Goodnight, Nightbirde

America’s Got Talent singer’s death is a reminder that darkness and light, joy and pain are not just entwined; each is meaningless without the other

Photo by Jerome Barre on Unsplash

Wedged between two longer segments on climate catastrophe and Russian tanks, the news announced the death of America’s Got Talent’s Nightbirde, singer-songwriter Jane Marczewski. Talented, beautiful, relentlessly hopeful and graceful in the face of metastatic cancer, and dead at 31. The world’s prayers and GoFundMe’s $697,494 couldn’t save her.

This is when people trot out platitudes like, “She’s in a better place,” or “God needed another angel,” or “Everything happens for a reason,” which all seem nothing more than ways to avoid the grim reality that sometimes stuff just sucks. Sometimes things are unfair. Some of us are billionaires who launch themselves into the ionosphere on a lark, while others are children who languish in leukemia wards.

But maybe it’s something else. Groundbreaking Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung once said, “I’d rather be whole than good.” And if the Buddhists and the mystics are right — self is an illusion and all of existence is truly one — maybe there is no cruel mystery to suffering or evil — it’s just the universe balancing the scales. Could we know beauty, joy, and love without hatred, grief, and fear? Do the devastating tsunamis and plagues of the world make a beach picnic or Schubert symphony more precious? Would Nightbirde have captured and moved the world, would she have loved it as fiercely as she did, without the illness that ravaged and killed her? If she could take it all back to live a long and unremarkable life, would she? Would Van Gogh have traded his paintings for an untormented existence? Maybe even they wouldn’t know the answer.

As individuals, it’s our sufferings, frailties, and failures that teach us gratitude, compassion, forgiveness, humility, and determination. It’s the grieving father, the recovering heroin addict, the novelist tossing her 99th rejection letter into the garbage who know the sweetness of the perfect tangerine or the triumph of an exquisite parallel parking job. Loneliness throws the treasure of friendship into stark relief.

The sinless saint is possibly less perfect than the conflicted and flawed bartender, hip-deep in the moral struggles and false starts that make us human and bind us together in a common slog toward redemption and growth.

In the great ledger of life, who’s to say what is unfair, wrong, or pointless? Who would you be without your worst experiences, your greatest failures? Would you be as daring, as aware, as empathetic, as appreciative of soft new socks and the way that puppies’ paws smell like corn chips? In the original Matrix film, the AI machines create a perfect simulated world for our human brains to live out our lives, and we rejected it. We wanted drama, tragedy, traffic jams, and genocide.

Maybe this is where we belong — nestled among the dead dogs and cherry blossoms, between war’s rubble and the flawless chocolate ganache. Without one, we couldn’t truly savor the other.

So goodnight, Nightbirde, fierce and fragile, sick yet healing to so many, made briefly immortal by an untimely death. Like all of us, and life itself, your story one of triumph, tragedy, and contradictions. May we all embrace life the way you did, in spite of its darkness, and remind each other, “It’s ok, it’s ok, it’s ok. If you’re lost, we’re all a little lost, and it’s all right.”

Donate to Nightbirde’s memorial fund.



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An alcoholic, bipolar, (mostly) asexual’s red-eye flight from hell to healthy. Buckle up. Turbulence ahead.