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Michael Jackson: The third one to die
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“Well, that’s two.  Wonder who’ll be the third…” said a lone voice in the Manteca locker room.  We were standing there in reverent silence before the Fox News Broadcast of Farrah Fawcett’s death.   It was Thursday.

“Why do you say that?” I asked;  “does it have to be three?” “Sure does.” “Well, wouldn’t Natasha’s skiing accident count?”  “Nope - too long ago.”

I hate these superstitions.  “Let’s leave this one up to God,” I wanted to say.

Why wish another death on us, halfway around the calendar to Christmas?

Ed McMahon made it 86 years.  But beautiful Farrah didn’t deserve to go so soon - and in such a demoralizing way.  Ironically, though, she died more the hero than America’s greatest sidekick Ed, since she touched the heart of our nation - and beyond - with courage that would never give up, even in the face of death, with her near-marriage to old flame Ryan O’Neal, with a moving documentary inspiring anyone who suffers from terminal disease, and with that record-breaking red swimsuit pin-up from 1976.

Yes.  America’s sweetheart still smiles out sexy from 12 million posters.

For his part McMahon left behind a late-life legacy of financial headaches, protracted health problems and lawsuits against those who let him down.

I was at a local hospital when the locker room prophesy came true.  There, between the beds of a black woman born in Shreveport, Louisiana, and an Indian Moslem woman born in Zambia, in the presence of a Caucasian visitor and a nurse from the Philippines, I couldn’t believe what we saw.

Not only would the deaths number three in just three days, but each would take place in Southern California.  Just down I-5, the world was shaking.

And if you think dying young spares a person needless pain, think again.

Throughout most of my life, I’ve followed the unfolding - and unraveling - epic saga of Michael Jackson.  No, I was never one of his fans.  Four years older than the child sensation, I was too big to ride that wave.  Later, I felt turned off by his overacted brand of stage gyrations.  And in the end, his constant transition from ethnic black (truly handsome in 1980) to what was so very white by 1990, and then beyond to a face I could no longer bear to see, together with the demoralizing drama of accusations and lawsuits, all led me away from his music and deeper into a state of perpetual mourning.

But, having arrived in 1993 as a seminarian to Hughson, just beyond Ceres, I watched one fateful day a film that would re-awaken my respect for Michael Jackson.  He had blessed that movie with its soulful theme song.

“Will You Be There” is not only by far my favorite song that Jackson ever performed, but as well offers a perfect setting for his departure from this world.  In it, he speaks of crossing the Jordan, and also begs compassion.

Thursday night, at the home of Manteca family tormented by the restless spirits of people now dead, I entered the darkened room of a young recluse.

At 21, he is very different from his peers.  One minute with him explained to me why he might have so much fear of going public.  There he sits, day after day, before his computer, downloading music videos.  These clearly are his windows to the wider universe, into worlds he can select or reject with just a click of his mouse.  With his Bearded Dragon and carnivorous fish looking on from behind his back, this second son at least has company - even if they might gouge a mouthful out of him, given the opportunity.

So it is with the world in which our three celebrities lived, and suffered, and died.  They worked hard to control, even at times to manipulate, their respective realities, whether applauded or attacked by the world beyond, and, in the case of Michael Jackson, became hopelessly lost in the process.

I don’t think it was a cheap money-making game for any of those three, as it became for sold-out Britney and Paris.  On the other hand, for Jackson, it degenerated to a vicious cycle of self-alteration demonstrating a tragic lack of being-at-home-ness with the person he was.  Or was he ever that person?

Dying suddenly on the eve of his great comeback, the promised beginning of a new half-century redeeming the last sixteen years, Michael Jackson leaves me more confused than ever.  At least with Farrah Fawcett I sensed the consolation of her Catholic faith, the Last Rites, and a heart at peace with her God.  With Michael, I just go back and play my favorite song.

Yet he was indisputably one of the greatest entertainers ever to live.  I’ve been online lately, viewing some of his biggest hits at major concerts around the world.  Watch his moves, observe the people, and who could deny that this modern wonder possessed incredible talent and creativity?  

 “I think his best was ‘Man in the Mirror,’” said the doctor’s assistant on Friday.   Just a kid, she never knew the young Michael Jackson, but still reveres him as her favorite male singer.   So that night, I accessed the song.   

I wondered if it weren’t about that Michael that I never knew.  I’m sure it was about the person he wanted to leave behind as his legacy to the world.

 Maybe it’s also about the unknown stranger staring silently back at him.

As for last Thursday, his Free Willy theme song played itself out: out of a world which at once raised him high and yet also crushed him underfoot, Michael Jackson was snatched by a winged angel descended from heaven.

God’s messenger of a better life to come lifted him up, over the barriers of captivity, out across the expansive waters of infinite mystery, into a place of light where everything suddenly makes sense.  May the Lord of all Compassion have mercy on his soul, and grant him the peace he never had.

And how consoling to hear he was dancing freely so shortly before he died.

Fr. Dean McFalls,
St. Mary’s Church, Stockton.
Saturday, June 27, 2009