“Mom, David Bowie died,” my daughter says. It’s seven in the morning on January 11, 2016 and she’s supposed to be getting ready for school, not on her phone, but I’m too tired to argue with her. I’d been up since six staring at the computer screen, trying to write bad erotic romance e-books to pay the bills until I can shake myself out of a year-long creative slump in an almost thirty year career as an author.
The wing of black liner that she sweeps expertly above the deep set blue of her eyes makes her appear older than her fifteen years, as she looks up at me from the secret world of her screen.
There, reflected: a high forehead and heart-shaped face, framed by Botticelli Venus hair. She so resembles my mother who died of cancer five years ago.
“No, it was just his birthday,” I say, thinking she had misread something. I’d been putting up the Helen Green portraits of Bowie on my social media in celebration of his 69th year: Davy Jones, Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, Halloween Jack, Aladdin Sane, Button Eyes, The Preacher, Dark Star. He’d just released a new album.
I go to my computer and Google. His son with Angie, Duncan, (born Zowie), confirms it’s true. Bowie had died of cancer in his home the day before. Mother fucking cancer. You motherfucker.
“I’m sorry, Mommy,” my daughter says.
Death, I get; it has to happen. But not to David Bowie. And not like this. He somehow seemed untouchably happy, living in New York with Iman and their teenage daughter, releasing, just days before, some of the best music of his career. He somehow seemed immortal. He was our Starman, after all.
Later that evening, my thirteen-year-old son, Sam, asks if we can watch the “Heroes” video.
David Bowie is so young and glamorous, standing there in a beam of light. He’s both romance and apocalypse, singing my favorite song of all time, the one I always put on every top ten list and make out mix.
Sam and I do sit-ups on the floor while our dog Elphi tries to lick our cheeks, and Bowie sings.
When the song ends, Sam looks at me with green eyes shining feelings under thickly feathered eyebrows. Then he puts one hand to his heart, points one skyward in tribute. He and David Bowie both have high cheekbones, angular jaws, but my son’s skin is tan from the California sun, and Bowie pale against the shadowy background.
I spend the next two weeks alternating between bouts of tears and bursts of writing. I thought both wells had run dry. But now, released by Starman, they seem to flow.
David Bowie, you taught us so much.
You taught us about Fame: It can be seductive and dangerous and it is not the most important thing. Don’t try to guess what the audience wants. Stand your ground, feet planted (that’s the advice you gave to Iggy Pop on performing). Follow the Muse, who resides inside of you. Only that is the real measure of success.
Fashion: Start a revolution in big shoes. Platforms make you closer to the stars. Change your hair. Wear makeup. Fear no glitter. Get your teeth fixed if you want. (Or don’t). Gender bend. Embody who you are at any given moment. Be yourself.
Sexuality: Desire can be fluid. Have no shame about whom you love. Experience and experiment, as long as you are kind. The most attractive thing is someone who says, This is me. Unabashedly. Because with those words we are also saying to others, “You can be you, too. And you are not alone.”
You taught us to be Artists: One of the hardest things about being an artist is putting one’s soul on the line to be scrutinized and criticized. When I began my career this felt a lot less risky than it does today; with the wonder of the Internet, came a lot more vulnerability. The sometimes cruel reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads alone could make a young writer never type another word. My parents encouraged me to express myself without censorship or judgment and this philosophy carried me through for many years. I published erotica when I’d been known for YA; a memoir about my first year as a mom when fiction was expected; poetry when my heart cried out for it and an adult psychological thriller that upset many of my readers but reflected my state of mind at the time.
You told us to take risks and accept the “stares” that come along with that. To face uncertainty, knowing that it can produce great art. It’s still effortless for me to help my students overcome their fears but I find myself needing to take my own advice more and more. And to take yours.
You taught us about Love: You were a wild youth, a loyal friend, a loving father dressed in 1970’s drag, and later in life a devoted husband and loving (more traditional looking) father for a second time. You comforted the lost and lonely, the odd and the outsider, the queer in every sense of the word. Even after your death, you left the message that you were there, watching over us. Reminding us, once again, that we are loved, we are not alone.
You taught us how to Die: Work right up until the end, even if you feel physically and mentally exhausted. Get support from a trusted few but keep your private affairs private. Get a great photographer to take your picture smiling in the face of death. Leave your message to the world, clearly stated. Embrace your mortality. Let it be the impetus to create. Surround yourself with your loved ones. Leave a legacy of work that comes from your heart and soul and expresses who you truly are. See death as an adventure. Love. (There’s one video, shot a few years after your cardiac arrest, where you play a small, red G2T Hohner guitar. It looks as if you’re strumming your very heart.)
Dear David Bowie: You taught us how to Live: And now you teach me, with your music and your memory, how–day by day–to write, to cry, to live without you.
Francesca Lia Block is the author of more than twenty-five books of fiction, non-fiction, short stories and poetry. She received the Spectrum Award, the Phoenix Award, the ALA Rainbow Award and the 2005 Margaret A. Edwards Lifetime Achievement Award, as well as other citations from the American Library Association and from the New York Times Book Review,School Library Journal and Publisher’s Weekly. She was named Writer-in-Residence at Pasadena City College in 2014. Her work has been translated into Italian, French, German Japanese, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish and Portuguese. Francesca has also published stories, poems, essays and interviews in The Los Angeles Times, The L.A. Review of Books, Spin, Nylon, Black Clock andRattle among others. In addition to writing, she teaches fiction workshops at UCLA Extension, Antioch University, and privately in Los Angeles where she was born, raised and currently still lives.