You don't have to touch to be touched.
The summer that I was thirteen was a life-changing one. My best friend had left on a road trip around the US with her family. Never a social butterfly, I didn't have much of anyone to hang out with those warm months. I had new responsibilities, too - a family friend had left me in charge of caring for her horse and I got paid to do it. My dad handed me a garden tool and said that if I dug all the dandelions out of our lawns he'd pay me $10. We have a lot of lawn and it turned out to be several buckets full, but $10 was a lot of money. My family was still dealing with the recent loss of my grandpa to cancer and there was a bittersweet air to our gatherings at the beach.
Then one day my mom said "There's a new TV show coming on tonight called ROAR. We were thinking of watching it." If my parents were interested I figured it must be mediocre since I rarely liked what they did, though my Africa-obsessed mind (since I was 10 I dreamed of traveling all over the continent) heard the word "roar" and hoped it was about lions and safaris and adventures. When my mom kept bringing it up I became more inclined that this new show was going to be a bust. After all, it was on at 9pm on Monday night - past bedtime! Then I saw the cover of the TV guide. It was Heath Ledger as Conor, the ancient Irish prince, posed in his leather pants and armor. Even though this show was obviously not about lions, I was intrigued.
I don't remember much about watching the premiere of ROAR because I wasn't watching it - I was living it. For an hour on a Monday night, th 14th of July of 1997, I was in Ireland of 400 AD, fighting alongside Conor and his sidekicks Fergus (the gruff old warrior) and Catlin (the freed slave girl who was handy with a bow) and Tully (who slowly disappeared as they realized what a terrible actor the poor man was). But more importantly, I was in "love." For the first time in my short life, I had found a young man who I had decided was handsome and beautiful. I wanted to walk with Conor, to hear the eloquent rumble of his voice in his speeches about freeing Ireland from the Romans (who never had the balls to attempt to conquer the isle in real life, but this was a fictional TV show), to learn how to fight.
Digging up dandelions the next day wasn't so bad. My head was filled with Conor. I thought about how wonderful it must be to be him - the handsome hero, fighting to free his people. My daydreams made even the trips to the recycling center interesting. Even more so, it was the first time that I'd ever really seen who I was - I became interested in my own heritage. The savage Celtic blood running through my veins is, to this day, a great comfort me. This show was a celebration of that heritage.
It also introduced me to one of the most talented singers and songwriters I have since ever come upon. The music and cinematography in ROAR was top-notch, and I was thirsting for more. After my family (and probably me in particular) raved about how wonderful this show was while visiting family at the beach house, our relatives decided to watch. The episode was too violent for their tastes but my aunt immediately figured out why I liked the show so much - Heath. She recognized some of the music, too, and identified the singer as Loreena McKennitt. Feeling sneaky, I phoned her up and make plans for her to make a cassette tape copy of one of Loreena's albums, The Visit, to give to my mom for her birthday since I knew my mom loved the music of the show, too. I was surprised and touched when my aunt came over for my mom's birthday and handed me my own copy of the tape. I sat in my room on a warm August night, grateful that she had given me the tape a week before school started so that the music wouldn't be tainted by the drudgery of slavery, and listened.
The mystical songs wove into my heart and I could hear them pulsing with me as I finished the summer, running in and out of the waves, body surfing and boogie boarding, hiking in the mountains and running free, feeling the bagpipes and grinning at the cuts on my body from my savagery in the woods. I still love being cut up like that.
When my best friend, Katie, returned from her trip I listened to her stories of all the wondrous things she'd seen, then gushed to her about my favorite TV show, realizing that it wasn't much to talk about since it wasn't "real," no matter how much it had inspired me. I was dying for her to spend the night on a Monday so that she could watch it with me (she didn't have TV) but since school was starting up again, that was impossible. I shouted when my mom told me I couldn't watch ROAR on Monday nights anymore and that we'd have to tape it because I'd be staying up too late on a school night. The bitter end of summer was here! Made even more bitter when we learned of the show's cancellation shortly after. Needless to say, I was devastated, as I am by news of Heath's death.
ROAR is now available on DVD and I highly recommend it. I'd go so far as to say that I wish it was still on TV rather than Stargate. But I have a much deeper emotional connection to ROAR than I do to Stargate, no matter how great an impact the scifi show has had on my life (and by the way, Ronon stole Conor's outfit). ROAR did not shy away from the bonds of family and heritage, the possibility of the spirit world living and breathing alongside ours. But mostly, as one whose first word was "outside" and who grew up with an ecologist's mind, roaming the wilds and harboring a deep love for all life, I knew about the Roar.
It's safe to say that my spiritual beliefs are the most similar to those of many Native American traditions, however since I am not sure if I have Native blood in me or not (my grandma will change her story every time you ask her) and if I do it's a very small amount, I always felt like I was romanticizing a culture. Yet here was my own heritage every bit just as connected to the Land, every bit just as honoring of life. Galen, the spiritual leader of the show's pilot episode, guides Conor to the cliffs overlooking the sea. The water is aqua blue and the sun is shining - this is an Ireland that was filmed in Australia and as such, never really existed, but that's not the point. Conor closes his eyes as Galen says (and I'm paraphrasing a bit): "Forget your own selfish need for revenge... and hear the Roar." A deep rumbling is heard from the waves and the very rocks as Conor hears the Roar for the first time - the roar of the land and all life - the unharnessed power of being. Truly beautiful. Truly Heath.
The show slipped away and I regretted never keeping that TV guide with Conor on the cover. It was a long time before I saw Heath again. I playfully referred to him as "Funky Hair" because of his random dreads and such in ROAR, while everyone else referred to him as my "husband." Then one day that teen movie 10 Things I Hate About You came out and I saw a picture of Heath in a magazine, Entertainment Weekly. I called up Katie saying "It's Funky Hair! He's in a magazine!" The short article discussed his role and how he was a star on the rise. I was smug, thinking it was about time someone else noticed his charisma, but also jealous since I knew all my fellow teenage girls would act like they knew who he was. I felt a sense of entitlement because of ROAR. I wasn't much of a teen and always hated "teen movies" so I didn't see the film until long after when it was on TV, and even then I only watched it for Heath. But then The Patriot came out and suddenly everyone was looking at the gorgeous smile of my "husband." It was a powerful film and I hated that he died in it. I wanted to kill the bad Brit just as much as Mel Gibson did.
I can't remember the order of the rest of his films, but saw A Knight's Tale one spring afternoon when we got out early because of finals. My friend Lisa and I saw it together, singing along with the cheesy love songs they played before the movie started, even though we'd never heard them before - they were the type where you could predict the words. My little brother and I would go online to the film's website and build knights and challenge each other to duels. My knight got pretty far up there! My mom taped a Jay Leno interview with Heath for me. The poor dear was so nervous - my heart went out to him.
For my 19th birthday a few friends and I saw The Four Feathers the day it was released. Katie and I saw Brokeback Mountain a day or so after it was out, too. I've always had a Heath-sense. There was a split second flash of his face in the preview for Lords of Dogtown and I noticed it when everyone was arguing with me that I'd confused some other blonde for Heath. Waiting in line for Brokeback I squealed "there's Heath!" when I saw the upper right corner of the poster for Casanova. I felt dumb because I couldn't even see all of the poster and didn't know why I'd just said that, but when we entered, sure enough - Heath was on the poster, or at least a portion of his coy face was. I could have made money off of my Heath radar. I liked Brokeback and it was an excellent adaptation of the short story. The acting was amazing. I just found it bleak and depressing for the most part and not a story that I'd like to see over and over. Those people's lives sucked. I think the film was a little overrated because of its subject matter, but I'm glad people noticed Heath's immense talent. I also went on a solo journey to an art house theater to see Ned Kelly - the inspiring, tragic tale of Australia's outlaw. I'm a huge Batman fan and hearing that he was cast as the Joker had me even more enthused for The Dark Knight. I knew he had the smile for it.
The other day when his face randomly popped up on the screen I was halfway into a smile when I read the words that accompanied it. Dead. I stared in shock. I'm still struggling to wrap my mind around it. A world without Heath? As my sister lamented for me, "...11 years of marriage." I'm trying to come to terms with his passing, but after the loss of Steve Irwin (who also was an Aussie with a huge impact on me) it can feel like the beautiful lights in the world are flickering out. How do you say goodbye to someone that you never really knew?
My same aunt gave me a book about Heath one birthday but I never read it - I just looked at the pictures. It may sound odd, but I adored the guy so I didn't want to know much about his personal life in case I found out something distasteful. It also felt voyeuristically creepy to invade someone's life like that. Though I couldn't resist buying the August 2000 Vanity Fair issue with Heath on the cover, looking passionately perfect. I still have it, though I was too afraid to cut out any of the pictures for my wall, lest I ruin them. I read the article and was excited when Heath mentioned his love of Gene Kelly for it meant he at least knew my name. In the article, Heath discussed how he left home at 16 and was living out of his car before he got the part in The Patriot. The Bohemian lifestyle enchanted me. He also said he'd never bothered with acting lessons, which was inspiring because he'd somehow learned how to harness his raw talent on his own. There was also a quote in that article that has helped guide me ever since I read it:
"When anything is blocking my head, I just -whoosh- go sit on Mars and look back here at Earth." - Heath Ledger
While that quote may not sound profound, to a 16-year-old girl it was certainly enough. More people need to adopt that perspective, to be able to pull back and look at the world and your true place in it to realize that your problems pale in comparison to those of others, and that you have such a blessed life. I think we were all blessed by Heath. I was also frustrated with school when I was 16 and remember reading about how Heath dropped out. I mentioned it to my mom and was shocked when she actually entertained the possibility of me leaving high school and taking classes at the local community college instead. I never did, but knowing that the option existed helped me feel liberated. In the end, I'm glad I stayed in high school. As you often don't realize when you're bored to death in class because you've already mastered whatever it is the pot-heads still can't get (like the fact that the Civil War isn't the same was WWI) it's the social skills learned in high school that are the most important.
I don't know how to accept the fact that he's gone. Like Irwin, he's only ever been a face on the screen, a voice, a beautiful picture. Those things will never go away. But to know that the man who so authentically brought to life such wonderful characters, who shared such passion for his art and life is no longer with us, gracing us with his genuine smile, is heartbreaking. For one I never met, he certainly had an impact on me. Heath - your influence changed my life in the most positive way possible.
I was working on a script in the week before he passed - a script in which I attempted to capture the ethereal, character-driven qualities ROAR often possessed. As such, I was listening to the ROAR soundtrack non-stop while I wrote (in fact, there was no soundtrack released. The show only ever made 13 episodes. However, as the music was up for an Emmy, sample CDs were given to Emmy voters. Last year I had the good fortune of procuring one of these CDs from a collector. The music continues to touch my soul). My sister and I watched a ROAR episode on Sunday night. When we said goodnight I told her, "If you get bored in school tomorrow, just imagine Conor there with you." The next day after school she mentioned that she couldn't get Conor out of her head all day. I turned on my computer and shared with her the new work I'd done on my script, then closed the document only to see the open internet browser with the news.
It's hard to see his beautiful face everywhere with those soulful eyes and to know why everyone is suddenly so interested. It used to be that whenever I was having a hard day or felt like I needed a lift, I would watch an episode of ROAR or something with Heath in it to make me feel better. It was like visiting with an old friend and never ceased to lift my spirits immensely. His smile and effortless grace were infectious. I doubt that will work for a while now.
Pulling out that magazine a few moments ago to look for the quote, a piece of paper fell out. It was the wish list I wrote years ago - a wish list for the qualities in my perfect man. A woman once told me she'd written one and the lad all-but knocked on her door one day. The hopeless romantic in me had given it a go and I'd forgotten. It was tucked away amongst the pictures of Heath. And thus ends our "romance," I suppose. He was 17 and I was 13 when we "met." I'll forever keep his inspiring passion in my heart.
There is a grove of eucalyptus trees by a nearby trail that I love to hike. It looks like the location of ROAR. Whenever I pass them I feel that Conor is walking alongside me with his lopsided grin. But even the trees are slowly being cut down as an invasive species, which saddens me. Physical reminders are torn away. I know that Conor is immortal and that I only ever knew an impression of who you were, Heath Ledger, but that impression guided me and I greatly miss the you that I knew. The tears are real. I'll always love you, my husband.
To quote one of my favorite songs by Loreena McKennitt, "Full Circle," a song that also was featured in a moving episode of ROAR:
"In your heart, in your soul, did you find peace there?"
You can listen to the song here: