When I woke up Monday morning and saw the New York Times headline announcing David Bowie’s death, my initial reaction was, “How did I miss the news that he’d been ill?”
It’s telling that my first inclination was that he indeed announced he had cancer and I just hadn’t heard it. In this day of 24/7 coverage of celebrities, of following every move, with the Kim Kardashians of the world hardly going to the bathroom without everyone knowing, it’s somewhat of a shock to imagine a celebrity would—gasp!—keep secret a terminal illness.
What a sad commentary on our culture.
I applaud Bowie for revealing his illness to only family and close friends. Somehow as fans we may think we’re entitled to all information.
I am not a huge Bowie fan but I know many people who are. And I feel for them—from reading my social media feeds today, the news clearly was devastating. I can see where if you knew your favorite celebrity was ill, you’d have some time to prepare for the inevitable.
But when it comes down to it, Bowie determined who needed to prepare for his death—his wife, his children, his good friends. That’s it. He cared about his fans, for sure, but he didn’t feel that he had to metaphorically hold their hands through his dying process. That’s a lot for a dying man to bear, and a lot of energy to expend. He chose instead to keep it close and manageable.
Just a few weeks ago I read a story in People magazine about the novelist Jackie Collins. When she was diagnosed with cancer, she told only her daughters, with strict instructions that they not tell anyone. Just a few weeks before her death she visited her famous sister Joan, and her brother, and only told them then of the cancer. Again, I found a lot to admire in that story.
“I just felt she didn’t need it in her life,” said Collins of not telling Joan. “She’s very positive and very social, but I’m not sure how strong she is, so I didn’t want to burden her with it.”
And this all reminds me of Bowie’s pal Freddie Mercury. I clearly remember the announcement of his death in November 1991, when I was a high school junior. The shock upon hearing that news was very similar to the shock today we feel about Bowie. Mercury released a statement that he had AIDS only 24 hours before his death. He released the statement only because rumors, which had been swirling for years, were at that point too plentiful to deny.
Bowie went out on top. We will remember him as healthy and happy and productive, especially on the heels of his latest album release. His fans didn’t have to see him waste away. Maybe he was protecting them after all.