in my life were constantly sexually, physically, and mentally abusive. It was a horrific, terrible existence. I watched my mom beat bloody in front of me regularly until I was fifteen years old. My one escape from my reality was TV. Gary Coleman and Diff’rent Strokes were just one part of the alternate universe I lived in to find solace from the discord and disharmony that was my every waking moment. See also: The Keatons, The Huxtables, all the gals nursing on Mrs. Garret’s teat. They were my families, too. And so, yes, I feel a little sad to see his life end so suddenly, and so painfully, and after a life wrought with struggle – which is exactly opposite of what you want for anyone you ever cared about.
But that’s my defense. My excuse. Which I don’t really owe and which I shouldn’t have to offer up, because no one should have to defend when they take a moment to ponder the life of someone who has died, no matter who he is.
Another Facebook friend posted a long rant about how no one should care that Gary Coleman died, that no one should take a moment to hold their hat over their heart, because there are nameless soldiers dying for a cause she strongly believes in – soldiers whose names never even enter our consciousness. And I’m just fed up with the whole philosophy.
Really? I should stuff down my moment of sadness (which wasn’t debilitating or life altering, but significant for just a moment nonetheless) and even be ashamed of it because it is for a guy whose only virtue in this world (that we know of) was to offer entertainment to a lot of people my age once upon a time. To me that suggests that the value of a person’s life is contingent upon a finite set of rules – deemed, obviously, by someone other than me – and that life itself isn’t worth valuing or mourning.
I don’t watch TV. Yes, it is an evil implement for many and in many ways. That’s my opinion. Be that as it may, I still found comfort in certain humans – humans – who entertained me during a very tough time. And I still have a TV so that I can watch movies and I still watch Jeopardy! from time to time. And I guarantee you, when Alex Trebek dies, I will shed a tear.
And none of this takes me away from my incessant worrying about the war and the Gulf oil spill and the state of our world and other, less popular people who may or may not have performed more noble tasks. But I won’t for a second suggest that people who entertain us are any less valuable, because god damn it, with all the suffering in the world, there had better be some things and some people who make me smile once in a while.
R.I.P. Gary Coleman.