Carrie Fisher (1956-2016)

I’m sitting here, at the end of a long work day (I did not take a break, except a brief retreat to the restroom, mostly just to get away from my desk but not interact with others), and I am numb. Earlier, the news broke across social media that Carrie Fisher had died. When I saw the words of the headline, I drew a sharp breath and fought the harsh sting of immediate tears, a battle I would continue to wage for the rest of the day. Burying myself in a heavy workload after a long weekend, I tried to distract myself from the creeping feeling of despair, but I kept turning back to the constant stream of posts and tweets. Some genuine, some absurd, some cringe-worthy. Every one would bring the tears again, and I would have to look away.

This is how it is, growing older. People around my age, nearing that dreaded “middle age,”
have started and will now continue to lose the actors, singers, and artists that we loved in our youth. Some of them have lived to ripe old(er) ages. And some are not that old. Carrie Fisher was not that old. She was just 60, by two months and six days. I know this, because she and I share a birthday. That was the thing, you know? That was the big connection in my mind, were I ever to meet her. My showstopping ice breaker: “hey, Carrie, we share a birthday!” As if that MEANS something. My greatest dream was to crash her and Penny Marshall’s joint birthday party.

But it wasn’t just that, the birthday thing. I’d been fond of Carrie (we’re on a first name basis in my mind) since the first Star Wars, like almost everyone else in the world around my age. Of course we all know her as Princess, later General, Leia Organa. Leia was smart, beautiful, caustic, defiant – a role model right from the start. In the later films, she was both feisty and soft, both fighter and lover. There was a lot to admire, and to fall in love with.

If I were to trace back the origins of my queerness, it would have to go back to Leia. But then there was Luke (Mark Hamill) as well, complicating my young feelings. I had a big poster of Luke hanging over my bed for years. I could have had one of Leia as well, right next to it, and no one would have wondered. But this isn’t about Luke! Ugh, look, he’s still complicating things. Back to the point of this – I harbored such feelings, strange ones, toward Leia. I didn’t really understand at the time but it makes sense now. Later it would evolve into a full blown crush, which I’ve never quite recovered from.

I think it was probably around the time of The ‘Burbs, or Drop Dead Fred maybe, whatever those years were when Carrie had her hair cut pixie-short and she was so so tiny and usually playing the sassy friend or neighbor on the big screen. Oh, that was something else about her that enamored me: she was wee, like me, so I knew that if I met her I wouldn’t have to reach up to give her a hug. It would be a delightful lateral move. But those are the years I remember really falling in love, a feeling further fueled by her work in Hollywood as a script doctor. Oh my god, she was cute and super-smart and a great writer, too? My heart!

As it turns out, she was prolific not only as a script doctor, but as an author and screenwriter, writing eight novels and non-fiction books as well as the screenplay for Postcards from the Edge, based on her own fictionalized autobiography. In the meantime, she was frequently seen on television and in films, often in a smaller side role or cameo. When I was older, I came to really appreciate her as the stylish, well-equipped, and revengeful Mystery Woman in The Blues Brothers. Few people could stand up against John Belushi and be noticed; Carrie was absolute dynamite next to him. It might be her finest role.

In the times when she was so open about her bipolar diagnosis and really advocating for mental health, I felt another strong connection to her. Here was someone who was living with a disorder than can be debilitating, and she was successful! She was surviving and still in the public eye and successful! That alone made a large impact on me, someone who suffers from deep-rooted anxiety and struggles with bouts of both mania and depression. Here she was truly inspiring, meeting and facing and talking about her bipolar disorder with sharp wit and genuine advice for others with similar mental health concerns. I learned a lot about self-deprecating humor from Carrie. I learned that sometimes making people laugh is the BEST defense mechanism, and can be a way to heal thyself as well.

I felt like she would understand and not judge me if I were to have a nervous conversation with her, in which I would lose the ability to find the right word, flailing my hands and searching the ceiling as though that word would be printed there, as I am wont to do in times of stress. She would comfort me, put me at ease by cracking a joke at my expense (I’m great at laughing at myself, most of the time, on occasion), and then she would invite me to her birthday party.

Well. It was a nice dream anyway.

There will never be another Carrie Fisher. There should never be another Carrie Fisher. In my mind, the best way I know to honor her memory is to keep her in my heart, as always, and continue to let her inspire me to be stronger, more understanding, funnier, and a kinder human being than I was yesterday. If others draw the same inspiration, all the better.

Thank you, Carrie. For everything.

al seib la times carrie fisher.jpg

Carrie Fisher (1956 – 2016), photo credit Al Seib for the LA Times

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