Tragedy never strikes when it’s convenient.
That was the hard truth I learned Sunday afternoon while en route to see – of all things – “Amy,” the documentary about Amy Winehouse.
As I stood in my own little world on the platform at Church Avenue, desperately looking at my phone to avoid any interpersonal connection that would distract me from my mission, readying myself to board the incoming Q train…I see a Facebook post that changed (or, dare I say, punctuated) the course of the day.
A woman I’d known through one of my best friends, an esteemed writer and jewel of a person I regret not spending more time with when she lived here, posted a status expressing her heartbreak at the passing of another mutual friend…one who had crossed my mind only moments before during my walk to the train station.
My initial reaction was disbelief. I’d known he was in the process of finishing his novel and he was wrapping up other projects and had a flair for dramatic expression. I thought it was a joke. I texted another friend who’d introduced us, and inquired about his whereabouts and headed into BAM to watch the movie.
I checked Facebook once more, and this time was informed he’d had a heart attack, to which I immediately asked “How could a heart so big just give out?” Then I exhaled, exhaled again, turned off my phone and watched the movie. Numb.
At the time, I didn’t know if watching the story of a troubled and tremendous talent like Winehouse would be better or worse in terms of helping me deal with the reality I would face when the lights came back up. We all know how the story ended there. It just seemed as if I were adding fuel to the fire. Piling on more stories of lives cut too short.
As it turned out, it was the best thing.
Like Amy, my friend Brook was an immensely gifted writer who made a name for himself through his prose and simply being his authentic self. While he didn’t belt out a song the way she did, or possess an obscene amount of demons that would ultimately lead to self-destruction, he did leave his mark on the world indelibly.
Unlike Amy, Brook was the product of a close-knit and nurturing family, one that lauded education and ancestral history, and taught him to embrace and appreciate all things different and new. He developed a sense of adventure, a love for life and good food, and believed in – and cultivated – a world with no boundaries and full of boundless potential.
It was no surprise that those of us drawn into his circle were all of the same mind and spirit. It is also no surprise that when we all learned of his passing, we found it incomprehensible that he was no longer here.
Creatives by nature can be notoriously moody, self-absorbed, reclusive and in the case of the really good ones…absolute assholes. He was neither of these things.
That’s not to say he didn’t have “quirks.” We all do.
But at his core, you would never find another person more generous with his time, and more ready to take on the world. Even when he stumbled.
He was also very passionate about changing the world, and did his part as a writer, a teacher, a mentor, a cultural vessel, a friend, and a man who simply had a knack for always being in the right place at the right time, and knowing exactly how to start – or guide – the conversation.
Although he didn’t have the level of fame Amy had, Brook Stephenson’s name is legend amongst those in the know; a staggering creative collective comprised of artists, writers, music makers, tastemakers and all-around genuine spirits who’ve created the glorious multicultural fabrics that make New York, Detroit, Atlanta and beyond, hotbeds of realized (and soon-to-be-realized) potential.
Reflecting on these lives and the legacies they’ve created in such a short time on this earth forced me to acknowledge not only that I have yet to realize my own potential, but to truly consider exactly what legacy I’m poised to leave behind if, and when, I finally do.
It’s common for death to inspire self-reflection and a more keen sense of our own mortality, but how often do we truly take an account of the footprints we leave on this planet? How have we lived? Have we really lived? How have we treated others? How have we served others? What have we contributed to this life and the lives of others? Have we done so because we were motivated by accolades, acceptance, padded profiles and increased value on the theoretical food chain, or did we do it simply because it was good to do? Have we used our gifts to the best of our ability to be the best with our ability?
Am I waxing poetic because I feel an incredible surge of guilt for not seeing my friend in the last year? Perhaps. Am I being haunted by his constant motivational chant of “If not you, then who?” Abso-fucking-lutely. Am I doing exactly what he told me to do right at this moment…something I haven’t done in the last five months…despite having lots of material to write about? Yep, it sure does look that way.
Fans. Friends. Family. Foes. Foundations. We all ultimately leave something behind when this life comes to an end.
What do you want your legacy to be?
Now that you’ve answered that…make it happen.