John Madden. Betty White. Bob Saget. The somber news of celebrity deaths has been relentless over the past few months. Against the backdrop of the ongoing pandemic, each name seems to hit harder than the previous.
Then came Sidney Poitier, the celebrated Bahamian-American actor. His death struck me the hardest.
Poitier was one of my late mother’s favorite actors. More importantly, his The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography was the last book my mother recommended to me, via her landline phone, before her own death five years ago.
A lifelong reader, my mother lost her ability to read books in her 80s due to macular degeneration. But she moved on to audio books, and she encouraged me to listen to Poitier’s famous voice narrate his life story. I’m glad I listened to her and Poitier.
Early in the narration, Poitier reveals he was so frail as a newborn that his hardened, impoverished father obtained a shoebox that could function as a casket if necessary. Fortunately, Poitier gradually grew, and his mother ordered his father to throw the shoebox away. By the end of the book, Poitier builds to a grand, sobering-yet-also-inspiring statement: “The only thing we know for sure is that in another eight billion years it will all be over. Our sun will have spent itself … but you can’t live focused on that. … So what we do is we stay within the context of what’s practical … what values can send us to bed comfortably and make us courageous enough to face our end with character.”
Listening to that conclusion made me re-appreciate why Poitier became a celebrated actor.
Personal celebrities deserve re-appreciation, too
After reflecting on Poitier’s impact and death, I decided to reconnect with one of my own long-forgotten though still-inspiring personal “celebrities.” My 10th grade English teacher, Rich, was the first teacher to expose me to mind-expanding novels like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Richard Wright’s Native Son. His class also featured a writing contest that I happened to win. I have viewed myself as a writer ever since.
When I called the number I had for Rich from years ago, things did not start well. He thought I was a telemarketer because I reached his landline rather than his cell (Rich is in his 70s). But after he realized it was me, we launched into a wonderful conversation about the old days and the new days. As our conversation ended, I considered how fitting it is that he still has a landline. Symbolically, people like your favorite high school teacher still have landlines to your heart. They are the forgotten celebrities. They had an outsized, larger-than-life impact on your actual past, not just your virtual, TV-viewing past.
Re-appreciating Rich inspired me to try to reconnect with some of my children’s forgotten celebrities — e.g., the gymnastics teacher who taught them life lessons and the volunteer coordinator who treated them with dignity. In the process, the family value of gratitude has been modeled and reinforced.
A final reason to re-appreciate your family’s personal celebrities sooner rather than later is simple. As celebrity deaths teach us, it is easy to forget the impact they had on us. Thanking them again before it’s too late helps us practice the values that, in Poitier’s words, “can send us to bed comfortably and make us courageous enough to face our end with character.”