Notes From Nevada
SUNDAY // The first death
I was listening to bluegrass when the first death happened. I was at Sorensen’s, the inn owned by the family of my best friend Machete near our hometown of Lake Tahoe, and we had crossed the river to the inn’s cafe for lunch. We’d been staying there for a week, and today the café was hosting a bluegrass and BBQ fundraiser for a local nature conservancy.
String instruments. Coleslaw. The thin, fresh air of the High Sierras. I was biting into baby back ribs when a waitress stopped by the table and asked if anyone had medical experience, because a man was having a heart attack in the parking lot.
The man and his wife were actually early investors in Sorensen’s. Machete had met them briefly over the years, and this thread of connection led to us staying with the wife throughout the process of her husband saying goodbye to life. On the asphalt. In front of their rental car. Hundreds of miles from anyone she knew.
We talked to her for a long time as the medics did CPR and then the AED machine on her husband there in the parking lot, as the bluegrass band kept playing and the songs synced eerily to the circumstance, like when they played “Soul Meets Body” by Death Cab for Cutie. She said more than once that she felt bad for ruining everyone’s lunch.
When blood started pouring from her husband’s mouth from the vigorous CPR, we distracted her by asking about their kids. Their daughter lived in Africa, running a hot air balloon company with her boyfriend. I think their son was a college professor, but I don’t remember. Machete drove her car when they took him down the mountain to the nearest hospital. I followed in my car.
He was pronounced dead on arrival, and we sat with his wife as she made the necessary calls to her kids. It was hard to watch. There was an infomercial playing loudly in the ER waiting room. I found the remote and put it on mute. She told us how relieved she was they’d recently finalized their affairs. He’d had a lot of medical problems so they were prepared for the worst.
It made me think about how important is to organize what you want to happen after you die while you’re still living, how much easier it is on your loved ones to not have to figure it all out for you while they’re in the midst of grieving. This is responsible dying. This is letting your death inspire your life, rather than living in denial that we all meet the same fate.
That night we made sure she had dinner, hugged her, and left her to rest in her cabin at Sorensen’s. She departed the next day, leaving us a nice note at the front desk. The whole scenario felt very similar to how my grandfather passed away when I was 21, from a heart attack in a parking lot when we were at the automobile museum in Reno. I was holding him in my arms on the ground as it happened, which was both traumatic and an honor. I’ve never stopped missing him.
But I did try to forget about him, because thinking about him meant thinking about his death, how his body shuddered, the neon lights of the casino next door blinking in his glasses, his eyes staring at nothing, unlike the medics’ eyes – that certain look when they know it’s too late but they try anyway, so later the doctor can begin The Speech with “We did everything we could…” All I could think was not again, please not again, because just a year before my mom had died and I’d only recently been able to get through the day without crying. No, I definitely didn’t want to think about death.
But some people want to think about death. They think about it all the time, on purpose. Memento mori is the ancient practice of reflecting on mortality, of considering the vanity of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods. It translates to “Remember you must die.” In early Buddhist texts, a prominent term is maraṇasati, which translates to “Remember death.” Some Sufis have been called the “people of the graves,” because of their practice of frequenting graveyards to ponder on death and one’s mortality. A lot of press came out recently about a memento mori app that sends you five daily reminders that someday you will die. A friend of mine has this app. He says it helps him stay present.
I know about this app because Machete and I are in the process of making our first feature film, called Moon Manor, and it’s a comedy about death. Our lead character has decided to die like he has lived – with intention, humor and zest – and the film follows his last day alive as he throws a fabulous FUNeral before taking his own life. Think “Harold and Maude” for a new generation. This is a quote we use from The Psychedelic Guide to The Tibetan Book of the Dead to explain why we wanted to make this movie: “What if the art of living is actually the art of dying?”
Because of Moon Manor, I’ve spent the last few years getting to know the #deathpositive movement, and I can tell you – death is trending. “Ask a Mortician” is a popular YouTube show, and Death Cafes are popping up all over, a place where you can discuss your mortal fate over tea and cookies. I follow several death doulas on Instagram, and there are more alternatives than ever to the traditional coffin. There’s the mushroom death suit, the biodegradable seagrass coffin, The Living Urn that turns your ashes into a young tree.
In a 2018 New York Times article titled “The Positive Death Movement Comes to Life,” the connection is drawn between the women’s movement and the death positive movement, in a quote from Ellen Goodman, who started the Conversation Project, a guide to discussing end of life that’s been downloaded over a million times. “It wasn’t doctors who changed the way we give birth in America. It was women who said that giving birth was a human event. I think we’re trying to do that now. Dying is a human experience. We’re trying to put the person back into the center of the experience.”
MONDAY // The second death
We wake to the news that our childhood friend Stella has passed away in the night. We’d been planning to go see her in the hospital that day. She was only 35. Breast cancer. The same way my mom died. My mom was first diagnosed when she was 37. Before I came on this trip home, I’d taken the test to find out if I carry the breast cancer gene, something I’d procrastinated doing for 15 years.
A few weeks earlier, Machete had gone to visit Stella and they’d given me a call. I’m so sorry I never called when your mom passed, was the first thing Stella said to me. She was on a lot medication, loopy, but cognizant. I wanted to be there for you but I didn’t know how. Now I know what you were going through. She sobbed as she said this, not holding back, not “holding it together.”
I’d imagined the call would be me offering her platitudes, that we’d avoid the inevitable reason for the call — essentially, to say goodbye. Her complete vulnerability broke me. When someone is dying we commend them for things like “bravery” and “fortitude.” What we’re really saying is make this easier on me, because I don’t know how to deal with that fact that you’re dying.
We spent an hour on the phone, the three of us reminiscing about being in high school theater together, about how Stella was a legendary Marilyn Monroe impersonator around town, a woman when the rest of us were just girls. We told her she’d always been ahead of her time, and her being the first to transcend was just another example.
I have to get off the phone because I’m catching a late flight to Hawaii. I never made it to Hawaii, always wanted to go, she says. I feel like a colossal jerk, even though I’m going for work — to write a story about the Honolulu Biennial — and even though it’s taken me a long time to get to the point in my career I get to travel to write, I feel bad for feeling bad, because it’s another level of making it about me. Throughout the trip I think of Stella constantly. Try to somehow pass her the special quality of the air in Hawaii, the plumeria flowers, to transmute moments of impatience or anxiety (i.e. being a human), into gratitude and appreciation for my life, my breath. Memento mori.
And now it’s a Monday in this cabin and the only think I can think after this second death is that I need to be in Nature. I go to one of my favorite spots, Hope Valley. Good memories. Good name. I used to come here with my grandfather. I drive up to two old guys in front of their RVs and say hello and ask if there are any new trails. Just walk into the meadow and you’ll see, one of them tells me. He has a beard like Santa Claus. The other wears red suspenders.
The valley. Bees and crickets and the sun like melted butter. I listen to music, dance and skip around. Even though my heart is heavy with thoughts of Stella, I also feel grateful to be alive. Memento mori. A river cuts through the valley and there’s a little beach, so even though the water is absolutely freezing I strip naked and swim. Memento mori. I smoke a joint, dance some more. I put my clothes back on and do a workout, then bask on some river rocks to write. Then I hear a voice, a voice filled with authority.
Excuse me, m’am. The gentleman in the parking lot made a report that you’re acting erratically. Are you on some kind of drug?
It’s the sheriff. He’s been called all the way out to remote Hope Valley because I’m acting like a pagan witch weirdo (at least on the spectrum of “normal” the old timers in the parking lot are used to). He approaches me cautiously, like I could be dangerous. I’m just enjoying a quiet moment in Nature. I’m trying not to laugh.
He says he has to ask me some questions, starting with what’s today’s date. The 10th? June 10th? He looks at me hard. That’s incorrect, m’am. I explain I’ve been staying in a cabin without WiFi, purposefully trying to lose track of time, could he ask me an easier question? This is not going well. He asks me what year it is, my name, who the president is (ugh), my address. I answer as soberly as I can and he starts to ease up. He speaks into the radio strapped at his shoulder.
Suspect is just enjoying the river, not dangerous, not armed. Repeat, suspect is just enjoying the river.
To change the subject, I ask if he heard about the heart attack at Sorensen’s the other day. He answers that he was the first responder. I tell him I was there too, that’s where I’m staying, my best friend’s family owns the place and we were the ones who took his wife to the ER. I thought you looked familiar, he says. Something flashes in his eyes, a look like sadness. I ask him what it’s like for him, as a sheriff, to deal so closely with death as part of his daily work. The way he looks at me indicates no one had asked him that in a long time, maybe ever.
What proceeded was twenty minutes straight of the sheriff talking about what it’s like to be law enforcement in a rural area. How a lot of the deaths he sees are suicide, people who come to a beautiful place to end it all. He said he didn’t blame me for wanting some alone time by the river, he wished he got more time alone to reflect. He talked and I listened as the sun moved behind the clouds and the temperature dropped and the frogs started warming up their sunset chorus.
When finally I spoke, it was to ask if he wanted to stay at the river and take a moment, and I’d walk back? He kinda pulled himself together and said no, he needed to go tell the old guys in the parking lot I was okay. They were just making sure you weren’t hurt, they weren’t spying on you, just so you know. I nodded, knowing full well they’d have to be watching me with binoculars to have seen me from so far away.
The sheriff looks around, at the mountains with snow still on the peaks, at the river forever flowing through the valley called Hope. He starts walking away, my solo healing now his, my processing of the heart attack I witnessed and the stoic grace of the wife, the loss of my grandfather, of dear Stella, of my mom, always of my mom, now transmuted into the healing the sheriff needed, for all the death he’s absorbed over the years. He paused and looked back at me. I smiled, said nothing. I took a photo of the river rocks I’d been laying on, packed up my things and left.
When we get back to Los Angeles, Machete and I start working on our application for Reimagine End of Life, an annual weeklong celebration of death in San Francisco. Reimagine is also in NYC, and they’re expanding to more cities. We’ll show the trailer to Moon Manor, meet more of the community. Last year, events included Oscar winner Frances McDormand performing Sophocles and a conversation with the director of Pixar’s Coco. Death is trending, and Hollywood is on board.
A few weeks later, I get the results back from the genetic test. I don’t have the breast cancer gene. Incidentally, the same day Machete gives me a joking-but-serious gift: a workbook called I’m Dead. Now What?, in which you fill out all your pertinent information (insurance policies, passwords, burial wishes) so your loved ones are prepared to handle your affairs upon your death. If we’re going to make a movie about responsible dying, we need to walk the talk, she says to me.
The book is still sitting on my desk, unopened.