People roll their eyes a little when you're very emotionally upset by the death of a fictional character, but they mostly understand, because chances are they've been there themselves on more than one occasion.
I'm upset by a death of a writer I've never met, an author who was a real flesh-and-blood human being, who made a huge impact on literature as a whole and particularly on my life as a reader and a writer: Ray Bradbury. And yet my friends don't seem to understand why I would break down in tears at the news of his death. My friend Melissa happened to call me mere minutes after I'd found out and managed to be on the line with me right as the emotional dam burst. I didn't explain, just got off the phone as fast as I could. She then got in touch with my other friend Mandy, who promptly texted me: "Hey! What's going on????" When I replied with the truth - that it was purely a matter of bad timing, that I'd heard news of the death of one of my big heroes and inspirations minutes before the call and had broken down because I'd had no time to process it - she was instantly (a) relieved, and (b) obviously doing a bit of the eye-rolling. "Sorry about Ray Bradbury" she texted, once I'd explained. But the thought process I could tell was there in the back of her mind was, Really? Why is she getting this worked up over a 91-year-old man she's never met?
I'm not as eloquent as Neil Gaiman, who has actually met Ray Bradbury numerous times and whose remembrance in the Guardian is part of what brought me to tears to begin with. I haven't read all of Ray Bradbury's works, and there were some I read that I didn't appreciate as fully at the time (Fahrenheit 451 was required reading in high school; I remember really liking it, but feeling somewhat annoyed at being forced to read it just on principle), but here is the truth of it: he put words to things I've felt and known and only dreamt of that I've never been able to find the words for myself. I found a copy of From the Dust Returned in a dinky little bulk book retailer at Commerce on the drive down to my Nanny's house when I was probably 11 or 12. I didn't know it was Ray Bradbury. I didn't know that reading it would make me fall in love with autumn and October winds and dust and shadows and Halloween. But that is exactly what happened. When I was younger I was with Mandy once at a bookstore and saw a cover of a book called The Halloween Tree. Again, I didn't know at the time it was Ray Bradbury. In fact, I couldn't even remember the name of the book for years after that, didn't find it again until just a few months ago in fact. But the image of that cover left such an atmosphere of ethereal wonder in my mind that I went on to use that inspiration to write my "Halloween story," which was one of the seeds for the story I've now nicknamed "Joan," which I hope will be my first novel. Later when I worked at Borders I was reshelving a copy of his book October Country, but it never made it back to the shelf. I bought it before I went home that night, and gobbled it up over the next few days. That title, "October country," finally gave me a name for this place I'd always felt hints of blowing in on the wind. A place "for autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts..." Which is, of course, why I started writing my Halloween stories. Mine aren't anywhere near as good as any of his are, but at least it forces me to write. He gave me that much.
So Melissa and Mandy think I'm crazy, that the news of this man I've never met would send me into sobbing like that. Especially when I don't cry that often - at least not in front of other people. Well, guess what? Yes. Yes it did. It's making me a little teary-eyed even now. That's fine. It's natural, I think, that the people we love, that the people whose words and ideas moved us, should have this kind of foothold in our lives. And when they leave us, it's okay for us to feel that loss.
I've been listening to a book on tape by Ray Bradbury, a collection of short stories called Long After Midnight. I was just thinking while listening to them, a dawning realization, how more than anyone - more even than Neil Gaiman or C.S. Lewis or Tolkien or George MacDonald or Maurice Sendak, whom I'd always looked to before this - Ray Bradbury is really the closest to the sort of writer I'd like to be. His words like poetry, his ideas so interesting and immediate, his characters honest and important, the atmosphere of these places he shows you so intense and alive. The way he balances all that with this kind of wisdom and humility and love. You can tell he loves these stories he's telling, these people and places he's sharing with you, and you can't help but love them too. I was just thinking that yesterday, and then today I hear this news. Of course it would hit me hard. Of course I'd feel it sitting like a weight on my chest. Of course there would be mourning, tears.
So fine. No, there was no family emergency. No one's in the hospital. No one I know is dead. But I have a right to feel sad, to feel this loss. Don't make me feel foolish for these tears. He meant a lot to me, will continue to mean so much.
"Looking back over a lifetime, you see that love was the answer to everything."
Yes, Ray. I think you're right. I'm glad your life was as long and full as it was, and that you shared so much of its beauty with us all.