The unexpected death of the incomparable Prince knocked me a little off balance, and I spent a day and a night reflecting on why that is. It is true that Prince’s music painted a colorful and inspirational canvas that embellished my formative years in a small, bland Illinois town. It is true that Purple Rain—the song, the album, and the movie—was an anthem for me and for my high school classmates in the 1980s as we embraced a more open and inclusive world and separated ourselves from our more traditional parents. And it is also very true that as we all cling to the pop culture of our youth, the loss of a childhood idol exposes our psyches to our own inevitable mortality. Yet why should the death of a person I never even met cause such sadness in my heart when I have suffered the tragic and personally devastating death of my own daughter?
That uncomfortable question floated around inside of my brain all day yesterday as I mourned the passing of my favorite pop star and as I shed my tears for a loss that is so much bigger than my own connection to his music. The world is far less colorful today than it was yesterday, before we all learned the sad truth of what it really sounds like when doves cry. But that question, it haunted me. It stayed wedged there between the dozens of articles and tributes I read about Prince. It lurked in the shadows of the music videos I watched. It breathed within the melodies of Prince’s beautiful, exhilarating, and provocative music that I listened to a long, long way past midnight. I felt guilty for owning such sorrow for Prince during those weepy and nostalgic hours, but I was compelled to pay some small tribute of the importance of Prince to the teenager I was. To give up one good night’s sleep seemed a small sacrifice to honor a man whose musical brilliance and irreverence for stark categories made me love him, and whose bold androgyny, unabashed support of female artists, and unapologetic commitment to being who he was opened my eyes up to a world far beyond the confines of my provincial, white, and conservative childhood.
But still. That question. How can the death of a pop star matter to me now? As I spent the night with that question, communing with Prince, enjoying the music of my youth, and lamenting the loss of so many years between the fourteen-year-old me and the forty-nine-year-old me, I cried for Mack. I cried for me. I cried for that fabulous, diminutive Prince, who could flat-out slay a guitar solo like a king, while rocking a pair of heels, a ruffled shirt, and a purple brocade jacket like a queen. Mack was there in all those tears, but her presence was not for the purpose of eliciting regret for my emotional reaction to the death of a pop star. Rather, she was there to give license to the depth of my sorrow at the end of a life of one of the most unique artists I have ever had the great pleasure to appreciate. Since losing Mack, I am more generous with my tears, I have more empathy, and I feel the sorrows in the world more keenly. But, of course, once again, I needed my girl to show me the way. Sometime, long after midnight, in a glassy-eyed, purple fog of exhaustion, Mack whispered in my head. She said, “I know why you’re so sad. Prince got a little bit in your teenager soul, and that’s a good thing, Momma Bear. And don’t worry, because surely you remember that purple is my favorite color, too.”