Stevie Wonder could have chosen a lot of songs to sing at Michael Jackson’s memorial service, but I think it is no coincidence that he chose his lovely romantic ballad “Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer.” Stevie was onto something that has haunted me for the last few days, as June 25th has drawn nearer and nearer.
Michael was truly our child of summer. His life began on a hot summer night in August in Gary, Indiana. It ended on a blistering June morning in Los Angeles, fifty years later.
This fact alone isn’t especially unique. Lots of people die in the same season as they were born, and in most cases we can chalk it up to coincidence. But statistically, it has been said that more births and deaths occur in summer than any other season. Obviously, there are many scientific factors that can explain this. But as we know, there are some things that, every so often, simply defy scientific explanation.
I like to think that God singled Michael out to be a Child of Summer. In the Northern hemisphere, summer is the season when the sun’s rays are closest to the earth. It is the season when the gentle warmth of May and June gives way to the fierce heat of July and August. It is the season of light, when the days are longest and the black nights are shortest. It is the time of year when life is in full flower. Doesn’t every quality we associate with summer sound just like Michael and the way he lived his life? He blazed like the sun, wrapped the world in the warmth of his love, set stages on fire with his smoldering performances, and gave humanity hope that we could conquer the darkness. From his first cry in the summer of 1958 to his last breath in the summer of 2009, his was a life dedicated to the light.
Perhaps this is what made his death so especially poignant, coming as it did a mere four days after the summer solstice. I still remember that day so vividly, mostly because it was such an ordinary summer day until I heard. I had been at work all day, and back then they didn’t yet have computers in every office. With no way to really know, then, what was transpiring on the other side of the continent, I passed the afternoon making notes on the story that my evening class at 5:30 would be studying, Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” That is a detail that still sticks in my mind. Perhaps it’s only coincidence that I had scheduled my class to read this story on June 25th, 2009, a story of a teenage girl who is enjoying summer fun when death comes, suddenly and unbidden, in the seductive guise of Arnold Friend (her death in the story is certainly metaphoric even if the physical is only implied). None of my students mentioned the death of Michael Jackson, though it is quite possible they still didn’t know. Word was just getting to many of us in this part of the country at about that time (I would learn later that many who had followed the story on TMZ and CNN were still thinking that he might be alive because reports had been so conflicting all afternoon!). Whatever the case may be, my students weren’t very talkative and no one seemed much interested in the story. The vibe felt strange. I dismissed class early and headed home. “Thriller” was playing on the radio. It was one of those beautiful, long summer evenings, when the sun is still as bright as mid afternoon even at 7pm. I passed fields where kids were playing soccer and baseball.
Only when the song ended did I learn the reason why the radio station-a country station, no less!-was playing “Thriller.” Michael Jackson was dead at the age of fifty. My heart sank to the bottom of my feet. I know I must have driven the rest of the way home on auto pilot because I was just in a complete and utter state of shock. It seemed surreal to think of Michael Jackson being dead, while all around me was a world alive with the sights, smells, and sounds of summer.
It’s been six years, and though the pain is duller now, it can still sharpen at a moment’s notice, in ways I often least expect. Usually it’s when I hear a song unexpectedly, like going to an aerobics class at the gym and suddenly hearing “Bad” or hearing “Man in the Mirror” in the grocery store. His music still affects people. I can’t quite explain it; only that I know it when I see it and am around it. People automatically become a little more mellow, relaxed and friendly. Happier. It’s like reconnecting to that feeling of when your parent sang you a favorite lullabye. It comforts you and wraps you in warmth. Everyone’s mood is a little brighter when a Michael Jackson song plays. There’s just something about it. You can’t hold darkness, anger, hatred, or coldness in your heart when you hear it. His voice melts all of it away. Even his darkest and angriest songs have the power to heal and bring unity, as we have witnessed so often in these recent, troubled times.
People who are born in summer often, also, have a strong affinity with the season. My mother, a summer baby who was born in July of 1945, always hated winter, a season that antagonized her depression. She loves summer-picnics in the park, being able to sit outdoors, watching the grandkids play. Give my mother a winter day of snow and ice and she’s in the equivalent of hell. She’s always told us that she hopes she dies in the summertime, so we can put her away in her happiest time of year.
I don’t know if all Summer Children feel this, but certainly Michael did. As a little boy, when asked what he liked most about coming to California and leaving Gary, Indiana, he was always quick to say that he was glad to be out of the cold. He loved being in the sun, and California must have seemed like Heaven after all of those brutally cold winters in Indiana. He loved swimming. He loved playing outdoors. He loved sunflowers and roses. He didn’t like snow and ice-the one thing about “back home” that he definitely didn’t miss.
In one of the cruelest twists of fate imaginable, this Child of Summer lost his ability to enjoy the sun. With the onset of vitiligo, he spent the last two decades of his life avoiding the sun and only going out in heavy, long-sleeved shirts, hats, and with an umbrella ever present. It wasn’t just that the sun had become a burden-it became something that could literally kill him.
But that handicap still didn’t stop him from living his life based on the principles of being a Child of Summer-or, as some say, a Child of the Sun. His life’s mission continued to be the message of love and hope and of overcoming darkness. He continued on this path despite all the media chatter that would have us believe he had sunk into an abyss of darkness. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Even when he had his dark moments, as we all do, he always worked his way back to us-and we to him. He was our wonderful, quirky, magical, mythical, whimsical, beautiful Child of Summer and we loved him. Yes, we loved him. Not just the fans. The world as a collective consciousness loved him. Look how we all reacted on June 25th, 2009! Even those of us who weren’t fans; those of us who THOUGHT we couldn’t care less; even some who had made jokes about him. Some of us cried and didn’t even know why. If I’ve heard that statement once, I’ve heard it a million times. “I don’t know what it was, but, man, when Michael Jackson died, I cried.” A billion people around the world watched the memorial. A billion. Let that number sink in. Sure, at least some of it may have been the usual spectators-at-the-circus mentality. But we can’t deny, the world genuinely grieved the death of Michael Jackson.
The light hadn’t gone out of the world. But somehow we knew, innately, that it would never again burn as brightly or intensely. And for my generation, at least, it was a cruel reminder that summer can’t last forever. Autumn waits, patiently, to claim us all.
The song “Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer” ends with this verse:
You said then you’d be the life in autumn
Said you’d be the one to see the way
I never dreamed you’d leave in summer
But now I find my love has gone away
Why didn’t you stay?
While the song itself is just a simple love song about a relationship gone bad, Stevie Wonder gave it a whole new context as a song of tribute to Michael. Somehow, we had thought he would always be there, leading us through the chill of autumn and darkness of winter. But he was called home at the height of summer. A true Child of Summer must go where the light beckons. He couldn’t stay.
But is he really gone? Certainly the light he gave lives on. So does the joy and the pain (in the best possible way). We have his voice forever on record and his image forever on film. We can still hear him speak; we can still see him smile and hear that crazy, wild laugh. But it goes deeper than that. It’s the fact that millions of people all over the world can say they are better people by having been touched by him in some way; in living by his example.
He is one Summer Child whose light will never dim, and whose fire will never go out. Like Icarus, he may have flown too close to the sun at times, but in the end (if you’ll pardon my Greek analogies) he was more like Prometheus, bearing us the gift of his fire, knowing we would keep it forever lit; forever safe.
Six years and counting, it still burns bright.