In the last week, two people who meant a great deal to me passed away. One of them, you probably know, one, you probably don’t. One, I knew personally, and loved dearly. The other, I only know from a public persona and a body of work. They both influenced anyone who came in to contact with them.
The one that you probably know, of course, is Maya Angelou. She was iconic enough that I don’t need to expound on her accomplishments. If you weren’t aware of her or what she did in her life, you probably do now, with all the articles, tributes and random Facebook posts about her. Ms. Angelou was almost universally loved and admired and the tributes reflect that. I say “almost” because there have also been some hateful comments. As with anyone who, at some point in their lives, said uncomfortable things (and she most definitely did say uncomfortable things), and, more to the point, anyone in this country who is black and dares to become successful, there will be hateful things said. But the majority of comments are truly reverent and inspirational.
Yes, occasionally, Ms. Angelou annoyed me. I doubt you could find a public figure who hasn’t, at some time or other, annoyed me. But mostly, she inspired me and made me think. And I saw her inspire and provoke thought in so many people, her greatness was obvious to me.
Here is a video, part of a series, of a conversation she had with Dave Chappelle after he suddenly left his very successful television show many years ago. In it, toward the end, he asks her how she could have lived through what she did and not be consumed by anger. Her response, and her distinction between bitterness and anger, moved me to tears.
This was a wise woman. One who gained her wisdom through a constant examination of her life and of the lives of those around her. Her life, the simple fact of it, not to mention her work, changed the world. The one good thing about her passing is that a whole new generation will now hear her voice, examine her art and investigate her history (which will bring them headlong into a whole, new, rich story of some of the most influential people of the mid-twentieth century.)
The other person we lost, you may not have heard of. His name was Steve Moore. He was a pianist, a standup comic, a “warmup act” for more than one major television sitcom, an opening act for Vegas headliners, a raw, shining talent and a gentle man. I knew, on some level, that he would pass away soon. He contracted HIV many years ago. He dealt with it in a way that was unlike anyone else I’ve ever known or witnessed. He brought it to his standup routine. But not in a bitter way. Not even in an angry way. He was ribald and he was funny and he gently allowed the people in his audience to examine their own thoughts about and relationship to the disease. Then he supported others in bringing their challenges into their own art.
He turned his experiences into an HBO special, called “Drop Dead Gorgeous: The Power of HIV Positive Thinking“.
The standup community can be bitchy, catty and unsupportive, but I have never heard anyone say anything but glowing and loving things about Steve. He pretty much loved everyone he touched, and everyone he touched pretty much loved him back. He was giving and generous and kind and left happiness in his wake.
When his illness got to be more than he could manage by himself, he moved back home to Virginia to live with his folks, but still left his mark on the people around that community. It was a smaller community than Hollywood, but that didn’t matter to him.
I lost touch with him after he left town, but, thanks to Facebook, we reconnected and I was able to be a part, although a very small one, of his life again. His passing was a shock. Even given his condition, it doesn’t seem possible. Now that he’s gone, I will never again get to sit and gossip with him, never joke and laugh, talk trash about other people. I will never sit in his tiny cabin on that huge plot of land off Laurel Canyon Blvd. in the Valley, eating “white trash mashed potatoes”, which were loaded with, of all things, mayonnaise. I will never hear him call me “lover” with that sly glint in his eyes and that grin that took over his entire face. (No, we weren’t lovers. No, I won’t tell you why he called me that.) I will never again get to see him do his stand up routine with his easy and confident style, so lovable that even when he got ribald, it seemed, somehow, innocent.
I learned of his passing on Facebook. And as soon as the first post crossed my stream, with tears and a tribute, more and more were added. Photos were posted. Experiences where shared. The extent and caliber of people sharing was beyond anything I’ve ever seen. Someone even posted a transcript of the text of his memorial service, which I couldn’t finish reading because I couldn’t see the monitor through the tears.
I am amazed that I can be so moved by the passing of someone I never knew and by the passing of someone I have not seen or talked directly with for years. But when people leave their mark on your soul, and you share that mark with so many other people, the final separation can be jarring and disorienting.
May you both have peace.