When Death Comes
In a small town not far from where I live, spirits move. Or so I am told. Lily Dale, a small hamlet in New York state, was incorporated in 1879 as Cassadaga Lake Free Association: a spiritualist camp. The principle tenet of spiritualism is the ability to communicate or interact with the dead. As a belief, it has been around almost as long as religion itself. As a movement, it gained popularity in the Victorian period as science and religion competed, collided, fused, and occasionally meshed—with followers like Arthur Conan Doyle and William Crookes (inventor of the Crookes tube for x-ray). Lily Dale’s brand of spiritualism owes itself to that nexus of science, philosophy, and religion—and I had meant to write today’s newsletter about the town, the spirits and mediums, and the upcoming Peculiar Book Club show with musician Jill Tracy, for whom “music is a ghost.”
But I won’t.
On January 31st, my partner and I received a shocking call. Our friend Paula had a brain hemorrhage and died. Then, on February 4, my dearest friend Arabella, who has been fighting cancer for over three years, received the news all cancer patients fear. The end is not just near; it’s here. One death, unexpected. Another, full of anticipatory grief, fear, and even rage against the odds. It’s a bitter reminder of something I have always known. Whether we think our individual souls move on after death, or continue as energy, neither created nor destroyed—or whether we believe death is an irrefutable end, once you die, your relationship with death itself is over. We, the remaining, the still-living and the living-though-dying are the ones who face it, in all of its terrors. Spirits or no spirits, death only happens to the living.
When I was four years old, I lived with my mother and grandparents in a white house with two porches. I remember a day in spring, when little bluebells were blooming next to the front steps, I began thinking of each little bell as the life of a person. How long would it live? Fifty years? Maybe I even guessed a hundred. But the point is this: I worried about what would happen when the bluebell’s life was all used up. What happened then? The real question, of course, was what happens when you die? In my confused ideas about bluebells, I had grasped that no matter what, no living thing would stay the same. Change happened. Nothing was permanent. Not even the people I loved. Not even me. Process meant change, and change meant dying.
The knowledge ‘I will die’ becomes ‘I am dying’ largely based on timing: when we’ve been diagnosed with a disease that has no cure, when we are grievously injured, when our own systems begin to go offline. ‘Here the “philosophical” point ends,’ (says Allan Kellehear, in Social History of Dying) ‘and the “real” or “short personal countdown” to death begins.’ This time, there will be no recovery. A mad rush of activity usually follows such a shift in perception, either on the part of the dying or on the part of their loved ones. Last days of care must be considered, funerals planned for, loved ones looked after, the great long-term plans laid aside – and once again, the focus tends to be on the activity and less on the process that the body itself is going through. There are worlds between the healthy human’s ‘I am dying’ and the raw nerves expressed in ‘I am dying now.’ The process and the event overlap as all other ideas collapse around us.
Paula went to dinner with her husband on a Friday. We buried her the following Friday, before the Jewish Sabbath (and within three days of her passing, as is customary). I had never been to a Jewish service before; full of solemn and subdued beauty, I did not understand the words spoken, but I could feel them. I could see their impact on the faces of Paula’s husband, son, and daughter. I mirrored it with my own; shock mixed with gut-wrenching grief, mixed with gratitude for her life, mixed with a sort of numbness. Unexpected death tends turns grief into a deluge, visiting all upon us at once, leaving us gasping and half-insensate from the sheer overwhelming pain.
Grief hurts. Loss hurts. I’ve lost many people already, including my grandmother and grandfather, who partly raised me (they are the subjects of my book Death’s Summer Coat). The pain always comes physically, lodging within my viscera and under my breastbone. But despite all the funerals I have been to, despite all the death I have seen (at times up close), not one of them has been the same. The pain and the emotions that come with it are as unique as the people I feel them for. You never get better at it. You just get better at not getting better at it. Unexpected death hurts like a bomb going off. But the bomb has gone off. The moments, weeks, months and years that follow are for healing (—healing, not growing whole again. Pieces will always be missing.)
There was a time when people called an expected death the “good death.” Historically, it had to do with comportment, our behaviour in the face of death and our preparations for it. Philippe Ariès, author of The Hour of Death, calls it ‘tame’ death. Speaking mainly of Europeans, he explains that dying a ‘good death’ meant having the time and presence of mind to set physical, material, and spiritual affairs in order. Understandable, perhaps. But expecting death does not make it easier to swallow. And it sure as hell doesn’t make grief any less potent. You are about to lose something precious to you. Something you love and cannot bear to be without. It hurts like hell.
So. Let me tell you how I met Arabella.
I used to be an academic, but despite loving research and writing, I was very ill suited to Academe. In much the way a tiger is ill suited to investment banking—or a fish to riding bicycles. I had determined to go back to Cleveland, and took up a role at the Dittrick Medical History Museum. I announced this on Twitter, where my usual gothic, science, weirdness was generally on display—and a follower named Bella jumped into my mentions. Wait, you are HERE in CLEVELAND? How are we not BFFs? An excellent question, because Arabella is an artist with a love for the peculiar and strange in science and history. She had survived cancer once at the expense of her leg, and began a series of amazing portraits depicting disabled pseudo-historical figures called Ephemeral Antidotes. The top one on this page? The one depicting the Black Death? Yes, I own that. It’s in my office, rat, cat, flea and all.
And we did become BFFs. This bright, energetic woman who’s response to getting cancer the first time was to re-learn how to walk without a cane, travel widely, ride a camel in Morocco, and never, ever say no to lived experience? Yes, please. I’m an introvert and not very good and agreeing to do things. Somehow, she knew just how to motivate me to do LIFE, and do it LOUD. (PS: I have now also been to Morocco, though I decided to pet the camels instead of riding them.) Go to the party. Do the thing. Or, as she put it so eloquently for SCENE MAGAZINE: “Leave the damn house.”
“You can still do things despite fear,” Proffer said. “You can still manage to juggle despite ADHD. And you should get busy living because it can be taken away from you in an instant. People ask how so much crazy stuff has happened, or how I have so many amazing stories. I leave the house! Amazing things happen when you go out into the world that won't happen to you online.”
I love Arabella. I love her for who she is, for her light, for her conviction. Her life deserves the silver screen treatment; an artist, author, and co-founder of the indie music label Elephant Stone Records… Her work extends from portraiture, visionary art, and the history of medicine to “biomorphic” abstraction. She would have been a damn fine filmmaker too; her cinematography chops are incredible. Her work is in over 60 private collections, and this fucking remarkable woman has had art shows all over North America, parts of Europe, the Middle East, and even Australia.
She is dying. But she is also living—a live flame that lights up a room, and the rather dusty, dark corners of my inner life. In June 2020, the cancer came back. But it has never dimmed her light. I imagine it will never dim it; a light like Arabella’s cannot be put out, even when life ends.
We have known for three years that this was coming. But that doesn’t mean I am ready. I am NOT. But I am thankful, just so incredibly grateful not only to have known Arabella, but to have been sought out by her. I can scarcely imagine what my life would be like if she wasn’t in it. It’s so much bigger and brighter now.
I’m not sure I have a suitable end for today’s substack. It’s personal. It’s written from a place of strange emotional aimlessness, a kind of fog as I subconsciously work through all the things. But there is something you can do. Find Arabella—find her work, her bio—read the essays I have linked here. Check out the catalogue she did of her work for posterity, or this essay on handling your digital afterlife in the face of death. Let her clear-sighted, no nonsense, live-life-while-you’ve-got-it personality be a beacon to you, as it is to me.
We never know when death comes.
What a beautiful tribute to these amazing women.