Two Deaths, A Sheriff, And A River
Notes From Nevada
I was at a little bluegrass BBQ when it happened. I was a week into an off-grid cabin retreat at Sorensen’s, the inn owned by my best friend Machete’s family in Lake Tahoe, and she and I had walked over to the inn’s cafe for lunch. They were having a bluegrass and BBQ fundraiser for a local nature conservancy. It was all string instruments and coleslaw, the smell of the grill and the fresh air of late spring in the High Sierras. I was biting into baby back ribs when someone stopped by the table and calmly 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 knowing led to us holding space for her through the process. She knew no one else there. 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. We kept her distracted when blood started pouring from his mouth, a result of the vigorous CPR, and Machete drove her when they took her husband down the mountain to the ER in Minden, the nearest town. 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 informercial playing loudly in the ER waiting room. I found the remote and put it on mute. She said more than once 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. I was reminded once again 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.
Memento mori — The ancient practice of reflection on mortality that goes back to Socrates, which translates to “Remember you must die.” A practice of reflection on mortality, especially as a means of considering the vanity of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits. In early Buddhist texts, a prominent term is maraṇasati, which translates as “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. http://www.dailystoic.com
That night we made sure she had dinner, gave her several rounds of hugs, and left her to rest in her cabin at Sorensen’s. She left us a very nice note filled with gratitude the next morning before she left. I hope we’ll meet again.
The whole scenario felt very similar to how my grandfather passed away, 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 asphalt as it happened, which was both traumatic and an honor. I’ve never stopped missing him.
Still at the cabin, we woke up to the news that Stella, our beautiful friend since 7th grade, had passed away in the night. Breast cancer. A few weeks earlier, Machete had gone to visit her and they’d given me a call. I’m so sorry I never called when your mom died! was the first thing Stella said to me. 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,” which I appreciated. 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. I appreciated Stella being real.
We spent an hour on the phone, the three of us reminiscing about being in high school plays together, about how Stella was a legendary Marilyn Monroe impersonator around town, a legendary singer and actress, basically — a legend, 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. She watched the trailer to our movie, which is a comedy about death, she told us to keep going, that it’s important work. We asked her to give us a sign when she was on the other side, how did she want to appear to us? I’ll come to you as a star. Look at the sky — I’ll be there shining for you. 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 feeling of the air there, 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.
“We have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one.” Confucius
And now it’s a Tuesday in Nevada and 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, I am grateful to be alive. Memento mori. A river cuts through the valley and there’s a little beach, so even though it’s 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 and do some writing. 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, I can only assume). 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 lost 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. His brown eyes look troubled, so I ask him what it’s like for him, as a sheriff, to deal that 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 about 20 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 in Nature, he wished he got more alone time 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. Tell them I’m fine, and thanks for their concern.
The sheriff nods and 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 Nature healing now his, my processing of the heart attack I witnessed and the stoic grace of the wife, the loss of my grandfather, the loss of dear Stella, now transmuted into the healing the sheriff needed, for all the death and trauma he’s absorbed over the years. He paused and looked back at me. Thank you, he said. I smiled and said nothing. I took a photo of the river rocks I’d been laying on, packed up my things and left.