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What I Learnt About Death In 2016: David Bowie, Cancer, My Dad And Me

06/01/2017 16:34 GMT | Updated 06/01/2017 16:35 GMT
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Like so many bored suburban teenagers David Bowie resonated deeply with me. He made me think differently. He gave me permission to read literature and philosophy and like abstract art. Then later, inspiration to leave my small Northern town and try my luck in the big wide world. Aged thirteen I never anticipated that my schoolgirl hero would have such a huge influence on how I learnt to deal with death and mortality, through a cancer diagnosis and the loss of my father.

In terms of Bowie fandom I was late to the party. A teenager in the 1980's I was infatuated by Let's Dance Bowie, recording and rewinding the China Girl video to see his naked bum. Then finding my way through his back catalogue, buying Nice Price cassettes at Woolworths for £2.99. Wishing I could travel back in time to his glory days. My first gig, aged sixteen was the Glass Spider Tour at Maine Road, the old Manchester City ground. It was terrible. He was upstaged by Terence Trent D'Arby. I lost faith in him. I believed it was a mark of my essential un-coolness that when I found Bowie, Bowie became crap.

But somehow, even outside of the music, he was always there. A synchronicity in my life. I moved to South London and worked on a music project at his old primary school in Stockwell. I adopted a cat called Ziggy who had an Aladdin Sane lightning strike across his face. Bowie was my guide. Always influencing my decisions in imperceptible, intangible ways. Then at approximately 6.45 am on 10th January 2016 I found out he had died, passed through, left this earth and I cried all the way into work.

I had downloaded Blackstar on the day of its release, two days before his death. My partner and I listened to it entranced. Our verdict - it was incredible but really dark. Then slowly news leaked through of how he had died. Cancer. He had had cancer for the last eighteen months. No wonder it was dark. I re-watched the Lazarus video in shock. How could he create something so magnificent when he knew he was dying? The power of the music and the accompanying films was that they were so uncompromising. They were so alive and yet, it turns out, created in the face of death.

I counted backwards, eighteen months from January 2016 was June 2014. He had been diagnosed with cancer at about the same time I had been diagnosed. My dance with cancer had been mercifully short, from diagnosis to discharge in four months but I could still feel the aftershock of the day they told me. A cancer diagnosis changes your perception of the world. It creates a heightened understanding of your own mortality. This sense of vulnerability never disappears.

Even after an all clear you are constantly aware that it might come back at any moment, or worse it might still be there. You experience every story of someone lost to the disease as a bullet you have dodged. 2016 was the year of the death of heroes. So many of them passed away because of this insidious disease but none of them confronted and transcended it in the way that Bowie did.

In the video for the single Lazarus, Bowie's first lines are "Look at me I'm in heaven..." which he sings while lying on a hospital bed with pennies on his bandaged eyes, evoking a Victorian funeral ritual. Many people have spoken of how through Blackstar Bowie created his own requiem but for me the truly startling thing is he not only created it but he performed it. He embodied it in the most visceral, transcendent, uncompromising way possible. Knowing he was dying he directed all his energy into a majestic outburst of creativity which was as iconoclastic in his approach to cancer and death as his statements about sexuality were in the 1970's.

I try to imagine the courage it must have taken to not only conceive the music videos for Lazarus and Blackstar but to enact them. There is a movement to talk about death, to write a living will, create a memory book for your loved ones in your last days. However to write or record an emotional statement is entirely different from knowing that you are dying and enacting scenes of funeral rituals blindfolded. In the final scene of Lazarus he walks backwards into a wardrobe shutting the solid oak door behind him, evoking the sense of a coffin lid being closed. Only Bowie could confront his imminent death by enacting the closing of a symbolic coffin lid on top of himself. Even now the image makes me flinch. He is goading the spectre of death on the horizon. He is facing all our fears.

The work is littered with references to death, dying, time passing. From the opening of the Blackstar video where a space suit containing a skeleton appears to represent a dead Major Tom to lyrics referencing the day he died. But it is also full of joy and mischief and immense knowledge and artistry in his use of ritual, symbol and choreography to an almost supernatural evocation of his life and forthcoming death. He was playing a final prank on us. Always ahead of us, always in the know. Listening to Blackstar the album before and after his death is like having the answer to a riddle where everything previously oblique becomes an essential truth. He also gave us a profound gift, a new artistic vocabulary for exploring your creative self in the face of terminal illness.

Of the many heroes that passed in 2016 there are two losses that truly broke my heart, David Bowie and my Dad. In June 2016 after a long period of illness my Dad was taken to hospital and lost his ability to swallow. Not being able to swallow or tolerate a feeding tube he had weeks to live. Death is frightening for both the one who is passing through and the one trying to support them but as Bowie embodied you have to face the fear, acknowledge the truth of the situation and live life until the very last minute.

I remembered Blackstar and I made sure I never shied away from what was happening to my Dad. From somewhere deep inside I found the courage to talk to him every day about Brexit, to make bad jokes about Boris and take selfies of us laughing in hospital. I treasure these photos now. I also found the courage to be the one to tell him what he knew deep down, that he only had weeks left to live.

My Dad died on his 82nd birthday. The day before I bought him a birthday card. He passed away in the early morning before I could give him the card but I signed it with love and put it on the mantelpiece anyway. He may not be physically here any longer but just like David Bowie my Dad will always be with me influencing every choice and decision, helping me to ensure that I live every last minute of my life until the day I pass and join them wherever they may be. In death as in life they are my two guiding stars and will help me navigate what will be at the very least an uncertain 2017 and for that I will be forever thankful.

Lazarus Video

Blackstar Video