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The Closing of The First Decade of The New Millenium

Artwork by Michelle Dong, staff artist

I got a red Nintendo DS when I was six or seven. The first game I played and the only game I played for a long time was Michael Jackson: The Experience. The first song was “Another Part of Me,” one of the tracks off of his Bad album. It took me a while to learn how to tap my white stylus in sync with the geometric shapes on the screen because I was so obsessed with watching the cartoon MJ dance in a sequined purple jacket and a game face plastered on his pixelated skin. I used to think (I was little so bare with me) that the creators of the game had gotten his spirit from heaven and used it as their guide, which was why mini MJ was so similar to the real one. To me that seemed to be how true magic worked.

It’s not every day that a person dies and gets a video game named in their honor. Other generations were introduced to him because they watched the man morph from child star to legend, whereas Gen Zers like myself got to know him from a distance. Baby boomers knew him because he was growing up while they were and they shared similar experiences, although he had a different lifestyle than the average teenager in the 1970s. Gen X witnessed him become the face of the eighties and the adored pop artist of the time, while Millennials knew him as the type of man who could make an appearance in a Walmart and shut the entire store down because so many people would want autographs. Gen Z was put onto Michael Jackson because of older cousins training younger ones on how to properly moonwalk, how to glide across the living room, like the floor is instead a shiny stage and it is 1983 and you and your brothers just finished giving a medley of your most popular Motown songs to an audience that can’t fathom that those cute, Afro-dawning boys from Indiana have traded their fros for Jheri curls. We learned to be MJ’s background dancers, if not MJ himself, possessing the buoyancy of a giant who seemed to come from some other planet that we hadn’t yet found or understood.

I heard the internet shut down when the news broke out. I don’t know. I was five when it happened. My mama had just had a car accident that was so bad it took the jaws of life to extract her from the car. She was teaching summer school at a church in the county west of us, and I was a student there. That day, Mama encouraged me to quickly get up so that I could help another little girl who was crying and scared a few days before that I had comforted. She was my friend, and I took her “under my wing” as someone who I could care for. Don’t ask me her name. I probably walk past her all the time at school, and we barely acknowledge each other’s presence.

I still don’t know where the car came from and how it knocked our 2008 black Pontiac Grand Prix into the bluff resting in front of a decades-old house that I had danced in front of for some cousins after an “Auntie” of the family had died. It was a foggy morning, and you could smell the dew hanging off the grass for miles; the sun only seemed to peek out as if saying “hi” and then disappearing. I described it as feeling like a roller coaster when we careened off the road. When the smoke cleared, I saw my mother’s face turned towards mine, but she wasn’t looking at me. I called her name over and over, yet she didn’t seem to hear. I stared back. I had a good grasp of “death” vs. “deaf” and my mother’s blank face looked too much like the former. I wonder if she was looking towards the gates of heaven ready to come home, but the angels were telling her that it wasn’t her time.

Somehow the seatbelt I had never been able to unbuckle came undone when I pressed the red button in the center and I was walking along Highway 98 in dense fog thinking I was going towards our house. A woman named Prencess found me and I told her all the information my mother had been teaching me since before I could talk in preparation for times like this. She called the ambulance and got in touch with my grandma. Once both of them had arrived she put me in her car and drove me to the other side of the highway, then left to check on my mother. My grandma told me that the husband of the woman who hit us told the EMT that they needed to be checking on his wife instead of my mother. Prencess told him off; I don’t know if my grandma had the energy to follow her lead, but I imagine if she did, he would’ve gotten his feelings hurt. Several times I got out of Prencess’s car and tried to go over to see about Mama, but every time someone would meet me halfway and take me back, locking the door as a cautionary measure.

We had the car accident on a Monday. Mama didn’t regain consciousness until that Thursday. After they had admitted my mom into the hospital I don’t think I worried like most people would. I remained stoic, watching Cartoon Network in her hospital room and taking trips down to the cafeteria with my grandma when I would get hungry. To me, Mama just seemed to be sleeping in her bed with IVs connected to her veins; I hoped that the fluid they pumped into her body would make her feel better. The moderate beep of the heart monitor let me know that she was doing okay, but I’d watch her every now and then to make sure her chest was rising and falling. The only thing that seemed to put the fear of God in me at five years old was never seeing her again.

Once my mama came to, the only visible trauma you could see were the few scars and spots on her face where shards of glass had embedded themselves in her skin. I found her crying the day that Michael died. She had been discharged from the hospital and we had brought her home to heal. It was two weeks later on my grandma’s birthday; my grandma and I had just come home from Walmart. Mama sat in the reclining chair facing the door, wrapped in an old afghan, balling her eyes out.

“What’s wrong, ma?” I asked, looking at the TV simultaneously. A CNN anchor was delivering the news while helicopter footage showed the top of the UCLA Medical Center.

“Michael Jackson died!” she shrieked, her honey-colored skin tinged red with despair.

“Oh, no!” my grandma said, coming through the door right behind me.

That’s the thought that came to mind when I found out Cameron Boyce had died on the night of July 6, 2019. A post someone had made on their Instagram story gave me the news, but I asked the person what happened hoping maybe he had quit acting to explore other endeavors or anything that would've been better than the truth that would be confirmed once I clicked on that post to see for myself. Hoping that he wasn’t deadbecause in my mind he was immortal.

That night that MJ died, my mom turned to BET, and I found out who he was. I saw the outfits, the dances, the spectacular video concepts, and the beautiful women he would try to woo in each video. When everyone went to sleep, I didn’t grab the remote to watch the Disney Channel like I typically would’ve done. Instead, I watched the music video tribute that stretched into the wee hours of the morning and tried to process the uncanny talent of the god that was on the television versus the man that would be gone forever. That started my four year obsession with Michael Jackson. I hoped to gain that connection to his essence digitally that people like my mom had gained from him while he was still on this earth. I wanted to discover what I had missed out on by not being born sooner and witnessing his greatness.

So, I played the video games nonstop. When I got home from school, the first thing I picked up was that Nintendo DS, and once I got the much more interactive 3DS, I ditched the former. I could never get my Wii hooked up to perform the dances, but when my mom got an IPhone 3S in 2012, I ran up her bill watching Youtube tutorials on the dances because once I did get it hooked up, I wanted to be able to dance like I was MJ reincarnated.

I’m trying to remember what fear meant as a five-year-old in 2009. Did it go beyond the monsters hiding underneath my bed—Was there an unknown that had just begun to be revealed to me? Was the fear I have of never seeing my mother again not only the horror of losing my nurturer and protector but that void that would accompany it? Was that a void that millions felt when MJ left us even though only a small percent knew him personally? There’s some people that are just too magical to die, and depending on what they said or did and its impact on our lives, parts of us go to the greater unknown with them where they remain until we see them again.

This is why I hope I can be accepted into Tulane University, so that I can be taught by Jesmyn Ward, an award-winning novelist who is from Mississippi like me. Hopefully, I can work up the guts to talk in her class, and maybe we could bond over our hazy, fluctuating love for our home state. This is why I pray to God I can afford to go see Camp Flog Gnaw with my friends one day and meet Tyler, the Creator. This is why I imagine myself walking down the streets of LA and seeing green and black hair from a distance, but doing a double take because that can’t possibly be Billie Eilish yards away from me. This is why when I hear stories about people running into Andre 3000 in an Atlanta park yet only giving him a small wave or nod; I wonder if they’re insane. I pray often that if I’m lucky to meet them, I’ll lose my awkwardness and say: “I love you. Thanks for changing my life.” That’s what I would have said to Michael.

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