My next nonfiction piece here was going to be about language fair and foul. That column is still coming, but I felt that this one was more pressing. Thanks for indulging me.
A Hole in the World: Life, Death, and What We Leave Behind
Yesterday, Kalene walked into the room, her eyes filled with tears.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Tom Pilkington died,” she said, her voice broken by deep sobs.
I felt shocked like I suppose you always do when someone you know dies. I began calculating his age and knew that he was, by my standards, far too young; I think that with today’s medical technology, anybody’s too young to die unless they’re at least 85. Tom was much younger than that, and, I had assumed, healthy. But after her crying abated for a time, Kalene told me that he had in fact been severely diabetic, a condition that likely contributed to his death. It’s too soon for us to know all the details, but the very suddenness of his passing seems too tragic and frightening to ignore. I guess we’re all truly living on borrowed time. To echo Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, we’d all better get busy living, because we’re already busy dying.
I suppose that’s morbid, but it’s also true. I think about what I’m doing with my life all the time—the work I’m doing, the effects I’m having or lack thereof, and so forth. We probably all do it, especially when someone we know dies.
I didn’t know Tom Pilkington well. I met him once, ten years or so ago. He struck me as a fine man—kind, generous, intelligent. He was an academic who took his profession seriously, yet he did not strike me as the kind of man who only thought about overblown theoretical abstractions. More to the point, he served as Kalene’s professor, Master’s thesis director, mentor, and friend. She thought the world of him, and that’s good enough for me.
Word of his passing spread quickly. Kalene found out from a friend’s Facebook post. She called her other friend and mentor, Dr. Mallory Young, and together they commiserated, sharing information and memories. I did not listen to their conversation, but knowing both of these wonderful people as I do, I know they were supportive of each other and devastated that such a good friend and colleague had passed on.
Tom’s death has left a hole in the world. People like Kalene will miss him greatly for the rest of their lives. He made a positive impression on people. He leaves behind a body of academic and critical work that will keep his name and spirit alive. His death created ripples that touched everyone who knew him and set off a chain of Facebook posts, phone calls, and, undoubtedly, emails and face-to-face conversations in which the news spread quickly, running just ahead of the sadness and pain.
By contrast, let us consider the case of Yvette Vickers, the 82-year-old former actress and pin-up queen. On April 27th, the same day that tornadoes ravaged Alabama, a desiccated, nearly mummified corpse was discovered in her home. According to Entertainment Weekly and other sources, the body is believed to be Vickers’, though its condition will slow identification. Authorities believe that Vickers, if the body is indeed hers, may have died nearly a year ago.
At the end of the fall 2010 semester, I took a portable DVD player to school during finals week. I also packed a cheap collection of old horror films, just to pass the time as I waited for students to show up and turn in their final papers. I reached into this collection, which contained some true gems like Metropolis and Nosferatu but mostly covered B- and C-pictures, and randomly pulled out Attack of the Giant Leeches.
This film just happened to star Yvette Vickers.
She played Liz Walker, the hottie cheating wife of a local store owner. If you should ever have the misfortune to watch the film, you’ll probably find that Vickers’ portrayal of a backwoods cuckoldress is about the only memorable part. The acting is forgettable (including much of hers); the “monsters” look less like leeches and more like men dressed in poorly-painted garbage bags. At barely over an hour, the film’s running time doesn’t even qualify it as feature-length by today’s standards.
But Vickers’ character is much more interesting than the rest—the annoying lover who glad-hands the cuckold husband until they get caught, at which point he happily throws his lover under the bus; the overweight husband who, the audience is encouraged to believe, should never have been with this woman in the first place for all kinds of reasons; the bland hero and heroine, who seem to have nothing better to do than paddle around a swamp all day. Vickers’ Liz Walker dismisses her husband as the hick buffoon that he is, her voice dripping with condescension. It’s a mostly one-note performance that calls for little else beyond a bit of screaming and lolling about in underwater caves, pretending to be exhausted from all the blood-letting. But she plays the one-note well enough to stand out in such a crummy film.
Vickers starred in other cult films like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and even had a part in HUD. She was hardly Elizabeth Taylor or Meryl Streep, but she worked in film and TV for years. She was not homeless; in the news articles I’ve read, neighbors described her as a quiet person who kept to herself, who seemed to love her flowers and her privacy. She was not, unless I’m mistaken, a shut-in, given that people had seen her outside her home enough to recognize her.
In the age of Facebook and Twitter, of cell phones and Skype, of iPads that can track your location and GPS systems available for cheap on the Internet, how does a person like Yvette Vickers disappear for nearly a year without anyone noticing?
Though we should be disgusted and saddened at the fact, we would understand if she had been homeless or a completely isolated agoraphobe. Our society seems to view certain people as disposable; in fact, we seem to have implicitly agreed to a hierarchy of existence. Somehow, even though she was white and financially solvent enough to afford a house, Yvette Vickers fell through the cracks. She lived; she died; she shriveled up like a piece of jerky. And for almost a year, no one noticed.
Even if the body in her house turns out not to be hers, she has still effectively disappeared; in fact, that would mean that two people have vanished as if they never existed—Vickers and whoever lay in her house for all those months.
How is such a thing possible? How could we have let it happen? Are we so self-involved that we don’t even miss people when they’re gone unless someone calls us or leaves a message on our walls or waves a sign in front of our faces?
Whenever we think about our deaths, it is, I would imagine, difficult for us to picture the world without us in it. After all, we’ve never known life to go on without ourselves. Sure, we know logically that the universe existed before us and will keep on going long after we’re gone. But it’s one thing to know logically and another to understand on a deep emotional level. When we die, we will leave people behind. Our houses and our cars will still stand where we left them, and someone will have to deal with them. But we all hope for more of a legacy than that.
For some of us, our kids will be our legacy. For others, the work we do will resonate in the post-us world. I am lucky enough to have both three children who are all turning into good people and careers in teaching and writing. Though nothing is guaranteed, I’ve got a better shot than most people do, the kind of shot Tom Pilkington had.
But it’s also similar to the kind Yvette Vickers had, and I believe that even the most jaded among us don’t want to end up like she did. We hope people will remember us fondly. We hope they will remember us, period.
Vickers worked in the horror industry, so I think it’s fitting that I end this piece with a reference to the best horror-romance-comedy-adventure universe in the history of television—that of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In a classic episode of the Buffy spin-off Angel, our main character and his frenemy Spike have ventured into a subterranean realm in an attempt to cure their friend Fred, who has fallen victim to the vengeful spirit of a demi-god. Afraid for Fred and saddened at their failure to find a cure, Angel and Spike find themselves looking down the throat of an enormous cavern that, allegedly, goes all the way through to the other side of the planet.
Spike, his voice much more somber and restrained than usual, looks at Angel and says, “There’s a hole in the world. It seems like we ought to have known.”
Tom Pilkington left a hole in the world, and everyone who knew him is standing beside that hole, wishing that he were here to fill it. Yvette Vickers left no such hole; her passing barely made a ripple.
How will we end up? Who will notice when we’re gone?
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**UPDATE** This week’s Entertainment Weekly has a feature article on Vickers, in which they provide subsequent details. It seems that, suffering from dementia, Vickers did become a shut-in during the last months of her life; the woman who found her reports that she had barricaded herself inside the house. Still, I think the point holds; how could no one realize that she had been dead for so long?**