“NO ONE TEACHES US how to die. No one teaches us how to be born, either.”
— Eva Saulitis
I’ve recently joined a group of women called the Threshold Choir. Their mission is to sing at the bedsides of those who are terminally ill or actively dying; these songs are a way to honor the moment of transition. Like birth, death can be messy, exhilarating, painful, blissful, and all the stages in-between. And like birth, death can often be quiet, the gaps between breaths growing deeper. Those in attendance become midwives of a sort, assisting the client into a new state of being.
I once aspired to become a midwife after witnessing the birth of my godson Sean — in all its gore and glory. Time shifted for all of us in the room, opened to embrace kairos, a Greek concept opposite from chronology; it means, “a time lapse, a moment of indeterminate time in which everything happens.” It is also called “the supreme moment.” I never ended up going the midwife route, but the desire to be present at moments of immense change — to bear witness — remains. So, I turn to that opposite, but exact same, site: the deathbed, to use what voice I have to ease a person’s passage.
The correlative character of birth and death was never articulated as well as by Vladimir Nabokov, in his lyric autobiography Speak, Memory: “The cradle rocks above an abyss,” he writes,
and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour).
“There is no map to the place where we are going. We will be lost for a good, long time.”
In her collection of essays Becoming Earth, published shortly after her death, Eva Saulitis allows herself, and thus her reader, to remain “lost” as we travel with her toward her inevitable end. Diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in her late 40s, Saulitis mustered all her training as a scientist, a poet, and a prose writer to bear witness in a way that eschews sentimentality in favor of an authentic accounting. We follow her from initial diagnosis, remission, recurrence, and finally cessation of treatment. We join her in her home in Alaska and her land in Hawaii. We’re allowed to trail along with her to yoga class and to the hospital. And throughout it all, Saulitis treats her reader as family, refraining from putting on a one-dimensional, cheerful front (in fact, she tells us she threw a book across the room that exhorted her to find the “sexy” side of cancer.) She is angry, she is sad, she is lost, she is hopeful, and she is resigned: this narrator holds everything at once, and through her adept use of form and voice, we can trust her to tell us the truth.
Saulitis spent a career studying killer whales in Alaska’s Prince William Sound — a job that requires a great deal of patience, an observant mind, a lot of time spent looking toward the reflective surface, watching for signs, putting together data in order to fully understand something that seems inscrutable. As Krista Langlois wrote on the Orion magazine blog a few days after Saulitis’s death:
The orcas weren’t entries in a log or blips of GPS data on a map. They were a manifestation of a place Eva loved, a place of green-shouldered mountains dropping into a cold ocean, of tannin-colored salmon streams plunging through dark forest, of rocky, seaweed-strewn beaches and nights punctuated by the breathing of whales.
This empathetic stance informs the work in Becoming Earth; Saulitis, herself, will not be reduced to “entries in a log,” or a list of symptoms, treatments, medications. She refuses to offer up mere data. Saulitis is adept at using formal elements to create texture in a story that could be monotonal. While we may be hesitant, at first, to delve into what could be classified as “illness memoir,” these essays immediately show us that we’re going to experience a full life, not just a disease.
“I’ve learned something about self-mercy in the last five years. I reach out my hand to move a strand of hair from her face. I know everything will not be all right.”
Early in Becoming Earth, the reader sees how Saulitis will use time travel and multiple points of view to observe her life at different stages along a five-year span of living and dying with cancer. For example, in the above quote, the present-day Eva gazes lovingly at the Eva who existed before her first diagnosis; she is able to predict for this innocent character all that is to come. By using both the third person and future tense, Saulitis creates a voice of authority, compassion, and prophecy.
This approach seems especially significant for this material: rather than remain ensconced in received or predetermined story, imprisoned in the narrow focus of “I,” Saulitus makes use of “she” and “you” to view her unfolding life from new angles. According to Phillip Lopate, the author, most recently, of To Show and to Tell: “In the best nonfiction […] you’re always made aware that you are being engaged with a supple mind at work. The story line or plot in nonfiction consists of the twists and turns of a thought process working itself out.” It is this kind of essayistic sensibility we consistently witness in the essays in Becoming Earth.
For example, in one essay, “Nipple Unremarkable,” Saulitis intersperses the language of a typical stress-reduction meditation CD as she studies her pathology report:
Close your eyes, slow your breathing. Imagine a sheet of paper on a picnic table, held in place by a magnifying glass. Walk to the picnic table. Sit down, pick up the paper; try to decipher a language brute and unfamiliar …
With this integration of clichéd visualization techniques, Saulitis takes control of language that, while soothing, could also be infuriating in its simplistic approach. In this way, she is able to contain material that might be impossible to fully synthesize otherwise. As she muses on the phrase “nipple unremarkable” in the report, she begins to fully mourn her own body and to put it to rest. In a startling scene, Saulitis imagines the amputated breast returned to Prince William Sound, to “that safe loved place”:
Kayak to the waterfall, where the jellyfish and salmon steady themselves in the current. From your pocket, pull out your breast. Put your lips to the nipple. Hold it in your palm as you submerge your hand in the water. Let it go.
The calming, yet imperative voice of the visualization meditation has now been fully repurposed, allowing Saulitis to travel, spiritually and creatively, to places she might not have dared otherwise.
“My new eyes see it differently and maybe you can’t trust the perceptions of someone like me […] but I will give you my scouting report just the same.”
In one of her more well-known essays, “Wild Darkness,” first published in Orion, Saulitis does indeed give us a “scouting report” of both physical and spiritual worlds. Note how she speaks directly to the reader, offering something that might (or might not) come in useful for those who follow in her path. She is a guide, but not the kind that coddles or takes your load. She’ll point out the facts — she’ll even show you how much she loves the small things along the way — but she demands you carry your own weight on this trek.
We hear multiple languages in this piece, including the lexicon of the naturalist and the rhythms of the poet. For example, as Saulitis and her husband stop along a stream they’ve known in many seasons, she writes: “It is snowmelt and rain filtered through alpine tundra, avalanche chute, muskeg, fen, and bog, water fresh, alive and oxygenated, water newborn, rushing over clean stones, numbing my skin.” As she observes salmon struggling upstream in their final journey, she envies their unmediated deaths and, in the wry self-aware voice of the essayist, she writes:
I confess. I have imagined myself laid out naked on a muskeg, shuddering in my last moss-and-tannin-infused breath.
I know, I know. Dying of cancer in a bog would not look or sound pretty or peaceful. Hidden from view in this dream scene is the suffering, is the agony. Is the needle, and the morphine pump, unavailable to the salmon, eyeless, its wordless mouth opening and closing, body swaying in its tattered whitening skin.
As is consistent throughout these essays, her language, though infused with lyricism, is always and insistently rooted in the earth.
“Who I am keeps revising.”
On the day Eva Saulitis died, many of her friends posted links to “Wild Darkness” on Facebook. In the light of her death, this “scouting report” — a glimpse into that field of transition — seemed to become even more resonant.
It’s interesting to me how social media sites such as Facebook have made our living and dying more public, and our mourning more communal. Saulitis, herself, mentions Facebook several times in her essays, often using this reference to bring in the realm outside “cancer world.” The reference might be to a video of two young women salsa dancing, their bodies a stark counterpoint to how she perceives her own. Another might consist of news from the field, such as sightings of the first birds of spring.
While composing her essays, Saulitis also kept up another strand of writing, this one on the website CaringBridge. CaringBridge acts as a common space for friends and families to learn updates on a loved one’s health, and to offer support in return. Saulitis posted up until 10 days before her death, in her own meticulous style, and, like the essays in Becoming Earth, each entry gives us field notes to both interior and exterior environments. Yet they serve a different purpose; these writings feel more raw, akin to subliminal notes running below a more crafted narrative. Also, readers are able to comment and respond, and Saulitas can acknowledge their support. Sometimes other voices appear, most notably the voice of her sister Mara, who is able to report to us when Eva cannot. So this CaringBridge journal is able to show us multiple perspectives, while also taking the form of a more direct conversation.
In this entry, written about three weeks before she died, Saulitis speaks to us about the flavor of her present moment:
This is nothing like I thought it would be. This is more peaceful, more beautiful, more natural, more heartbreaking, at times more difficult, at times more easeful, than I imagined. The words pop up in my mind, and I hesitate to write them. I don't know if I'll feel this every moment, or if this feeling is fleeting like the last light in the sky. Death is perfect.
This is the power of Saulitis’s writing: whether for public consumption or in the intimate form of the CaringBridge journal, she brings us face to face with the complex reality of living and dying at the same time. We can’t deny it any longer, because she can’t deny it, and never has. CaringBridge seems to show us the life as it transpires alongside the writing process, and this work appears to be happening in “real time.” In all her writing over the last five years, online and in print, Saulitis allows us to accompany her as she bears witness to herself, in multiple forms of presence, even while pointing toward her eventual absence.
The Epilogue to Becoming Earth, titled “Ever Moving World,” brings together quite closely these manifold modes of expression. Saulitis sits us down at her kitchen table to contemplate the long days that now recede into the past, while the days of the future shorten. “Time,” she writes, “no longer stretches forward from under my feet to the horizon …” She sets her sights on one mountain, Grace Ridge, that she’s relied on for years as a “touchstone” to her place on earth. As she is remembering — and imagining — days on Grace Ridge, her writing leads us here:
I died. The words pop out on the page. I died and the mountain remained. I died and the baby leaves on the birch trees broke through their waxy casks in what was once my yard. I died and the nettles pushed up through layers of fallen birch leaves.
Saulitis dies on the page, and enacts, with us, the full transition with which the book has been grappling. She catalogs what will remain on earth — how, of course, her passing will be just that: a passing through. But the beauty and power of her writing is that we now understand this basic truth viscerally; it might be our own fear and grief that now give way to an emotion for which there are no words. Her story ends, as all stories will end, in great silence — in kairos.
“Perhaps,” she writes, “the most authentic things are wordless […] when we’re storyless even to ourselves.” On the cover of Becoming Earth, the letters that make up her title gradually subsume into a background of water and soil. Like Eva herself, her words “become earth,” become the mulch from which we might, in later seasons, find sustenance.
Brenda Miller is an author as well as a professor at Western Washington University.