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A Nomad's Notes: Ten years later, he is still Heath Ledger

I’m not exactly sure why I was doing it — I was a few years away from really needing to worry about my own money issues — but the night of Jan. 22, 2008, I was rifling around my mom’s couch pillows looking for loose change when I heard our local newscaster announce actor Heath Ledger had died earlier that day. I immediately began mourning a man I had never met, because if someone a day before had asked me who my favorite actors are he’d still be on the list. I’d even made a reference to one of his earlier films the week before (“10 Things I Hate About You”) by grabbing my friend’s copy of “The Feminine Mystique” off her desk and asking, “Excuse me, have you seen ‘The Feminine Mystique?’ I’ve lost my copy.”  

Once Heath was gone he was in my thoughts and he never left. I remember calling my mom and sister and telling them what happened, and then just sitting on my mom’s bed crying. I knew this mourning would be different for me.

Suddenly I began to pay attention to “The Dark Knight” posters in the movie theater I would’ve walked past maybe without noticing before he passed. When his films came on TV I would always stop to watch them, but now it felt deeper, like seeing an old friend I missed. That Christmas I got many of his films as gifts. I shared them with friends, and people began to associate him with me, and vice versa.

I can’t meet Heath, but I can visit places where he filmed. In 2009 I was in Chicago with my family, and I knew “The Dark Knight” had filmed there two years before. So I printed out a piece of paper with details and we visited what sites we could. In 2012 I studied abroad in Australia, and you wouldn’t be wrong in assuming I watched a hell of a lot of Heath Ledger movies on the long flight to prepare myself for time down under. When I was in Sydney I remembered he’d filmed a movie there called “Two Hands” from 1999 — particularly, he’d filmed some scenes in Kings Cross, Sydney’s red light district.

I joined my fellow students in trudging down to Kings Cross from our hotel many nights. They’d go into bars, and I’d stay outside trying to figure out exactly where Heath had filmed specific scenes, as so much had clearly changed from 1999 to 2012. Finally one night I found exactly where he’d stood in one of his scenes, and it felt like he was closer in that moment. But my moment was quickly over when a man came to stand next to me and asked if I had any “ice.” I did not.

What I did have was money for a tattoo in Australia, and I wanted to get an Australian tattoo to honor Heath. I flipped through the design books and thought of the perfect homage: in “Two Hands,” Heath’s character and his brother have Yin and Yang tattoos on their shoulders. So that’s what I went for: a Yin and Yang tattoo on my right shoulder, just like Heath’s character Jimmy had.

But jumping back a year prior, one of the greatest moments came unexpectedly when I was in New York City at a theater waiting to see Zachary Quinto before we saw a play he was performing in the next day. He came out and began introducing his castmates to people, and I remember looking over and seeing a short, pixie-haired woman I very much recognized: Michelle Williams, Heath’s former girlfriend whom he’d met on the set of “Brokeback Mountain” and the mother of their daughter Matilda, who will be 13 this year. I remember walking over to my friend Shelby and shedding tears as I said, “Do you know who that is?” It felt like some sort of cosmic gift to see her.

In March 2008, less than two months after Heath died, I was on a school trip in New York City, and as a teacher, another student and I toured SoHo we found our way to 421 Broome St. to pay our respects outside the building where Heath passed away. “Why aren’t there any more flowers outside of the building?” the other student asked our teacher. The sidewalk outside the building was bare. “Well, he wasn’t a soldier or an officer or anything,” the teacher said before we left. I didn’t speak up but I wanted to. Because maybe he wasn’t those things, but he’s damn well one of my own heroes and forever will be.

When I feel myself being poisoned by my own fears and anxieties and nothing else seems to work, I’ll picture Heath in my head as Jacob Grimm, or The Joker, or Ennis Del Mar, and I feel a sense of calm. He made his mark on the world despite his anxieties and anguish, and that’s what I’m going to do, too. 

Lindsay Kriz is a staff writer for the Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or lkriz@brunswickbeacon.com.