I grew up watching Olivia Newton-John, and she became a sort of celebrity surrogate mom to me.
When I was 7, my mom died of an overdose. When I was in college my foster mom died of a brain tumor.
With Newton-John's death, I felt as if I were losing yet another mom.
When I'm 4, I see my first movie. The theater's on a crowded city street. My foster brother takes me inside, and the music pumps through the darkness. Rydell High comes to life before my eyes. Sandy and Danny's romance pulls me in, and I'm mesmerized by the songs, the dancing, and Sandy's initiation into the Pink Ladies.
As the couple find happiness by the film's end, I understand two things: I will one day be in the movies, and I will forever remain devoted to Olivia Newton-John.
I'd go on to see a roller-skating Newton-John as a Greek muse in 1980's "Xanadu." I'd support her through the critically panned 1983 film "Two of a Kind."
For me, and for many Gen Xers, it was Newton-John we emulated in our pretend play. We'd take turns playing Sandy after she married Danny in their own happily ever after. In the basement of my foster mother's apartment, I'd roller-skate with blue concrete walls as my backdrop, sure that if I skated fast enough, I'd create my own Xanadu.
Newton-John would be the mother I longed for as I waited for my own mom to come back to me. Newton-John would replace the mother who left for California to cure her drug habit. For a time, Newton-John would take her place in my heart and in the games I'd play with my friends, who all have mothers; they won't mind if I make the woman we love, from one of the best movies we've seen, mine, just for a while.
But she can't substitute for my mother
When I'm 7, I learn that my mother will never come home; she died of a drug overdose. With her death, I understand it's impossible to have a substitute mother, especially a celebrity one.
As the years pass, I and many friends who worshipped Newton-John grow up. Every so often, when one of her songs plays on the radio, we'll remember what she meant to us. I'll sing in high-pitched joy as I drive on the return trip from a funeral. My cousin will sing John Travolta's part in "Summer Nights," and I'll be Newton-John.
In the freshman dormitory, one of the greatest friendships of my life will form and solidify as I sing a duet to "You're the One That I Want" with a girl from Long Island.
In these moments, I'm 5 again. My mother is alive. I can be anything. The world brims with possibility.
I'm a mom now
As we age, we forget. We drift away from the magic we knew as children. They tore down the old movie theater where I first saw "Grease" and put up an apartment building. I never had that career in the movie industry. Instead, I became the mother I'd always hoped for.
A few years ago, I took my kids to the local drive-in to watch "Grease." My 5-year-old sang along from the back of our minivan against the night sky.
I was shocked to hear of Newton-John's death on Facebook. "My celebrity mother died," I told my kids as I headed out for a haircut.
On the car ride, I found myself crying. Maybe it was having lost another mother — first my biological mother, then my foster mother, to a brain tumor while I was in college, and now one who'd filled a void in my 5-year-old heart. Maybe it was having lost time, years, and decades.
Or perhaps I was facing my own mortality, understanding that one day the end comes for us all, even cheerleading, roller-skating Greek-muse songstresses who inspired and entertained an entire generation of girls and, for a brief time, was a surrogate mom to one of them.
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