My mother once told me that one of the benchmarks to feeling old is when your generational icons start to die. Luke Perry just died. So I guess I’m that old now.
Perry, who played sullen sideburned bad boy Dylan McKay on FOX’s “Beverly Hills 90210,” is not the first celebrity that myself and other Gen-Xers grew up wanting to either date or be to pass away. Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix have been gone 25 years, which seems impossible and unbearably sad.From the archives: A conversation with Luke Perry
But Kurt and River died in their 20s, young, beautiful and forever frozen in some sort of morbid tableau of nostalgia and cautionary tales. So sad, we think. So tragic. Too young to die. That wouldn’t be me.
Luke Perry, however, was 52 - an age that is still young, and seems younger if it’s an age that you and most of the people you know are within shouting distance of. Some of you don’t even have to shout at all. And he died of a massive stroke, the kind of thing we imagine only happens to people older than us.
Nope. While the Center For Disease Control acknowledges that the danger of having one increases with age, it’s possible for anyone to have a stroke, and that in 2009, 34 percent of the people hospitalized after having one were under 65 years old.
Like Luke Perry.
He was still beautiful - the evidence of which can be seen on the current season of the CW’s “Riverdale,” where he played Fred Andrews, the father of dopey and honestly less-attractive lead Archie. And he wasn’t really old. But he wasn’t that young anymore, either. None of us old enough to have watched “90210″ in its gloriously soapy original run are. Take that however you want.
What this means, Gen-Xers, is that we can’t say that these things don’t happen to people our age. That we can’t laugh off that weird pain that doesn’t go away, that ache we’ve been ignoring, that thing a doctor said you might be a candidate for, that maybe killed your mother or your grandfather. And maybe some of the folks you went to high school with.
I’ve seen too many of those posts on Facebook. Hell, I’ve posted too many of them - my husband, who was handsome but had a litany of both hereditary and habit-based ailments, died of a heart attack in front of me, two months shy of his 45th birthday. And yes, Scott was young. But not that young.
I am not laying blame on anyone - I know nothing about Luke Perry’s history, other than that he appeared to be still gorgeous and healthy-looking. For his part, my husband was trying, although, like a lot of people our age, he didn’t want to believe he had to do a lot more. He wasn’t even 45. Older relatives in seemingly worse shape lived at least to 65, right? There would be time to focus on that, after this new job, after this stress was over, after this hurdle and that event. We were not that old. We were not old enough to die.
But we are. He was. He did.
Luke Perry’s death is hitting me particularly hard, not only because I know what it’s like to lose someone about his age, but because he’s one of those guys I felt like I’d known all my life. Dylan McKay was the embodiment of the possibly dangerous guy with a heart of gold and secret pain hidden under all that pomade and James Dean-esque angst.
Before girls my age fixed our ill-advised sights on Ethan Hawke-esque mid-90s slackers, some of us secretly wanted a Dylan, who we might save with our earnestness and true love. That seldom works - take note, girls! But we tried.
The summer I was 21, I even dated the hottest guy at the amusement park I worked at, who shared Dylan’s dark swirly hair, white T-shirted swagger and factory setting broodiness. He was a rebel, with earrings, a penchant for cheap cigarettes and a car so old and hoopty-like I used to pray it would make it to the front of my house so he could kiss me before my dad showed up in the doorway.
Devastating kisser, that guy, just like I imagined Dylan to have been. I figured all that angst and those cheap cigarettes masked some inner depth only I could reach, but 27 years later I know that it was just a dumb, beautiful summer fling, and that he got to be my Dylan and I got to be his Kelly, in a way that likely meant more to me, but that’s OK. Because it was mine.
Dylan McKay will be, in my mind, forever young and beautiful, but in real life no one stays that way, I am now at the age where the cautionary tales are not about doing too many drugs or crashing one’s sports car, but about those people in our yearbooks who had strokes and heart attacks. And the warnings we get are not to avoid Hollywood excess but to make sure we scheduled our mammograms, that we keep track of our cholesterol numbers and BMI.
When my husband died, bewildered friends, especially men, would ask if there was anything they could do for me. And I would look them in the eye and say, probably too intensely, “When’s the last time you went to the doctor? Are you taking your blood pressure medicine like you’re supposed to? Did you ignore that scheduled stress test again? Don’t do that. Make that appointment now.”
I am glad that I got to be alive when Luke Perry was, because his roles, from Dylan to the soul-patched loner in the original “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” to the doomed, earnest rodeo star in “8 Seconds,” were part of my young adulthood. They influenced, at least for a summer or two, the kind of guy I wanted, whether brooding or earnest, aloof or brave. And I am so sorry that he’s gone. But I want you to remember this - this could happen to anyone, without prior warning or diagnosis. But it doesn’t just happen to people older than us.
Because we’re not that young. None of us are.
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