I HAVE OUTLIVED
There's a running joke between my old friend John and me, stolen from a greeting card: "Congratulations on your birthday. Now you can't die young."
We laugh at this because neither of us ever imagined living to be over 50, much less being happy and (reasonably) healthy over 50. Part of our attitude toward growing old came from the icons we admired who died young and tragically. There's so much romantic "what might have been" attached to these people that staying young forever had an undeniable appeal.
Here are 13 whose deaths seem especially poignant to me. Today I find it sobering that of the 13, there were 5 drug overdoses, 4 murders, 3 violent accidents and only one who died from natural causes.
Brian Piccolo – Chicago Bears running back – Cancer in 1970 – 26 years old.*
Janis Joplin – Singer – Drug overdose in 1970 – 27 years old
John Belushi – Comedian – Drug overdose in 1982 – 33 years old
Marilyn Monroe – Movie icon – Drug overdose in 1962 – 36 years old
Diana, Princess of Wales – Car accident in 1997 – 36 years old
John F. Kennedy, Jr. – Magazine publisher – Plane crash in 1999 – 38 years old
Martin Luther King, Jr. – Humanitarian – Murdered in 1968 – 39 years old
John Lennon – Music legend – Murdered in 1990 – 40 years old
Bobby Kennedy – Attorney General, US Senator – Murdered in 1968 – 42 years old
Elvis Presley – The King – Drug overdose in 1977 – 42 years old
Natalie Wood – Actress – Drown in 1981 – 43 years old
John F. Kennedy – 35th President of the United States – Murdered in 1963 – 46 years old
Judy Garland – Movie star – Drug overdose in 1969 – 47 years old
* About Brian Piccolo. He's such a part of the fabric of this town that I forget everyone isn't familiar with this story! Brian inspired Brian's Song, the made-for-TV movie starring James Caan and Billy Dee Williams. He was a promising football player who happened to hit the big leagues with the same team at the same time and the same position as a genuine superstar, Gale Sayers. They were competitors for sure, with Sayers always winning, but they were also very close friends. At that time in America, they were the only black/white roommates in the NFL. Sadly, Brian received hate mail that referred to him as an "n-lover" for willingly sharing his room on the road with a black man -- even a black man as acclaimed as Gale Sayers. Brian treated the racially sensitive situation with enthusiasm, optimism, grace and good humor. He took this same approach to his brave battle with cancer -- embryonal cell carcinoma, to be exact. (Research supports that this cancer has a strong genetic component, so if this isn't a "natural cause," Betty, I don't know what is.) He was so beloved by the Bears, and all of Chicago, that the Halas family willingly took care of the family he left behind -- wife Joy, and three little girls (all under the age of 6 when their daddy died). To borrow from Jeannie Morris, who wrote Brian's biography, A Short Season, the most important thing about Brian wasn't how he died, but how he lived -- and oh, how he lived. I was in junior high as his story unfolded, both in the newspapers and then in Brian's Song, and his close and inspirational friendship with Gale Sayers had a profound and wonderful influence on the way my classmates and I thought of race. Looking back on his life now, when I'm nearly twice his age at the time of his death, I am awestruck by how much love and wisdom he exhibited in his exuberant and funny way. Some people are natural teachers, and I believe God gave us all the short life of Brian Piccolo so we could learn from him.