On David Bowie, Elton John, Space, My Grandfather, and Death

Thoughts on dying young — and ascension to heaven — with cystic fibrosis

William Ryan avatar

by William Ryan |

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Every morning, my grandfather used to run for the train he’d take to work. His job was in the boiler room of the American Museum of Natural History and adjacent Hayden Planetarium, making sure temperatures within the exhibits were perfect. Not bad for a guy with a third-grade education who grew up 15 blocks away, on 92nd Street in Manhattan. (The museum complex, at 200 Central Park West, covers from 77th to 81st streets.)

Unfortunately, he died less than three months before I was born in the summer of 1992. Maybe it’s reincarnation or maybe it’s an obsession of mine, but the museum’s focus is still with me. I love space, for instance. I love history, too.

But David Bowie didn’t write many songs, if any, about dinosaurs. And while Steven Spielberg may have directed the first two “Jurassic Park” dinosaur movies, they pale in comparison with the breadth of content within the George Lucas “Star Wars” galaxy.

And yet none of that, for me, compares to a pair of songs: Elton John’s “Rocket Man” and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Both, at face value, are about a man’s travels in space and his relation to Earth (“I miss the Earth so much,” for “Rocket Man”; “For here am I sitting in a tin can/ Far above the world,” for “Space Oddity”).

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Such a Privilege That Someone So Young Should Be So Sick

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve always felt that “Rocket Man,” written by John and his longtime writing partner, Bernie Taupin, could be a metaphor for death. In fact, space travel isn’t that far from the Christian idea of what heaven can be. If heaven is a place in the sky, then the character of “Rocket Man” or Bowie’s Major Tom could be experiencing the ethereal transfer from Earth to the heavens.

These songs, each over 50 years old, have helped me connect to the real prospect of dying young. “Dying young” could appear to some as oxymoronic, because we’re supposed to die old. But in life with cystic fibrosis (CF), you have death thrown in your face. If it isn’t the failing health of your peers, it’s a look in the mirror, or, for me, the voices in the back of my head since I was younger — voices of people asking me if I were dying young or telling me I was going to die young.

After seeing an Instagram update that a person in their 30s died of CF, I can’t help but look in the mirror at my own reality and the possibilities that could lie ahead.

This all coincides with thoughts of mortality: my four-year anniversary of the time I nearly died of sepsis and the 12-year anniversary of a friend’s passing. If you don’t think time flies, consider this: Kids who were in first grade back in 2011 will be graduating high school and entering college.

As John sings, “And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time/ ’Til touchdown brings ’round again to find/ I’m not the man they think I am at home.”

We often have to accept the reality that the after-death perception of who we are may not be the truth. It’s an arresting idea that in the afterlife, people on Earth may have thought of us in much higher terms than we thought of ourselves. I may not see myself as some hero or inspiration, but I can be, and that is something my ego and self-image struggle with.

I hope I won’t be leaving my “tin can,” as Bowie once sang, but I’m also trying to enjoy my life more. I’m trying to be a better person. Maybe it’s OK not to race for the train every day. Sometimes, you have to let yourself be free and float — and wait for the next stop.

Note: Cystic Fibrosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Cystic Fibrosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to cystic fibrosis.


Anthony Palmiero avatar

Anthony Palmiero

I grew up with those songs.Your gonna be around a long time. Love Tony

William Ryan avatar

William Ryan

I know I will. Love you too!

Helen Palmiero avatar

Helen Palmiero

I have to admit, Will, that your your latest article "On David Bowie, Elton John..." went a bit over my head although I am very familiar with these songs. The lyrics "For here I am sitting in a tin can...Planet Earth is blue And there's nothing I can do" don't sit very well with me regarding you. You wrote "I hope I won't be leaving my 'tin can''" but I certainly hope you do to enjoy the CF advancements that I'm positive are coming. You've seen so many in your lifetime. So leave that tin can, keep on enjoying your life and continue writing this column which helps so many. "And there's nothing I can do" is certainly not true in your case. With much love, Helen

William Ryan avatar

William Ryan

I'm looking forward to more advancements! Love you too!


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