Last June, I was reading Linda Pastan’s The Five States of Grief and also moving to California. I feel like the two things are deeply intertwined, and I wonder if it was not some bizarre internal intuition that caused me to pack this book on my apartment hunt.
I came to California, in part, to learn how to die.
The first night of my apartment hunt, I heard death from the guest room of a Boyle Heights duplex. Just as I closed my eyes for sleep, an inhumane noise sounded from outside my window. Something was dying. I had never heard death before, but I somehow instinctually identified the terror of a Death Scream. Rabbits, I remembered, scream when they die, and I pressed my eyes shut tight while praying it was just a rabbit outside, nothing more. The screaming lasted for 15 seconds—ragged and high-pitched gasps of agony that ricocheted from high to low volumes, paced with brief seconds of intermittent silence. This beat on and off until it gave way to the typically unnerving hush marked by 2 o’clock in the morning in a neighborhood with no nightlife.
This was my second night in Los Angeles. The first night, I passed out drunk on a friend’s couch and slept 8 hours without disruption before rising in the morning and going to a West Hollywood restaurant called Moe Café for hangover food. This was on my first visit to the city, during my last year of graduate school. The earth was cold and hard in my Midwestern home all through March, and so I headed to the west coast. Despite the fertility of California foliage, I sought out death, and forced my entirely too agreeable friend to indulge me. We drove past the sights of Los Angeles’s most notorious murders. We went to the Museum of Death. We saw all the famous cemeteries. I told her my friend anecdotes as we rounded the curves of Cielo Drive—“Did you know Abigail Folger smiled at Tex Watson when he came in the house? She didn’t see the knife, the gun. She thought he was a guest.” I reveled in death, lapped at the fringes of decay with mad fervor.
In “Bicentennial Winter,” Pastan speaks of the Puritans. “Puritans have taught us that all things break,” she writes, “We have forgotten that, disenchanted; amazed as children told for the first time how they were conceived.” Pastan surprises readers in The Five Stages of Grief with unconventional use of metaphor and symbolism, breaking the typical associations of certain images and motifs. Spring, for example, tends to signify death, but a complicated death, a death that hints at life continuing beyond certain destruction. In “It’s Still Winter Here,” the sun is “some huge stone rolled against the door,” reminiscent of Christ’s tomb, a nod to resurrection. In “Walking in Norway,” the grass has “grown all night, as hair grows, on the heads of the dead.” Growth continues after death, the image containing a certain resiliency to the finality of it. In “Bicentennial Winter,” learning we will die in old age is as mystifying as learning of our original conception. We forget, Pastan thinks, that all things break.
But I do not forget. I wish I could. I have never once forgotten that all things break, that I am chipping apart each day.
I cannot read the bulk of my father’s handwriting. When my father needs a note to be understood, he uses what I call his “serial killer handwriting.” He writes in block letters, all capitals, like the work of a disturbed child. These are not, however, the kinds of notes he leaves in books. When he’s writing for himself, as he is with his margin notes, he always writes in his sloppy cursive. He has given me volumes of Dostoevsky, our shared literary love, but I cannot read his margin notes. I made out some words in his copy of The Brother’s Karamazov. The single sentence, “Ivan loves God, but hates his world.” A few strings of words—“Christianity and Suffering,” “Presence of the Bourgeoisies.” Longer notes are illegible.
My father is, and always has been, a death-obsessed individual, and because of this I think about him dying more often than I would like. My father has been lamenting about his imminent demise as far as I was able to form coherent memories. He could not have been more than 35 when he demanded there be no more birthday celebrations, as he was aging far too rapidly, like an insect. I cannot help but think of his margin notes as a memento to save after his death. His books, decorated with his writing and underlinings, will provide me comfort when he passes.
My father did not leave these margin notes for me, though. I do not think he left them in any conscious manner at all. His margin notes were a compulsion, really, a simple urge to write his thoughts on the nearest page available. My margin notes are vastly more narcissistic than that. I annotate for an audience, for any future children I may have who will want to know me through my own marginalia. I imagine a son or daughter, Ramona or James, pouring over my copy of Lorrie Moore’s Bark, finishing up “Foes,” and snickering wildly in memory of their mother’s irreverent humor as they read, “So, guy learns to love his wife again because the woman he wanted to fuck was actually a 9-11 survivor? Romance of the fucking century right here!” I am happy I am not leaving any great interpretation of the text behind. Ramona and James can find their own interpretation. I trust my future children to be conscientious readers and, also, I am shallow. I am not a refined and brooding creative type, not at all. I strive to be entertaining far more than I strive to be intellectual or artistic. I want people to laugh at my memory.
Yet, I worry I’ve left some insecurity. Sometimes, I forget the audience for a moment and write my thoughts without pause. I wrote my insecurity into the margins of The Five Stages of Grief when I was moving across the country. In “Fresco,” Pastan writes about Masaccio’s “Expulsion from the Garden,” and how the angel seems benign, like “a good civil servant” who is “merely enforcing the rules.” I underlined the section and wrote, “Remember when you saw St. Michael Slaying the Dragon at the Art Institute? You noticed the same thing—the angel seemed not furious, but business-like, as he did away with the devil. I am not like that. I don’t fight like that.”
I was referring to a small wooden statue tucked away in the corner of a wing in the upper level of The Art Institute of Chicago. The statue is actually called “St. Michael and the Devil,” and it depicts a scene from Revelations where Michael is forcing the devil back into the underworld. It’s a wood carving from the 1500’s, and the design of Michael’s attire, the intricacies of his shield and sword, as well as the many dragon-like heads of the devil, are carved out with great care and detail. Michael’s eyes, however, are dull. He does not seem passionate or brave or caught up in the glory of the moment. He is simply doing his job, which is to fight against evil, and he does so without thought. This expression is probably less of an artistic choice and more the result of the difficulty of carving expression into wooden eyes, but still. It felt significant to me at the time. I felt utterly inadequate, a person too caught up with moral quandaries and self-aggrandizing personal narratives, too preoccupied with finding ways to entertain through story and embellishment, to ever just fight evil, just help others without thought simply because it’s the right thing to do. This is what my family does—they help people. I come from a long line of social workers and progressive attorneys and sincere, not corrupt, politicians. I have one cousin who works in a lab in Irvine, California trying to make artificial limbs for amputees that move in response to signals in the brain like real flesh and bone body parts. I am the odd one out. My career path is not service-oriented. I sit. I think. I write. I do not help people, at least not in any perceptible way, and if I did I would be writing the story of my own glory in my brain as I went along. I would not fight the devil with St. Michael’s nobel detachment. I talked about this insecurity to my friend Matt, whose duplex I stayed in my first night in Los Angeles, while we were drinking too much wine and bourbon, and indulging in drunk philosophizing.
“Erin, for God’s sake,” Matt said, “Michael was an archangel. We’re not all archangels.”
“But you’re not an archangel. So what? Most of us aren’t. That doesn’t make you a bad person.”
“It’s okay not to be an archangel. It really is.”
I moved in July, settled into a one bedroom apartment in North Hollywood that got too hot in the afternoon and too cold at night. I liked this variation, much different the prolonged periods of impenetrable cold and impenetrable heat in the Midwest. I loved the weather in California and so, naively, I thought it would cure my depression. I thought I would not have an episode in a land without winter. It came back, though, about six months after I moved.
I woke up one morning, and it spoke to me.
“You’re going to die,” it said, “You know that, right? You know, you’re going to die. One day, you will be dying. It will happen.”
“Yes, I am going to die,” I replied, “Someday, but for now-”
“But you are going to die,” it said, “You are, you are, you are. When someday comes, someday will be today. Think about that. Think about it. Think about it and don’t stop.”
For about six weeks, I did not stop. I thought about dying constantly, read article after article about how the dying react emotionally, seeking out some comfort that—when my time came—I would not go out with terror. I read one article in The Huffington Post that comforted me. It was about the very elderly, and how old people tend to feel fear of death is “a young person’s problem” and something you cease to feel in old age. I read an op-ed in The New York Times that terrified me. A woman chronicled her mother’s death. She wrote of how her mother sobbed in fear for hours in the days before she died, about how Ted Kennedy died the same weekend and how bitter she was that Ted got to eat ice cream in his lavish home in Hyannis Point while her mother lay in a hospital sobbing.
The Five Stages of Grief was lost, and it took two weeks of scouring through my messy apartment to find it, tucked near the bed and covered in cat hair, and small pebbles and flecks of dirt dragged in from outside.
Pastan’s solution to death is combination of tenacity and the preservation of a legacy. In “Murder Banquet,” she recalls a friend saying, at a funeral, “I consider his death unacceptable.” The friend said this “as if it were a package, and I had accepted it.” While Pastan knew the death was inevitable, she did not and does not accept it. She fights against the inevitable, attempts to live through the snow brought upon by the murderous winter of “Ice Age.” She mourns that “the house will be wrapped in a winding sheet of snow like snuff in the nostrils, like ash in the chimneys.” Yet, it will not be a force of total destruction. People will adapt—“The children will build a house of snow, and disappear inside of it.” She links the winter to life, talking about breath forming in ice mirrors, a nod to the earlier line about snow sheets as nostrils, snow sheets as chimneys providing life-giving fire. The snow will not destroy her without a fight, but the fight will not be enough. The poem ends with:
We must learn
the cold lessons
the dinosaurs learned;
to freeze magnified into someone else’s history;
to leave our bones behind.
Death is coming, whether we find it acceptable or not, and so we leave something of ourselves behind. Bones, fossils, margin notes—anything to force a part of ourselves into the history of those who will follow.
I thought California would be a form of prolonged exposure therapy for me. I think of Los Angeles and death in the same breath, and so by emerging myself in it completely I felt I would become numb. I would be able to be the type of person who forgets the lessons of the Puritans—that all things break.
I did not.
In another poem, “Caroline,” Pastan writes of her friend who “wore her coming death gracefully as if it were a coat she’d learn to sew.” Caroline was, as far as Pastan could tell, unafraid. “When it grew cold enough,” Pastan writes, “She’d simply button it and go.” I am not Caroline. I once wanted to be, wanted to face death with grace, but perhaps this is simply not possible for someone like me. I do not think I will button up and go when my time comes. I am going to try to make houses from ice and attempt live through the inevitable winter, am going to force my bones into history in any way I can. I am going to stay as long as possible.
I find death unacceptable.
“The water here is poison,” Matt said the morning after I heard the death scream. He was pointing to a large cylindrical contraption in his kitchen, showing me how to press down on the lever to get filtered water.
“Andrew doesn’t even want me to water the plants with the tap water here,” Matt said.
“How much of that is true?” I asked, “What people say about the water?”
“I’m not sure,” Matt said.
Earlier in the morning, I asked him about the death scream. I told him I heard something dying last night, a rabbit maybe.
“A cat?” I said, my stomach turning as I thought of my two cats back in Chicago, being fed by my neighbor as I hunted for a home for us out west.
“Yeah, our neighbor’s a hoarder,” Matt said, “He takes in too many strays. A lot of them are feral, I think. Sometimes they get out at night. Coyotes get them.”
“That’s gruesome,” I said.
I took my chances. I drank the water. It was almost a year before I ordered a Brita filter on Amazon. While I am wary of tap water, I did not feel the continual exposure to pollution and airborne contaminants in Los Angeles would be negated through drinking filtered water. It is like Pastan says in “Death is the Final Consumer” – “The truth is, life is a carcinogen.”
About six months after our talk of filtered water and dead cats, I was the ring bearer at Matt’s wedding. I was the ring bearer because Matt is eccentric and, of course, he would ask a 26 year-old woman to be his ring bearer, a role traditionally filled by young boys. Because Matt is eccentric, his wedding was at Sunken City. This is an area near San Pedro, a cliff hanging over the remains of a city swallowed by a landslide in the late 1920’s. Sunken City is not open to the public, and so you have to break in by hopping the fence and then scaling a small cliff to get to the ground just above the ruins. I am terrified of heights. One of my longest running nightmares is a dream where I simply walk along the edge of a roof of a multistory building for hours, terrified of falling with each step. When I have it, I wake up with my heart pounding and my palms sweaty.
The only way to get me over the cliff was to have Andrew, Matt’s husband, walk with me step-by-step, providing calm and soothing instructions the whole way. He told me exactly what to do, exactly how many steps to take, exactly when to swing my leg around to the other side of the ledge, how to pull my body onto the solid ground on the opposite side. I called him “The Erin Whisperer.” I am not sure anyone else could have coached me along that cliff.
I did not, however, entirely trust Andrew with my safety. At one point, I said, “Stop!” and we stopped.
“I just want to give my heart and soul to Jesus,” I said, “Just, FYI. I give my soul to the lord.”
“Aren’t you an atheist?”
“Pascal’s Wager. I’m probably going to die.”
“You’re not going to die, Erin…”
“Well, we’ll see.”
I survived. At the reception, at a bar a few miles away from Sunken City, I got drunk. Part of it was happiness for my friends, but an equal part was a need to douse some of the lingering adrenaline caused by scaling the cliff in and out of the ruins. I felt almost smug, as if I had cheated something by scaling the cliff. Survival felt good. I would not need to worry about Pascal’s Wager again for a long time. I could stay, for years and years and years, I could stay.
The depression lifted just before I turned 27. Nothing happened to lift it, really. It just sort of ran its course, like it usually does, and I turned 27 happy. I had joked, for years, about making the 27 Club, and I did tequila shots with my cousin that night while shouting, “To getting famous and dying before this time next year!”
My cousin is also an atheist. I like having someone else in the family who’s openly non-religious, and we talked about death at some point that night, after consuming entirely too many different types of liquor and beer. I was drunk, and happy, and was surprised to feel at peace with the idea. When alcohol had pulled all inhibitions aside, revealing the most honest version of myself, I found peace with death. I was as shocked as anyone to hear myself saying, “But that’s what’s great. Nothing happens.”
“That’s not great,” my cousin said, “That’s horrible. That’s the worst.”
“No!” I said, “It’s great! Because you won’t know. You get to have all this time to have fun and enjoy your life and then you just disappear. Gone! No obligations, no awareness. It’s a gift, really, to live for just a little and then disappear forever.”
“What’s the point?” he said, “What’s the point then? Everything you did just goes away.”
“For you it does, sure,” I said, “But not for other people. Think about your robot bodies. They’ll still be here.”
“They’re not robot bodies. This isn’t a science fiction. They’re artificial limbs-”
“Yeah. Robot bodies. Got it.”
At several points in The Five Stages of Grief, Pastan talks about life as a test, all your collective experience material you bring to the table for some grand conclusion. In “Final,” she says, “I studied so long for my life.” She talks about how the end is near, white pages filled with “hospital corridors, each of its question marks the shape of a noose.” Her life has been building to the moment of death, life’s final exam. This sentiment does not feel, to me, particularly religious. I do not think she thinks passing or failing means gaining access to an afterlife. I think it’s more of an assessment of a personal legacy. Has she done enough? Has she contributed enough to the world? Will people look back and think of her fondly? Is she satisfied? Is she ready?
I would not call life a test. Sometimes, I want to call it a gift, but this feels entirely too sentimental and, also, religious in nature. A gift must be given, must come from something or someone, and I do not believe any higher power gave me life. I think my life was a coincidence. I think it’s because of this belief that my feelings on life and death lack consistency. To be an atheist is to admit to not knowing a great deal, and it’s hard to have invariable feelings regarding the incomprehensible and the uncertain. Sometimes, it’s beautiful that we get erased. Sometimes, it’s terrifying. Some people, and animals, scream and cry. Others eat ice cream.
My first time at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, I wanted to see the turtles swimming in the ridiculous manmade river carved into the back of the cemetery. Hollywood Forever is not a classy graveyard. It’s a place for dead celebrities who crave gawkers even in death, who want their remains to be a tourist attraction so they can entertain even after passing on. I cannot imagine anyone requesting to be buried here and thinking their grave will be a place for quiet and respectful contemplation. I want to be buried in a place like Hollywood Forever. My friend, Carrie, warned me, when I approached the lake, to watch out for the geese.
“They will chase you,” she said, “They seriously will.”
“Yeah, okay,” I said, “Sure.”
“They’re just birds.”
My friend likes to tell the story like this—“And then, 30 second later, I hear, ‘CARRIE! CARRIE! HELP!’ Here comes Erin, followed by about four angry geese, sprinting up the hill towards Johnny Ramone’s grave.”
This is a favorite story in our friends group. It never ceases to provoke laughter. I have told Carrie, several times, that if I die first, that’s the story she needs to tell at my funeral. If I manage to get famous enough to warrant burial in Hollywood Forever, famous enough for the 27 Club, I want to be buried near the gaudy river in the back. I want to be buried near the spot where I was once chased by geese on a comfortable March afternoon on my first visit to Los Angeles.