Dr. Matt Towles has taught English at Liberty University since 2007. Before coming to Liberty, Matt taught at every level, from elementary school through high school to college. He also serves as Elder and as Lead of LifeGroups at Blue Ridge Community Church.
It’s a kind of confession, I suppose, to say it like this: the death of Luke Perry horrified me. The news alert from TMZ had me fishing through my memory. I realized that I’d never seen a single episode of Beverly Hills 90210, but I had certainly seen him in the movies 8 Seconds and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He wasn’t a stranger, but he was just a celebrity—I knew him, but I didn’t. Yet there I was, horrified. Luke Perry died of a stroke at the age of 52.
It’s embarrassing, really; the death of a teenage heartthrob from my high school years troubled me more than it probably troubled most married 43-year-old men with a full-time job and kids. I have a mortgage for mercy’s sake. I can’t go in an afternoon funk over the death of a celebrity that I’d never met. I have work to do, a wife to cherish, children to love.
And that’s where my connection to him clarifies. When I was 42, I had a couple strokes of my own. A year and a half later, there are times when I don’t move very well, I get tired easily, or my emotions rise to the surface more quickly than they did before. I’m not conspicuously disabled, though my physical abilities are truly blunted in ways that I notice and mourn over: my left side doesn’t work as well as my right, I get tongue tied easily when I’m tired, and my memory for names (though I was never all that great) has gotten worse.
And it occurred to me: Luke Perry got the easy way out. He didn’t have to work through emotional or relational issues like I do. He didn’t have to face life after nearly stroking out in a McDonald’s parking lot like I did. He got to die and not deal with the rest. Of course, it’s terrible to think like that. Death isn’t usually seen as the easy way out. But there I was, horrified by the death of a stranger, and in a terribly selfish way.
Millions of people heard about Luke Perry’s death by stroke and probably did what I did: they searched their memories, found one, and remembered. They put it all together to form something rational, real. (The word [re] member means, quite literally, to put it back together). Trauma disregards the normal process of piecing things together, so when I put my memory of Luke Perry together, I immediately made it personal, without so much as a straight logical thread to follow into or out of my fog of horror.
Even now, though, I really can’t make a step-by-step rational argument for why I was frustrated that Luke Perry got to die from his stroke, but I didn’t from mine. To crib from Blaise Pascal, “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things.” (Pensees 277). I have emotions, brand-new, strong emotions, and I have no idea why. Like, none. My wife, on the other hand, handles emotions like a professional—really. She is in training to get her license in Professional Counseling (with a concentration in trauma, no less). Yet in our conversations, she has made the real and consistent choice to be my wife, not my counselor. I’ve been to counseling. I’m not very good at it.
“What were you thinking when that happened?”
“I don’t know.”
“How did you feel?”
“I don’t know.”
“That must have been terrible.”
Just multiply that snippet about a thousand times, and you’ll begin to understand why I’m drawing up papers to recommend my wife for sainthood.
“Luke Perry. The 90210 guy.”
“I remember that show.”
“He died of a stroke.”
“Oh, no. That’s terrible.” Silence. “You going home?”
Going home. That’s our code for leaving work and driving home and taking off my shoes and sleeping. I’m not sure why being barefoot clarifies my thoughts, but it does.
I didn’t want to tell her I couldn’t think straight. I didn’t want to admit that my afternoon was ruined by the death of that guy in that one show that neither of us had ever watched. I didn’t want to tell her that living was harder. I wasn’t suicidal, but I still lived in the daily shadow of a life I still needed to live. As John Cougar Mellencamp put it, “Oh yeah, life goes on. Long after the thrill of living is gone.” I didn’t want to die, but I certainly didn’t want to live this way. And I was horrified by the reminder that there were other options, besides fighting each day for a life as a dad, husband, teacher, brother, son, elder, and friend.
But she already knew that. She knew that having a stroke and then not dying is tough. It’s one thing to be thrilled to be alive (which I am) and also to see someone die and think he got the easy way out.
That’s terrible. She meant it was terrible for me to face. My horrified response to Luke Perry’s death is most certainly human—the death rate is 100%; we’re all going to die—so each of us must cultivate some appropriate response to death, even the death of someone we do not know. John Donne’s now-famous proclamation that “No man is an island, entire of itself,” assumes the positive comfort of a community of people marching toward its individual and collective demise. Yet, Donne reminds us that though death is a human reality, there isn’t much comfort in the dreaded reality of our lives, no matter how good life may be: “any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee." According to Donne, we live in the midst of the caroling of the bells, announcing the death of another human. As a consequence, we are not only reminded of our death, we are diminished by the death of someone else.
Terrible, indeed. Yet the person I knew who could best help me when I needed it the most might also be hurt the deepest by my confession. I had nothing, really, but a scattered mind, mixed with embarrassment that such a shallow pop-culture icon ruined my day. That, and a phone.
She probably could have done all kinds of things. Reminded me that I should have this handled by now. Reminded me of people with REAL trauma who have had to deal with much WORSE things than a couple strokes. Reminded me that a little prayer and a spoonful of sugar…
She could have done all kinds of things.
Yet she answered the phone. And she didn’t try to fix it or counsel me or anything like that. She listened. And then she gave me grace, even if it meant for her hearing something that was incredibly painful to hear. She listened. She took the time to give me grace. I was trying my very best to be the very best husband and person I could be, but the only thing I could muster up the energy to do was to call her. I couldn’t even think about going home and taking off my shoes and napping.
Where I live in the United States, the Christian faith puts quite a bit of emphasis on having a “personal relationship with Jesus.” Though I’d like to admit that I believe that truth—a relationship with Jesus is important—it’s an incomplete truth. We need a community of believers who have the courage to proclaim, however they may, a paraphrase of the Apostle’s Creed: “This is my faith. I’m proud to profess it.” The locus of our faith is in the resurrected Christ, but the evidence of our faith is found, quite often, in how we interact with one another.
We should not wonder, then, that there may be times when the pain of someone else becomes the focus of our ministry for that hour, that day, or even that season. We serve a risen Christ whose body carried the horrors of the cross in addition to the horrors of humanity. It’s no wonder that we ourselves might recognize the pain that each of us carries. We know how to pray and to serve and to carry those burdens. I know my wife knows, because she has learned from the man acquainted with grief, Jesus himself.