Happy birthday, Space Mom

General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) in STAR WARS: EPISODE IX
General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) in STAR WARS: EPISODE IX /

Today would have been Carrie Fisher’s 66th birthday. By all rights, this should be a day, like Life Day, full of raucous celebration as we honor the people’s princess, the Huttslayer, Leia Organa. Instead, we are in mourning. Although we lost her six years ago, the ache is still so fresh; the wound reopens every time I switch on TNT and catch “The Last Jedi” or “The Rise of Skywalker”. The sequel trilogy—whatever history may determine it to be—will always be about the loss of a leader, the pain of wasted potential, and what it means to just keep moving forward, even when everything seems bleak. Carrie’s death ripped a hole in the Star Wars universe, and I’m not sure that it can ever be closed up.

I first encountered Carrie Fisher the same way most of us did—dressed in white, hair wrapped in those enormous buns, toting a blaster and slinging insults in “A New Hope”. She was an electric shock to my ten year old heart: bold, beautiful, and most of all unapologetically badass. I didn’t know women could be like that. It had never even occurred to me to want to be that until she showed me how. From that moment on, I was hooked on Star Wars. It became an obsession that consumed most of my teens and early twenties (and continues on into my mid-thirties—here I am now, writing for a Star Wars website). Leia, and Carrie,  were open doors into a new world, and I wanted to explore everything about her.

What I found troubled me, to say the least. I read “Postcards from the Edge” and everything else my suburban library had by her, and I was devastated to learn that my new icon had a drug problem. I was a DARE kid! Drugs were bad! How could someone so awesome break such an obvious rule? It was the first time in my sheltered life that I had encountered the idea that Good People Sometimes Do Bad Things, and I had a really rough time processing that. I suppose that grappling with the moral complexity of addiction was the first gift Carrie ever gave me. It hurt, but it made me grow.

Fast forward a decade or two, when “The Force Awakens” yanked my Star Wars love out of hibernation. I’m no longer an angsty pre-teen but now an adult—a wife and soon-to-be mother. As the movie plays, I reflect on how I’m not the only one who’s changed. Leia, too, is a mother now. And a general! Again, I’m floored that I had not thought to dream of such a powerful leader. I’d been content with a princess; I was enamored with a general. Rey is the star of the movie, but even as I wept as she wielded Luke’s lightsaber, I knew that she was able to run because Leia had walked. In TFA, Carrie’s work was part of the general euphoria of the film. Two powerful women! In one Star Wars! There was, at long last, a place for us at the table. I rejoiced that my newborn child was going to grow up in a fairer, more equa world than the one I’d come up in. Things were still rough, of course—the galaxy was still at war—but things were undeniably better. Leia, though bruised, was still fighting, and there was still hope.

The strangest thing about Carrie Fisher’s death is how little I registered it when it happened. A few days after the first post-Trump election Christmas, I was still numb. It almost seemed fitting—my entire world had been upended, so of course my hero would be taken from me, too. Nothing was ever going to be right again anyway. It wasn’t until I saw “The Last Jedi” that I realized the magnitude of what had been lost. I sobbed as Leia cheated death onscreen, knowing that in real life she had not been so lucky. I heard her tell Rey, “we have everything we need,” but I knew that wasn’t true. We didn’t have her. How could we carry on without her, when we needed her the very most?

Things didn’t really improve with “The Rise of Skywalker.” I was frustrated the entire movie at how different it could have been. JJ Abrams has said that TFA was Han’s movie, TLJ was Luke’s movie, and TROS was supposed to be Leia’s movie. I would give anything to see that movie—where Leia saves the galaxy and her son, and puts everything right for just a moment. I needed to see that. I needed to believe that our Space Mom was going to take care of us again, even knowing that she never could again.

A few years later, I realized that if Carrie were here and could see what a mopey mess I’d become, she’d slap me upside the head and tell me to get over myself. “What are you waiting for? Be your own hero! Strangle your oppressors in the chains they would make you wear! I’ve taught you everything you need to know. Now go make me proud.” And she would, as usual, be right. Her entire life was a lesson in getting knocked down and getting back up again. Being scared but doing the scary thing anyway. She made mistakes, but she tried to learn from them. Life was not always kind to her, but she was still kind. She struggled, but she never gave up. And if I want to honor her memory, then neither can I.

Carrie Fisher is gone, but as Luke Skywalker told us, “no one is ever really gone.” Even though the world will never get to see Leia or Carrie’s happy ending, she taught us how to dream up our own. I can still imagine her cheering me on when I succeed, and making me laugh through my tears when I fail. I can feel her lovingly mocking me for being upset about a movie when there are real things out there worth being upset about. Her death taught me one of the hardest lessons of all—sometimes you don’t get your happy ending, with medal ceremonies and triumphant fanfare. Sometimes the bad guys win. But what matters is to keep fighting, keep moving forward, and most of all, to keep hope. Even though Luke is the titular New Hope for the galaxy, it’s Leia who has given us real hope—the kind that lasts long after the credits have finished rolling.

Without Carrie, there is no Leia. Without Leia, there is no hope. So on her birthday, I will probably cry a little. But I will also raise a glass, tell a joke, and dream of a better future. Because “somebody has to save our skins” in this garbage chute called life, and I owe it to Carrie to try.