Getting old sucks. But you know what’s worse? Not getting old at all.
Yep, it’s my birthday today, and I’ve been dreading it like I’ve been dreading each one since my tenth. Never been into birthdays — not into celebrating them, not into even acknowledging them, and the older one gets, those well-wishes and the gifts that accompany them feel more like consolation prizes than anything. For one day of the year you get to be the center of attention which, for a chronic introvert like myself, is a form of slow torture. I’ve avoided looking at my Facebook page all day, knowing it’s going to be filled with well-wishes from people I barely know. They mean well, and I appreciate it, but at the end of the day, typing “Happy Birthday!” on a virtual wall seems like a bit of a cheat, when I’d rather people not bring it up at all.
My wife asked if I wanted to do anything special today. Nope, not really. It’s Tuesday, and I have too much work to get caught up on after a long weekend of sitting idle. Plus, I had a shit night of sleep last night, so there’s that too.
But, I really need to get over myself; at least I get to have a birthday, when so many people I’ve known have not. Today I think of my manager Cathryn, who left us a couple years back, and I think of my old high school pals Alwyn and Alston, both of whom were younger than me, and both of whom died within a month of each other in 2010. I even think of Michael Hein, founder of the New York City Horror Film Festival, who died unexpectedly last year. He was two years older than me.
I also think of Neil Hope.
I didn’t know Neil, but I knew his work, the same as everyone else who reacted with shock at the news that “Wheels” of Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High fame had died. What was shocking wasn’t his age (which, at 35, was shocking), but rather to the fact that he’d died in 2007, and people just found out just last week, some four years and three months after he’d died, of natural causes, supposedly.
Neil was living in some rooming house in Hamilton Ontario, a geographic stone’s throw from where I was living at the time of his death. Like a lot of the Kids of Degrassi Street, he found his acting work dry up at the conclusion of Degrassi High’s run. They were typecast as those roles and nobody wanted that Degrassi baggage. I know people who were on the show — they went to Film School same time as me, and have carved out successful post-Degrassi careers as camera operators and Assistant Directors. They managed to get over Degrassi and carve out successful, happy lives.
But Neil didn’t. He dropped out of the business and found work in general labor. The son of alcoholics, he battled his own alcoholism through the 1990s, much like his character on Degrassi. He lived a private life, ad one of self-isolation. He was dragged reluctantly to appear in a couple “reunion shows” on the new Degrassi series, but he pretty much dropped off the radar, by choice, as all accounts would indicate.
I made mention here and here that Degrassi was an influence on Mixtape, and I watched the entire DJH/DH run on Hulu last year. Watching those five years over roughly five months was a touching experience really – to see the cast grow before my eyes, to see the Toronto of my youth as I remembered it. Wheels in particular had a tragic arc — his parents were killed by a drunk driver, he was nearly molested by a creepy guy while hitchhiking, and in the Degrassi finale “School’s Out” got into a drunk driving accident himself, killing a kid and blinding a classmate. He was the Christ figure of Degrassi — suffering disproportionately for everyone’s sins. He never got a happy ending in the series, and that happy ending eluded Neil also.
It makes me think, how someone in this day and age of internet everywhere can die, and people can still be clueless about their passing for more than four years after the fact. You really have to close yourself off from the world for that to happen. Neil chose to do just that. He decided to walk away from everything, and while it’s hard to understand, one almost has to respect him for that.
Now, Neil is trapped in amber. He won’t age beyond that character, that character will define him, and as the years drag on, he’ll only be known as Wheels. If I go tomorrow or next week or twenty years from now, how will I be remembered? It’s a question I ask myself a lot, with alarming frequency on my birthday.
So today I think of Neil, and Mike, and Alwyn, and Alston, and Cathryn, and the people no longer with us. That’s why its time to cut the self-pity crap and enjoy my goddamn birthday. Because who knows how many more any of us have?