Death changes everything.
I was in London when I learned of Richard Nixon’s death in 1994. While the news stories all touched upon Watergate and Nixon’s resignation from office, their general tone was far from negative. Nixon was portrayed as something other than a disgraced former President. He was the man responsible for opening doors to relations with China, a brilliant politician who stumbled ethically and therefore compromised his place in history. Yet that place in history was acknowledged, despite Nixon’s latter years as pariah.
Whitney Houston spent the last decade of her life engulfed by the shadows of addiction. Her once incomparable voice succumbed to the abuses wrought by her lifestyle and she faded from the international spotlight. Headlines in supermarket tabloids would occasionally remind us of the demise of her once glorious career, as she fought battles with drugs and alcohol. Her death last week at age 48 was sad and shocking, yet not altogether surprising.
There has been much speculation and conjecture about Houston’s death. This was to be expected given the circumstances and delays in releasing the official cause. Televised eulogies this past weekend, however, generally focused on Houston’s life, and not the uncertainty surrounding her death. References were made to her troubled final years, but the emphasis was on Houston’s music and film career, her identifiable voice, her generous nature. Her troubles were pushed to the background while her friends, family and fans celebrated her life.
Gary Carter, the Hall-of-Fame catcher who also died last week of cancer at age 57, received similar accolades. Carter, the final piece of the puzzle in the Mets’ 1986 drive to the World Series title, was universally acclaimed by former baseball players as a great teammate, consummate family man and all-round great guy. This was consistent with the image fans held of Carter throughout his career. The unbridled enthusiasm he brought to the game was contagious, as was the smile that always appeared on his face. Yet teammates and opponents were not always enamored of Carter’s demeanor. I recall several players, contemporaries of Carter, expressing reservations about his sincerity, and hinting that his “winning” smile was simply a public relations tool. Such criticism vanished in the aftermath of Carter’s death.
None of the above should surprise. Death has a way of redefining or refocusing life. When Joe Paterno died in January, less than two months after his unceremonious dismissal as head coach of the Penn State football team, a friend remarked: “They will honor him in death the way they should have in life.” And honor him they did. He was praised as an educator and humanitarian, and remembered for his unwavering loyalty to the university. Had Penn State trustees evaluated his career in the same manner last November, he likely would not have been fired after 61 years with the Nittany Lions.
Perhaps we are driven by a desire to attain finality in death, a desire that can not be fully realized if we focus on lingering issues, such as those that plagued Paterno. Or perhaps it is fear for our own legacies (“What will they say when I’m gone?”) that cause us to shift our focus from the human shortcomings that inevitably accompany life once that life is gone. Whatever the reason, the change is palpable: we accuse in life, yet forgive in death.
Nixon, Houston, Carter and Paterno were no less human after death than they were in life. Death does not alter life, only our perception.