On Death and Publication

Today, Tuesday September 27th 2022, is the official publication date of my new novel, Livid. This is the second of two novels of mine that have come out this month. The first was Unleashed, which was published on September 6th. Needless to say, I am overjoyed. I celebrated with friends at a book party for both books a couple of days ago, and I will be doing a reading with a surrogate reader, the wonderful author, Whitney Otto — author of numerous books, most famously How To Make An American Quilt — next week in Portland. (Oct. 6–7pm at Annie Bloom’s Books. For other events and interviews check my website: www.caiemmonsauthor.com) I feel a deep contentment about having both of these books out in the world now. I’m fond of them both, and I think they’re probably my best work. I hope readers will discover and enjoy them.

I don’t mean to make this post into one of shameless self-promotion (though I really do hope you read my books), but I had to begin this way in order to contextualize what I am going to say next. There is something very surreal about experiencing the pleasure of having two novels published in the same month against the backdrop of my impending — but uncertain — death.

I have been taking a deep dive into thoughts about death recently, occasioned by worrying about losing hand function, and wondering if and when I might opt for Death with Dignity. Part of that deep dive has been asking myself if I’ve been too cavalier about claiming to have made peace with death, and wondering if I fear it more than I’ve let on.

Three things have come to mind immediately about fearing death. The first has to do with the passage itself, the moment of going from living to dying. I know, from having been a Hospice volunteer, that that moment is rarely easy. It can be painful, even with the presence of morphine, and it can be complicated by resistance, especially if loved ones are nearby. Most people, in that moment, don’t want to leave. It takes resolve and concentration, almost like giving birth. Having witnessed the pain and difficulty up close, I had a period of worrying about this aspect of death, even dreading it. But after a great deal of thought, that worry has subsided. I know I’ll have plenty of painkillers available, and also, when the time comes, I will be ready.

The second thing that can make death scary is worry about what lies beyond. I watched my mother’s body being pushed into the crematorium. She looked so severe, nothing like the mother I had known, and somehow that severe expression made me worry that she might feel the burning. I hope she didn’t; I believe she didn’t; and I have opted to be cremated myself, but how can we ever know what happens as a body is being burned? I wonder, too, where the energy that has been embodied in “me” will go. It has to go somewhere, because energy, speaking from the perspective of physics, never dies, it only finds another expression. Will my atoms disperse in different directions? Will my energy reassemble itself in some other form, human or otherwise? I have spoken before in one of these posts of my hope that I won’t be reincarnated as anything. For a while my obsessive mind hooked onto the fear of being reincarnated as a rat — but I don’t even want to be reincarnated as a more enlightened person. Nor do I want to be reincarnated as an animal, much as I have sometimes envied the life of our cat, who slinks around the house finding places to sleep, then samples a bit of food before slinking outside to find other places to sleep. Occasionally he interrupts his routine to catch a mouse, or a vole, or a chipmunk. He has no trouble finding a human to stroke him when he needs it, but he is beholden to no one. An enviable life.

I would love to encounter my dead parents and friends. A very dear friend died much too early, and I’d love to spend more time with her, but that hope is predicated on the existence of an Afterlife I don’t subscribe to. However, I also know that what I believe has no bearing on what really happens. I know nothing about what happens to human energy after death, and no one else does either. We can only speculate. In the absence of knowing the truth, I can either worry, or make peace with uncertainty. I’ve been trying to do the latter, and mostly this worry, too, has subsided.

What I continue to grapple with most in relation to death is the FOMO it inspires. Fear of missing out. Life will go on without me. My husband will find a new spouse. My friends will find new friends. I won’t be around to see my son find a partner and have a child. My books, without me pushing them, will fall into greater obscurity. I know that certain people will remember and miss me, but I will be entirely without agency in those relationships. I will be annihilated. That’s a strong word, but it encapsulates what I feel about slipping away from life while others continue on.

I happened upon an essay this morning by Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza about the widespread use of hyperbolic language and punctuation. Awesome! Unbelievable! Radical! !!!!! Why are we so emphatic, so enthusiastic, so insistent on what we are saying? I am certainly a practitioner of such linguistic and punctuation excess. I can spend a lot of time editing texts and emails to make sure I don’t use too many exclamation points that make me sound idiotic, illiterate, or pandering. A couple of lines from this essay popped out at me. “If you’re not talking, you’re not there, so the more people speak, the more real you are. Stop talking and you disappear. If we’re talking this much, it might be that we’re desperate to exist.” Desperate to exist.

Publication, and even the writing of this blog, confirm my existence, amplifying it, reminding people I’m still here, even as I approach death. I have never been concerned with having a literary legacy. After all, the viruses and nematodes and rats that will inhabit the planet after we’ve ruined it for human habitation probably won’t be reading. So I’ve always felt I’m perfectly happy to write while I’m alive, to be read by whoever finds and likes my work, and then be forgotten. But now I’m wondering if that’s true. I recently witnessed another writer approaching death and writing like a dervish, as if the act of writing would keep him alive, and I wondered why. Didn’t his imminent death show him that writing wasn’t really all that important? But now I understand him. And I see that the deeper truth for me is that I hope my words do have consequence after I die. I’m not talking about entering the canon, but I’m hoping there are ripples at least for a while.

Anything that happens after death to do with my words or my reputation is not something I can control, but to recognize that I am not above hoping for some small legacy reminds me so much that part of living is asserting your presence on the planet, finding ways to say, I’m here! This is what is behind the vocalizations of many animals. Certain clucks of chickens, certain howls of wolves, certain sounds made by whales (and so many other animals) are all intended to announce their presence to other members of their species. The flowers we planted around our house last spring are the same way, still sending out new blooms despite the shorter cooler days and the withering of their leaves. I imagine them crying out to whoever might notice: We’re not done yet!

And, on this publication day, I see myself in those flowers. I’m not done yet. I’m still trying to eke out yet another bloom even as my limbs and hands weaken. I hope other members of my species will notice. It is yet another experience of feeling a connection with both the living and the dying.

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Cai Emmons

Cai Emmons is the author of 5 books of fiction, most recently the novel, SINKING ISLANDS. Two more of her novels will be published in 2022.