I’ve known for a long time that the people who played the crew of the starship Enterprise when I was a small child are getting old, but it still caught me by surprise Monday night to see a picture of a very old-looking Leonard Nimoy with the news that he has been hospitalized for severe chest pain.
When the celebrities of our youth grow old and start dying, we feel pangs of something. Is it regret? sadness? or something else? I’m not sure what to call it, but the feelings are ultimately about ourselves, not about the people who are dying.
James Doohan (Scotty) and DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy) are already gone. Nimoy (Spock) and William Shatner (Capt. Kirk) are old men. What does this say about me?
I know it sounds selfish to interpret someone else’s problems this way, but isn’t that natural? I didn’t know any of these people except as actors whose faces and voices were burned into my child brain. They only have meaning as reminders of the little boy who wanted to join them in space — away from the reality that seemed so unhappy down here.
I didn’t have real-life heroes as I was growing up. The only person I ever really wanted to be was Capt. James T. Kirk. He represented all the things I wanted to be. He was smart, strong, decisive, decent, compassionate and brave. And he had his pick of beautiful women wherever he went. He was an idealized version of something I wished I could be.
When I discovered Star Trek, it was already in its last season and I was heartbroken when it was canceled. For the rest of childhood, I avidly watched each of the 79 episodes in reruns. I knew the dialogue by heart. With hard-earned money from cutting grass, I bought blank cassette tapes and recorded the audio of each episode, long before I could even dream of owning video.
These actors weren’t real people to me. They were the characters they played. They were icons representing more than I knew how to explain. In my mind, they’re still the strong younger men who appeared on screen and left me fantasizing about escape and a better life.
I don’t want to accept that those people could possibly grow old, partly because their aging is a reminder that I’m not that idealistic 9-year-old whose entire life lay ahead of him. It’s another reminder of my own mortality.
And I don’t like that.
I hope Nimoy recovers from his heart problems and returns home quickly. I’d like to think I simply feel compassion for the man, but in my heart, I know it’s because the continued survival of Shatner and Nimoy — and George Takei and Walter Koenig and Nichelle Nichols and others — lets me believe at times that I’m still 9 years old.
I still need to believe that I have a long and full life ahead of me. Years ago, these actors helped me believe things about myself and what my life could be. All these years later, their survival helps me to hold onto those dreams.
Note: Leonard Nimoy died three days after this article was published. He was 83 years old.