It’s not the grey hair and wrinkles and gravity-affected flesh. It’s not even the increasing tendency to spend a convivial evening at a bar talking about mortgages and sluggish thyroids and failed relationships with friends. Those are merely incidental. No, the sure-fire way to feel old is to have the people who were part of your youth die on you. Grandparents, parents, old friends, musicians. Movie stars.
When I first read that Patrick Swayze had cancer I simply assumed that he would beat it. Never mind that pancreatic cancer is one of the most virulent and one of the deadliest. If anyone could survive, surely it was he? He was fit, rich, and had access to the best medical care. Much more importantly, if you were a teenaged girl in the 1980s, he had crossed the line between lucky actor and myth, and myths don’t die, they just get older. When I read this week that he’d lost the fight, I went into instant denial. How could he? How could he just up and disappear, taking my teens with him? He was an icon, and icons have responsibilities. Enduring forever is one of them.
Patrick Swayze—actor, athlete, singer-songwriter and trained ballet dancer—hit the scene with the other bratpackers (including Matt Dillon and Ralph ‘Karate Kid’ Macchio) in The Outsiders, but really made his mark with the unabashed chick flick Dirty Dancing. He wasn’t just a guy with a pretty physique who generously took off his top a lot; he opened our teenaged eyes to the possibility that a fellow could be both average looking and impossibly sexy. He could have big hair and tiny deep-set eyes and an untidy mouth and twirl around on a stage on his tippy-toes and not look even vaguely like a twit.
Of course Michael Jackson, who also took some of my youth with him when he died, was a much greater, more famous, more exalted myth. He was a truly original talent, and there was a Dickensian quality to his life that you might have serialised under the title All of a Twist. There was a riveting pathos to his long fall from king of the music world to grotesque pyjama-clad medical mess who dangled babies over balconies.
But frankly, Michael Jackson existed in the stratosphere. You might have loved his music and thrilled to his innovative dance moves and loved his sparkly gloves, but it was all up there in the clouds somewhere out of reach. I, for one, could never really see myself dancing with him, and never wanted to.
On the other hand pretty much everyone wanted to dance with Patrick Swayze, with or without, but preferably without his shirt on. There’s a reason he was voted sexiest man in the world, and it wasn’t his looks; it was the way he moved and his brooding interpretation of Johnny Castle, dance instructor at summer camp. Everyone wanted him to place their hand against his heart to learn about beat, everyone wanted to look into his eyes and keep the frame, everyone wanted to leap into a pond and have him lift them over his head, everyone wanted to…well, watch the movie.
I just saw it again. Jennifer Grey is as vastly annoying now as I found her then, and not just because she played the lucky lady who actually got to dance with him. But like beloved old music—which includes the film soundtrack—the mere thought of Dirty Dancing me back to a particular, precious time of life. Patrick Swayze did what all those gawky boys in real life failed to: made us feel as if there might be some romance in the world. May he rest in peace.