Steven and I talked about death only one time in the years I knew him.
Surprising, because while I was at college, I had several families members who passed away. But believe it or not, this conversation wasn’t about any of them, and was actually started while talking about celebrities. I have a bad habit of getting attached to certain artists, entertainers, actors, etc., and when they die, it puts me in a funk for several days. I can’t exactly pinpoint why; I remember the first time I cried over a famous person’s death was Jim Henson, and in a way, I suppose that was understandable. I was a cartoon kid, with a liberal dose of Muppets, and Henson was one of the few human faces among my childhood heroes. He was the only one who could die, and when he did, I thought everything was going with him. It didn’t work like that, but I still recall being devastated.
There was another human face among my heroes back then; Superman – Christopher Reeve – who passed away from complications due to his paralysis. I didn’t usually quiz Steven about the famous people he’d met or known, because honestly, given time Steven would bring them up himself. But I knew he had to have known Reeve, being in Hollywood when he was, and Reeve being such a big deal before the same movies I loved him for deep-sixed his career. So we were outside before class, Steven was smoking, as he was pretty much always doing in the open air, and I made up my mind to make an ass out of myself, and ask one of the most fanboy-ish questions I every asked while at Bennington.
“Did you know him? I mean – what was Superman like?”
And Steven nodded, letting the geeky giddiness of my question pass without making fun of me [I’d have deserved it after that], and then he told me what I’d always heard, that before his accident, Reeve was a charismatic individual with loads more acting ability than anyone had ever given him a chance to use before his accident. And being Superman, like with his father before him, and proven to be more of a professional detriment to his career – causing him to be pigeon-holed as a square-jawed, Adonis/muscle head who wouldn’t be good for much else.
I was a little disappointed, just because I’d heard all this before, and I guess I was anxious for some behind the scenes part that only Bach would know. And I was considering just ending the conversation there, before hearing something else incredibly sad about this actor who I idolized as a child, when Steven did what always kept me in the conversation with him, and asked me a question. Specifically, why I would ask.
I just sort of opened up, and talked about how I grew up watching the Superman movies, how it always amazed me how much the man on the screen resembled the character I read about in my comic books, and how I was I had just been feeling down ever since reading about Reeve’s demise. In retrospect, it was more than I probably should have laid out on anyone, even if asked, and I might have been better to just say “it had been on my mind because of him being in the news,” or better yet, just “no reasons.” But I told him everything, in series of nerdy run-on sentences, admitting to him that I was bummed out that he’d died.
And there was a pause, and Steven nodded again, after taking a long drag of his cigarette, and said, sort of regretfully, “Well, yes. People die.”
It’s funny. I suppose I could have taken that a lot of different ways. Typically, when people tell me obvious things as though they think I was not aware of the fact, I get angry. And since Steven died, I think everyone I’ve talked to about his passing has made the same statement, almost in reflex, and while that’s… understandable, it also hasn’t made me feel a whole lot better. The sentiment of “people die” is, essentially, a negative, if not an occasionally reassuring one, and it’s hard to take it as anything but.
I’ve thought a lot about that conversation with Steven, run the way he held himself, and what I said, over and over again. And I think, as well as anyone could know, Steven was looking at this kid, his student, talking about something ridiculous that was upsetting him, and with absolutely no idea how to deal with depressed geekery. In this moment, there was a gap, two people seeing something about the same world in a way where neither thing either said made sense to the other. I was hero-worshipping, and Steven was very much in the real. And yet he didn’t dismiss me, he still cared enough to offer the one awkward bit of reassurance that he could bring to mind, the compassion to put down his view and try and comfort me.
Didn’t matter what he said wasn’t great or perfect – it mattered that he bothered to try.
A lot of people in college, my peers and my professors, never even bothered to try and bridge that gap. Steven was one of the few who did, and it made me feel like I mattered, and it made an ineffectual sentiment mean the world to me.