Ellen Tannam: A New Career in a New Town

I found out about David Bowie’s death in the typical way you find out about the death of a public figure these days, by being tagged underneath an article on Facebook announcing the news. My youngest sister commented tagging all of my siblings with a ‘:(‘ prefacing it. I was still very woozy and fell back asleep, thinking what I had read was from an uncorroborated celeb news source. It was that unfathomable to me, the thought of him not being around anymore. No way.

I woke up again a few hours later and my Twitter timeline was flooded with tributes and I scrolled through hundreds of tweets, the small bursts of grief hitting me like hailstones. Shit. I know it is probably corny to be writing stuff like this, but it had genuinely never crossed my mind that David Bowie would ever die. He was beyond mortality, an icon in the way that you simply cannot be anymore. He was omnipresent, and seemed like a permanent part of my life’s metaphorical patchwork quilt. It was so gutting.

I went blearily downstairs in my pyjamas to talk to my dad about it, but I just cried at him instead. The type of sad where the first word of a sentence creaks out of your mouth and everything thereafter in unintelligible.  I don’t remember him ever introducing me to Bowie, I just can’t remember ever not knowing who he was since I was a very small child. He occupied a space in my young brain reserved for mythological entities, like Santa and The Virgin Mary.

He was my dad’s favourite artist, and as soon as I heard the news he was the first person I thought about. My dad always felt strange as a child on his Dublin council estate, so to have seen someone like Bowie launched into the popular culture stratosphere in the 1970s was amazing to him. They both overlap a lot in the Venn diagram of my brain, and that inextricable link made my heart leap with fear about losing him too. This has been a common theme throughout my life. Caring, Worrying, back to Caring, a little bit of Worrying. You know.

I was a very anxious and nervous child who was often afraid of doing things, and as a consequence of that would end up crying when any major (or minor) event happened. Two birthday parties to go to at once? Ok neither. I used to worry when my dad went to the shop to buy a paper that he would never return, leaving me, my siblings and my mother bereft, not knowing what happened. 

I was very superstitious and protective of him (and of my family in general), and used to ask him to keep objects I gave him that I had decided had sheltering properties. Off he went to Supervalu on a quest for eggs, as the powers of the small rock I bestowed upon him were warding off the multitudes of bad things that I was very confident would happen in the supermarket aisles. A small seashell painted gold, or a piece of marble I found on a beach.

My dad was, and still is great at understanding why I am sometimes very sure that when he leaves to go to work there will be a terrible freak accident. He calmly listens as I explain I have visualised funerals of family members in great detail, and only ever remember dreams where a sibling goes missing.

Before I started in my senior primary school, I was all kinds of frightened. The last dusky weeks of August were spent struggling to sleep as I imagined future Maths homework I would have trouble with, and a weakening of the friendships I made up to that point. I would find it hard to explain this to other people, and feel embarrassed at my apparent lack of mental mettle, but my dad has always understood. 

In this instance, he played me a Bowie song called ‘A New Career In A New Town’. It’s an instrumental from the album ‘Low’, and it’s probably my favourite. It’s joyous and hopeful, and by playing it to me I knew my dad was telling me I was capable and strong, and I could pick my 8-year-old self up and walk the unfamiliar route to my new school.

He gave me a hug and told me I was well able, and I needed to do new things in order to grow (I was and still am afraid of growing up). Then we listened to the rest of the album, and had some garlic bread. Every time I listen to this now I feel like nothing scares me, and everything will be fine.

The last year has been one I have spent preoccupied with thoughts of the deaths of the people I care most about, and utter confusion as to why death happens at all. My dog died very prematurely, and that tore my heart up real good.

In my head as a child, I had convinced myself that by endowing a pebble with protective powers, eating only very healthy food and avoiding making any big decisions, that everyone in my life would be escape unscathed by what is only inevitable. These obsessive behaviours have been a very unhealthy security blanket, shielding me from the somewhat scary reality of the world.

However, as I have gotten older I have come to realise that death is not exactly that final. Yes, the person may no longer physically tangible, they may not make more new music and you will find yourself smelling their clothes for a hint that they ever existed, but they remain alive in how they shaped you as a person. It’s a small beacon of comfort to me in what has been a year of morbid thoughts, and sad realities. Even if someone is gone from this world, the love that you have for them reminds you that they still exist.

Ellen Tannam is a Dublin based writer who enjoys reading about witches, petting dogs, and talking about how more tv characters should be gay. She has contributed to Headstuff and currently writes for Her.ie.

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