NEW YORK (CNN) — Last Thursday my wife, Eleanor, flew to Houston, Texas, to see her grandmother, Nana, who had just suffered a debilitating stroke.
Nana is 93 years old with few friends left. As she lay in a hospital bed barely able to speak, family members gathered around her to tell her they love her and to say goodbye.
Saying goodbye to a loved one is an intensely personal and emotional moment. The memories of time spent together linger as we feel the love, the sadness, the loss.
The same day Eleanor gathered with her family, people around the world gathered — in person and online — to say goodbye to two outsized public figures to whom they felt connected: Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett.
Michael Jackson brought us closer to life itself. We sang with him, danced with him and were amazed by his youthful exuberance and musical talent. He was the original; I still remember watching “Billie Jean” on MTV thinking, “Maybe there is something to this music video thing.” He sold over 800 million albums and “Thriller” is still the No. 1 selling album of all time. He was a young man with extraordinary talent.
We loved him as a young man because he remained real, with his personality shining through his music. But then something happened. As he grew up, he grew away. From himself and from us. We lost touch with his humanness, his personality, his vulnerability. And when we couldn’t see that, we couldn’t see him.
A few years ago, Anthony Robbins, a motivational speaker who teaches about success in relationships, got divorced. People wondered if this would be the end of his career. Would his audiences abandon him when they found out? After all, how good was his advice if he couldn’t hold together his own marriage? But when he spoke publicly about his divorce, people were amazingly supportive of him. The divorce, his failures, his vulnerabilities, didn’t diminish him. They made him human.
We can’t identify with perfection. We can admire it from afar, maybe aspire to it. But we can’t relate to it because we know, deep down, that we ourselves are flawed. So we trust others who recognize that about themselves, too.
Michael Jackson’s tragedy was the second half of his life — when he hid behind surgery and the high walls of Neverland. Of course, trying to cover up his vulnerability was itself a vulnerability. But, in hiding, he lost himself. And so we lost him, too.
That is the exact opposite of what Farrah Fawcett did. In the depths of a horrible, potentially embarrassing illness, Farrah Fawcett came out of hiding. When most of us would shoo the cameras away, she invited us in. She let us see her pain and suffering and fear and sadness. She let us see her self.
So many of us fell in love with her all over again. Not for her youthful beauty or her perfection or because she represented some ideal to which we aspired. No, we fell in love with her because we saw the real her. The raw, uncut, painful her. And in her, we saw ourselves. We fell in love with her because we identified with her.
Farrah’s youthful beauty transformed through illness and suffering is a dark reminder of the inevitable progression of life, a reminder that we usually try to avoid. She herself tried to avoid aging for a while, with face-lifts and botox. And in her pursuit to retain her perfection, she began to lose us. But then she got real and reached out and we reached back. We reached back because of her vulnerability, not despite it.
Between my starting this article and finishing the final draft, Eleanor’s grandmother Nana died. Death is one of the few times in life when something is irrevocably taken from us.
It’s impossible to go back and relive the period of our lives when she was with us, when she was younger, when we were younger. Time moves only in one direction. And with her passing we are reminded of a time that has passed in our own lives, of moments we will never relive.
It’s a little bit like that with Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett.
We feel something deep for them too. Because they, too, touched our lives and changed us. They inspired us, excited us, empowered us. They lived with us. And with their passing, we are reminded of a part of our lives that is gone forever.
Both Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett caught our attention because of their particular gifts. But we care about them as people because they let us in, because they were human, real. It’s their vulnerability in the context of their power that was so impossible to resist, so compelling, so moving.
That’s what Michael Jackson had and lost. And it’s what Farrah Fawcett lost and found.