I’d like to think that as I get older I’m getting wiser, more thoughtful, more empathetic—better, really, in all ways. And I’d like to think that each year that goes by is one I’ve used well and that I’ll remember for a long time, maybe forever. But in all likelihood that’s not the case. My sophomore year of high school probably never even happened, and that’s not even me trying to erase a trauma (that’d be the rest of high school). But 2011 is a year I’ll remember, because it had me staring at a lot of things I’d been too scared to look at until then, and I bet I’ll remember it my whole life. For one, there’s all those last-year-of-college things that everyone knows about. But there’s another reason I’ll remember 2011, and that’s for the deaths. There were a lot of them, though probably about the same as any other year. But what beautiful, insane people were lost. Maybe it’s that this year feels like my last, too, in a way, and maybe it’s me just moping more. Or maybe it’s not, and maybe 2011 was really the most extraordinary year for dying since I’ve been alive.
2011 was christened in death right after its birth. On January 2, Richard Winters, the commander of Easy Company, the band of brothers immortalized as such in book and television, died in Hershey, Pennsylvania at 92. At the time, I read the obituary in The Times and put it down and moved on fairly quickly. His was an extraordinary life, to be sure, and was of that generation that we all have to be compared to, for better or worse, but the end of his life didn’t, necessarily, mean that 2011 would be a spectacular year for death. Now, looking back, there’s some sort of incredible cosmic significance to Mr. Winters’s passing. Here was a man who was a paratrooper on D-Day and who literally fought his way across four countries during World War II, who faced howitzers and Nazis and panzers and came out mostly unscathed, who lived into his nineties. And then just two days into 2011 he was dead. I’m not often reverent of those who live a long time—I feel sorry for them, usually, because I feel like all they’re doing is slowly losing memories rather than making any new ones—but here was a man who just by living so long after enduring so much was proving himself some sort of indomitable specimen. So his death was a harbinger of things to come.
Brian Jacques died the next month. I was never very close to him but many of my friends were, and I have a soft spot for things that people I like have a soft spot for. But February was also the month that Duke Snider died. Snider was the Hall of Fame centerfielder for the Dodgers, both when they played in Flatbush and then when they went west in the middle of the night. He played in that golden era of New York baseball when there were three franchises, and they were all elite and they all had the most graceful, most transcendent talents loping about the massive outfield expanses that old ballparks had: Mays with the Giants, Mantle with the Yankees, and the Duke with the Dodgers. He was in the outfield when Branca gave up that miraculous home run to Bobby Thompson—watched his teammate Andy Pafko watch the ball just eclipse the 315 sign in left. He was great but never really the best—though sometimes you come across some old man who lives in the same complex as your grandparents, and he’ll argue that Duke was the one. I wouldn’t know but I know he was shoulder to shoulder with men made into myth by the things that they could do with wood and leather. And those men thought he was great and that’s enough.
March came and took Nate Dogg, Elizabeth Taylor, and Geraldine Ferraro. You can probably guess who I’m going to get nostalgic about, but much respect is due to the exquisite beauty of Taylor and to Ferraro for being first at the sort of thing that I bet makes you both incredibly proud and really sad at the same time—kind of like being the first in your family to go to college. Nate Dogg deserves some words because he was really the first to master and practice the half-singing-half-rapping mode of pop music that’s Drake’s signature and T-Pain and Akon and Cee-Lo Green sometimes get right. Born Nathaniel Dwayne Hale—a perfectly adequate name for a man—he was a marine before he was a rapper, but then had a violent episode with a woman, as he proved himself prone to do, after he came home on leave and found his girl in bed with his cousin. Speaking to Vibe in 2001, he recounted how he pulled out his military-issued weapon and sat with the two in his house for two days, crying, before he “let them go,” which I like to think is both a straightforward I decided not to murder them as well as an attempt at poetry, an I took this time to understand and come to terms with this episode in my life, and now I’m moving on. This is on my best days what I hope. What I dream. After that, he was dishonorably discharged, and he formed a rap group with two fellows with equally ordinary sounding names who dumped them for the monikers Snoop Dogg and Warren G. He would be featured prominently on Dr. Dre’s iconic, genre-defining The Chronic. He would come to embody G-Funk. And then the heart troubles began and his end was in 2011.
April wasn’t the cruelest month. It took Sidney Lumet, who directed one of the crazier, most incredibly prescient films I’ve ever seen in Network, and got an honorary Oscar after a long, admirable career that never saw him decorated for any one thing. It also took Walter Breuning, who at 114 was the oldest American man ever. There’s something to say about a man who lives so long that that becomes the story of his life, but I haven’t the space or the strength of spirit.
May was where 2011 shouted loudly that it was a year of significance. I remember sitting one night in my friend’s dorm room on the fourth floor of Brown Hall watching something inane on television when masculine, throaty shouts of U-S-A came through an open window. And then someone opened up their laptop and said, awkwardly, like the words were in another language, “Osama bin Laden is dead.” Osama was our Hitler, I think, or a modern translation. Perhaps a bad translation, but at least an attempt. He was the author of a defining moment of my childhood, when I walked up the stairs of my elementary school to the fourth grade classroom and I saw all the teachers standing around the television, watching the towers burn, and I, being too young to read a face and too naïve to know what horror was, merely asked if I could borrow some paint supplies. Later that day, both my mother and father picked me up at school and drove me, on a Tuesday, to our synagogue, where our rabbi greeted us with a confused look and asked us what we were doing there. My mother told him it feels like the place to be and my rabbi, owner of a mind that makes the loveliest phrases, mouthed only the literally empty O. Later, my mother and father walked with me in the park across from my house and then wept over dinner. In 2011, the man who made all that happen was shot in the head.
May was also the month that took Gil Scott-Heron, who reminded us that the revolution would not be televised and was appropriated by Kanye and Drake and Jamie XX for exquisite musical releases, and Randy Savage, a twenty-time champion wrestler who went by Macho Man and was of mostly perfect health until suddenly slain by a heart attack while driving with his wife the morning of May 20. They, too, were individuals with lives significant and strange. I must keep moving.
Dying is not a crime, and June continued its wild path. Jack Kevorkian, himself an author of death, died of kidney problems at 83. I don’t have anything personal to say about him, but of all the years for him to die this was as apt as any could be. June also took Jackass star Ryan Dunn, who a few days after his birthday was drunk and behind the wheel of a Porsche and going 130 miles per hour, and surely the street was just one long unintelligible streak of color and light. He slammed into a tree and everything exploded.
July took Cy Twombly, a painter and sculptor who your average fellow doesn’t know but if you find someone who does they’re probably either very cool or the most pompous and arrogant creature on this earth. I was working at the Museum of Modern Art at the time and they treat the deaths of those whose works they own with reverence and sadness, as I suppose one would expect. We got emails, even us peons, and a retrospective was immediately constructed. July took Betty Ford, first lady during the brief tenure of Gerald, and then founder of the Betty Ford Center for Substance Abuse and Treatment. And it took Amy Winehouse at the tender age of 27, like so many people who want to live too much. The night Winehouse died I stayed up until five in the morning in the apartment I had been lent, watching George Clooney in Up in the Air and smoking cigarettes out the bathroom window, taking note as the lights in the buildings around me flicked on and off. There was this acoustic performance that Amy gave that I had been looking for all day that a friend posted on Facebook and I watched that four or five times. And then I went to bed, woke up three hours later for work and felt more alive and full of energy than I had felt in months.
In August, Albert Brown died. He was 105 and was the oldest living survivor of the Bataan Death March. In his youth, he had wanted to be a dentist but enlisted in the military and soon found himself in the Philippines. As the Japanese forced the Americans to march, they shot any who lagged behind, nearly 11000 in all. To have the spirit to live through something like this—I don’t really have much to say. His war injuries kept him from ever being a dentist. He died in Pickneyville, Illinois in 2011.
In September, no one died. It was a month of astonishing joy and people smiled all the time. Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.
In October, the inventor of so many smiles, Steve Jobs, passed away. He was a real-life Tony Stark who made music players instead of missiles and was a rebel and an innovator and a genius and possibly an asshole. Every story I’ve ever written was written on a Mac. Every song I’ve downloaded and listened to. He imagined and designed machines that made my life what it is, and so, in many ways, he imagined and designed my life.
Gaddafi died in October, too. I think he probably deserved it. Joe Frazier went down in November. He lost to Ali, and he beat him. He was undisputed heavyweight champion. In the history of sports photography, Frazier is in two absolutely iconic, indelible images, both of which have him cast as the fool to Ali’s master. There’s Frazier’s missing left hook, looking wild, and Ali dipping a shoulder to dodge, and there’s Ali shouting in ecstasy, in triumph, in conquest, over Frazier down on the mat. And somehow, despite Ali’s ever-deteriorating health, he outlived his great rival.
December, like the best final scenes, was the most memorable. It took Christopher Hitchens, Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong-Il. It took a Brazilian soccer player called Socrates.
In 2011, many people died. People who sound like they could have been famous: George Sanderling and Bernice Lake and Keo Nakama. People with nicknames like Big Eyes and Country. People who killed people. People who saved them. People we won’t remember and people we will. In 2012, more people will die, maybe even some people I love. You probably won’t know those people, but their deaths will make that year, to me, the most awful year of my life. And then there will be, God willing, another year, and then another, and time will make me forget. But, today, I’m telling myself that 2011 meant something and that I won’t forget it and so I’m writing it down in order to remember it when I inevitably do.