I will start by explaining: I drank too much last Wednesday.
This is not an unusual occurrence for me, these days, 32 and single and living in a Midwestern college town, “figuring it out.” A few months ago I ran into someone at a party, a graduate of my own program now turned local fixture: stable, settled. We’d been chatting for a minute, maybe less—just a casual exchange of fact-finding questions, normal post-MFA politesse—when he chuckled. “Oh,” he said. “You’re in that year.”
And I am. I am deep in it, fellowship over but book still somehow barely started, or re-started, for the fourth, fifth time, doing nothing so much as memorizing the intricate contours of my seemingly-chronic writer’s block, every day a question, a decision, a questionable decision. Am I sure about these eggs, this basket? Yes. No. Maybe? I’ll give it just a little longer. I’ve got a good thing going here, after all. In a way. Right?
It’s been the kind of year that sees a lot of too-drunk Wednesdays, hungover Thursdays. This particular Thursday was truly brutal, almost theatrically bleak, the hot, throbbing pain behind my right eye provoking an inadvertent “Ow” every time I did anything, making the simple maintenance of relative equilibrium feel like an accomplishment that produced a grim satisfaction all its own.
The first text came in at 1:01 p.m. “Ow,” I muttered, reaching down into my bag toward the buzz. Nooooooooo, was all it said, followed by a link to TMZ’s Twitter. I tapped, thumb slow, lazy. “Prince is dead,” I said out loud, a few seconds later—it took a few seconds, only a few seconds, a whole few seconds, to sink in. It didn’t sound right.
“What?” my boss said.
I tried it again: “Prince is dead. Prince Prince.”
I was on the computer now, googling for verification; my boss got up and came over, peering into my screen. I found the Pitchfork announcement, 11 minutes old. “Fuck,” she said.
My phone buzzed again, still in my hand. “Ow,” I said absently. It was another friend. Oh, Maya. I’m so sorry. It kept buzzing. Omg prince. Then PRINCE DIDD. DIED. Then PRINCE. Maya. Prince. Then PRINCE!
Have you heard??? my phone wanted to know.
“Are you okay?” It was my boss, back in her seat, glancing up from her own phone now. I realized I’d just made a kind of sticky noise, something in the back of the throat. My phone buzzed, buzzed again—each time making the news a little more real, the news a little more final. WTF PRINCE MAYA U OK?
When grief unfurls for a private individual, an inherent hierarchy comes into play. We don’t like to dwell on the calculus too much, at least not explicitly—it’s uncomfortable, after all, to think of our relationships in such terms. But it’s true. There are those closest to the deceased, the inner circle: the automatic recipients of the flowers, the condolences. Partners, parents, children. Best friends. Relatives. This is why mistresses are so famously difficult, when they show up at funerals. (And manstresses, too, presumably.) They upset the commonly understood order of intimacy, confuse our understanding of our relative claims to grief.
I was 15 when my dad died, a sudden, unexpected event. In this case the question of hierarchy came down to me, the only child, and my mom, the brilliant but unstable woman. Whose grief was greater, who really owned the tragedy of it all? For almost a full year, before I eventually packed myself off to boarding school, we were locked in a kind of morbid competition—one doomed from the start, since we were each playing by different rules. My goal was stoicism, and I turned out to be good at it; for about a decade, I cried almost not at all. My mother, on the other hand, overflowed; week after week after month she lit candles, stared at photos, sobbed, sometimes screamed. Though, to be fair, she did want and try to share. She wanted very much to talk, to cry, to feel it all together.
I was unable to meet her in this; I didn’t even try. I defaulted to defiance. My pain was not available to be shared—to speak it would be to spend it, to let it circulate, dissipate. This I could not do. It was mine. He was mine.
1:31 p.m., exactly half an hour after the first text, another buzz: oh my god maya, followed by a screenshot of the NYTimes headline notification: “Prince is dead at 57, the A.P. says. He was a prolific, meticulous master of infectious pop.” Fully official. Buzz. I’m so sorry.
By then I’d left the office, having gotten my things together in an odd, detached state, more gauzy than anything else. My boss gave me her blessing; she had grown up on Prince, herself. I know, I texted back. Me too.
This feels like a personal loss like on your behalf. <3
No, I thought, immediately, even as I felt a little poke of something through the haze, something like—pride. Pride in the acknowledgment of the closeness I had felt and claimed to him. But, no, it still wasn’t personal, per se. This was something else.
I left work, I offered, by way of accepting the generosity of this acknowledgment. The light turned; as I started walking, I realized I didn’t know where I was going. Jesus. I looked down at my phone, a beat. Lol, I added, but also not lol.
There is a hierarchy of fandom, too—one we engage more consciously than that of grief, one that’s built into the common parlance: to be a bigger fan than the next fan, to be the biggest fan, to be the number one fan. Much of being a fan is about proving one’s credentials, counting up one’s knowledge, one’s experience, one’s possessions—figuring out ways to quantify and thereby verify one’s devotion. How long have you loved Prince? How many pivotal moments in your life involved his music? How many of his lesser-known songs, albums, eras, are you familiar with? How many digitized bootleg concert recordings are on your external hard drive(s)? How difficult were they to get? How often do you listen to them? Do you do it alone? How much apocrypha have you collected, what kind of trivia can you spout, can you tell me about his love life, the chronology of his mentorships, the name of the club he reportedly liked best in this or that second-tier city? Did you hear that one thing about how he painted the exterior of his mansion with big purple stripes, and his landlord sued him? Can you tell me why on earth Prince was renting?
Extreme expertise is designed to impress, and it often does. Insanity can be very impressive, after all, and when a given equation is based on the amount of time and energy one is willing to give something—the percentage of one’s available resources one is willing to devote—the most unreasonable among us, those most prone to excess, will always take the day. And sheer scale can and does impress me, from time to time. But I don’t think scale alone has ever really moved me: not with fandom, and not with grief.
Distinctly higher up in my own local-communal hierarchy of Prince fandom is a figure I will call F. I was the one to text him, unprompted, which was as it should be: I’d thought of him first when I heard the news, after all, the way other people had thought of me. Composing the text, my eyes filled for the first and only time that day. Thank you for taking me to that show and for being so good at loving Prince so hard.
F had the cred. Properly incentivized, F could and did produce any/all possible evidence of a lifetime (or very near, since Prince’s first studio album “For You” came out when F was six, a precocious kindergartener) of demonstrated investment, from a casual but encyclopedic expertise to the external hard drives, the hard-to-find clips. But what really struck me, I think—what went beyond impressing me to actually moving me, compelling me to want to learn more myself—was that he very rarely felt the need to trot any of this out. No, F loved Prince the way, say, the truest New Yorkers love New York: matter-of-factly, and without talking about it all the goddamn time, because what even is there, really, to say about something so self-evident? These New Yorkers understand that New York is bigger than you or them; it doesn’t need acknowledgment. Sure, there’s garbage on the streets and everything’s too expensive, sure, maybe the occasional guitar solo went a little long, sure there have been some questionable albums, and no, yeah, maybe definitely just skip Under The Cherry Moon—but who cares. That’s all beside the point.
F was one of the first real friends I made out here in Michigan, a year ahead of me in the same writing program, and the progression of our friendship over our time here maps directly onto my increasing understanding of and appreciation for Prince. When we first met in 2012, I was a modest fan, with just a dash more than the usual appreciation of the biggest hits. In 2015, thanks to F, I had the opportunity to weep, overcome, in Detroit’s magnificent Fox Theater as Prince explained to me in person how he had never meant to cause me any sorrow, never meant to cause me any pain. Also in 2015, I watched the movie Purple Rain 12 times: once with F, once at a midnight showing at a local movie theater with some other friends, and 10 times alone on my couch in my living room, night after night for 10 consecutive nights of an unusually emotional November.
When I first reported this to F—this concrete, measurable feat of willful devotional excess—I was really rather pleased with myself. I thought he would be a little bit impressed, or, at the very least, amused. Instead, he just seemed slightly pained. “Listen,” I remember him saying, standing in my kitchen, one hand flat on the counter: “Prince… is a deep ocean, and you’re still in the shallows. Don’t get too hung up on any one piece.”
I think about this all the time, this way of loving a thing, trusting it to matter beyond the scope of your own investment. Prince: A Deep Ocean.
This is where I should confess: I have long found public and semi-public assertions of grief to be a bit distasteful, especially when it comes to grief over strangers. I have several lucid, explicable reasons for this knee-jerk reaction—chief among them the fact that I am kind of an asshole, at rest, with an innate tendency to dismiss as indulgence any show of emotion that feels inconvenient or uncomfortable to witness, anything that could be categorized as “dramatic.”
This default to the hair-trigger eye-roll, this need to be over it, above it, whatever “it” may be—I think this is, in some measure, a generational affliction, and maybe also a gendered one, an acculturation to the notion that the casual dismissal of emotion is masculine, and therefore more desirable. Etcetera. So take that, multiply it by the aforementioned inherently assholeish nature, and then factor in the sudden loss of my young father when I was a teenager, at the very height of my dad-worship. The result is not pretty. It is something in the neighborhood of rage, but colder: a profound lack of generosity around questions and practices of grief, an ugly contempt for any request for empathy when it is for pain deemed, by me, to be somehow lesser than my own.
Happily, I am not a complete maniac, and understand this stance to be indefensible, even grotesque. So when the coldness sets in, I do my best to clock it mostly as an index of how protective I still feel, nearly 20 years later, over the significance of my own personal grief—how strong my instinct is to defend it, to center it, preemptively. Because this grief, I tell myself, must be greater than all others. Because it created me. It was losing my dad, more than any other one identifiable event, that most fundamentally shaped my burgeoning worldview—even as I understood, then as now, that all fathers die, most before their children, and that there was actually nothing singular about my pain in the abstract, that it was, and is, in fact, one of the most common of shared human experiences.
But, man, it hurt, in a way and to an extent that nothing else ever had before, or has, since. And then it just kept hurting, for so long, so so long.
Or no, that’s not quite right. It did hurt, of course, and it kept on hurting, on its own, bigger than me, than any question of choice or intention, for quite a while. Years and years. But after that, after eight years, then 10, and 11—by the time I was in my mid-twenties, I came to see that a lot of this pain had become me choosing not to try and heal, working to keep it all fresh. It was me wanting the hurt to keep going, stay alive. Because as long as it still hurt it still mattered. As long as I wasn’t okay, his death still meant something. Because the greater the pain, the greater the love. And the greater the love, the greater the life. I think I wanted very badly for my dad’s life to have been great, by this measure; I think I still do.
My second unprompted text of the day went to R, another friend from grad school and a fellow disciple of F’s in all things Prince: Prince died. And then, again, right away, as if he might not be able to understand without repetition: Prince is dead.
R and I inhabit similar tiers in the overall, global hierarchy of Prince fandom, I would say—and his replies were immediate, and abundant. Rapid-fire, he wrote back: I know it’s so wrong / 57 is too young / I’m actually sad / sadder than I was for Bowie / I’m at work but I feel like leaving / but then I’d just be home / There should be some place… Church?
I tried to picture it. R, a slight, boyish man, still in his work clothes—slim-fitting pants and a jersey blazer he’s taken to calling his “comfort jacket”—entering a church somewhere in Highland Park, near his sparsely furnished new studio, quietly taking a seat in a pew. It was early, still, in LA. I imagined morning sun through stained glass. Maybe? I replied. I’d never been much of a churchgoer myself, before or after loss, but I appreciate the aesthetics of a given situation as much as the next asshole.
I wish there was a giant TV in like a public area where I could join a big crowd and await updates, R continued, already on to the next scenario. Like in a disaster movie.
I pictured this, too. That might be good, I thought. That might feel right.
The next burst of texts proposed a pilgrimage to Prince’s funeral. Imagine what Minneapolis must be like right now, he said. Jesus, I wish I was there. And I found that I envied R the simple intelligibility of his want: to be with others, to put his body near theirs and feel the same feeling. How did he know, to want this?
To try and set up any real equivalence between my grief over my father and my grief over Prince, fan or no fan, would be fully ludicrous. One made me who I am; the other made me clear my throat unexpectedly, take an afternoon off, and think a little harder than usual. But there is so often a clarity to be found in distance, a chance to parse out a truth that might then be applied to the closer, murkier thing.
I’ve spent a long time trying to figure out how to write about my dad in a way that communicates my experience of him, how to make people know and care that he was real, and funny, and special, this young curly-headed guy, just 43 years old when he died, so smart and so lonely. It’s a road that’s led me pretty much directly here, an institutionally sanctioned “master” of the written word with a tendency to excess (be it gin, or texting, or subjunctive clauses) and the understanding, now, that Prince is a deep ocean. (He would have liked this construction, I think. My dad, I mean. He was a Prince fan, too.)
I pick up my phone again, this weird, smooth little rectangle that lives in my pocket and lets me ask the world anything I want, whenever I want, wherever I want, hungover in bed, walking down the street, sitting on the toilet. The screen is smaller, and the crowd, too, but the instinct is not so very different from R’s disaster movie scenario. I tap in my passcode and scroll, returning to his message thread. I’m so sad, I send. It keeps surprising me how sad I am. His reply is instantaneous: Me too me too.
I’m so sad.
This is, I suppose, an attempt to articulate a private experience of public grief, rather than the other way around.
I still feel unqualified, this screed notwithstanding, to presume to tell anyone anything actually about Prince himself, the artist or the man. Others will tell you, link you, provide moments, anecdotes, context—bigger fans than I could ever be; more rigorous scholars. It’s been less than 24 hours since I received that first text, now, as I write this sentence, and already all my go-to facets of the internet are plastered with tributes, memories, celebrations, each habitual social media check leading to another roundup of must-see videos, another article about the scope of his cultural influence, another incredible photo or gif to autopilot click-and-drag into my IMPT PRINCE STUFF folder. And it’s all so good, so good, give it to me, all of it, I want to know it, am happy to learn it, own it, add it my own claim. But I also feel no need to add to the trove, not in that way—there is enough.
And what a thing that is. What a revelation, this grief without pressure. How possible, natural, to share it. How easy. What an opportunity to inhabit the shape of a manageable, shareable sadness, to practice what it might be like to move beyond my own airless approach to loss.
In a couple nights I will throw a party, a soundboard recording of the 2015 Detroit concert playing in the kitchen (thank you one last time, F) and Purple Rain playing in the living room, on loop. There will be the usual milling and shuffling, tight clumps of bodies accreting in doorways, a punch bowl of improvised Moscow Mule(s), the steady din of voices rising, falling, the screen door slamming as a smoker exits, enters, exists again. Moving from one room to another a new friend, one I would like to know better, be known by, will mention that this is his first time seeing Purple Rain, at least as an adult. Once, I will say, I watched it ten times in ten days. He will look down at me, eyes crinkling around the edges into a slightly nonplussed smile: Oh, like, to write about it?
And I will feel no need to protest, to explain, to fully claim. I will just laugh, shrug, say something about writing, living, which do we really do for the sake of the other, anyway? I will mean that it’s hard to tell them apart, sometimes, especially when you want so badly to be good at love, at loss, at both.
Maya West was made in Korea but doesn’t look it. She currently lives in Ann Arbor, where she received her MFA in fiction from the Helen Zell Writers’ Program. She excels at cropping and applying black and white filters to selfies she takes in front of big retail stores.
Illustration by Angelica Alzona