When I moved to Homer 16 years ago, death suddenly became visible in my life. Flyers went up on a wall at the post office announcing deaths—the old homesteader who had regaled locals and visitors with her stories for years, a middle-aged mother swept away by a wave while on vacation someplace warm, a father of two young boys crushed by heavy equipment. The local papers covered them too—in obituaries and stories. A young woman caretaking a wilderness lodge across the bay for the winter with her boyfriend died when their kayak overturned during a recreational paddle. One evening, while I was playing pick-up soccer in the high school gym, a man collapsed from a heart attack. Another story in the papers described a nine-year-old boy who wandered away from his mother on the most well-trafficked beach in town and died in a shallow slough.
Perhaps it was partly that I was an adult in a place where I’d never been a kid, and so my adult-eye view of the world picked it up. But mostly I think it was that I’d landed in a community small enough that deaths were noticed, that they reverberated beyond the confines of family and the closest friends. Even so, although I saw the notices of these deaths, I had no idea of the grief, sorrow, and awe experienced by the people who walked through its door, and those left behind.
I think it’s safe to say that no death in this community has been felt as acutely—has been witnessed as closely—as that of Eva Saulitis last Saturday afternoon. Eva, a whale biologist and writer, author of four books of poetry and nonfiction, died at home of cancer. She may have taken her last breaths on her bed next to her partner, Craig Matkin, with a few family members and close friends present, but her death also took place in front of the rest of us, blaringly in the open.
Eva had spent nearly all of her summers since graduating from college in the Lower 48 in Prince William Sound, where she lived on a boat far from any town and studied orcas with Craig. By following pods on Craig’s old commercial salmon fishing boat, photographing their distinct dorsal fins and listening to their communication by underwater microphone, she got to know individual whales and to know and love the Sound intimately. In the winter, the couple lived in Homer, escaping during the darkest months to a rural property in Hawaii.
Eva was my first writing teacher. The first winter I was in Homer, I signed up for an essay-writing class at the local community college. Eva would light a candle in the center of the room; she had a way of inviting writing and inviting openness. The stories that poured out during that class were beautiful and heartbreaking—a woman who grew up with a father who had damaged his brain during a failed suicide attempt, another woman forever scarred by sexual assault, another trying to explain the physical sensation of extreme depression.
Although my story was not nearly so dramatic, there was something in me that eagerly wanted out. The first essay I turned in for discussion contained phrases—even whole sentences, and more importantly, nagging questions—that became a natural history memoir I would publish nearly a decade later. I took four more classes with her.
Eva kept an online journal during her initial diagnosis of cancer five years ago at the age of 46. When the cancer returned in the lining of her lung three years later, she picked up the writing again, and it became fierce, vulnerable, wise, and sad. Scores of people—locally and from across the country and, perhaps, world—followed the progression of her illness as she contemplated the end of her life. Images of dead, spawned-out pink salmon Eva saw every fall along creeks in Prince William Sound—rotting corpses that would become blueberries and spruce trees and bears—inspired a furiously beautiful essay, “Wild Darkness,” that explored her impending death in our death-phobic culture. In Hindu tradition, Eva explained, death is not the opposite of life; it is the opposite of birth. Death, she wrote, was part of life, something not to turn away from. That essay was published and then republished multiple times, including in the Sunday magazine of the Alaska Dispatch, the state’s largest paper.
When Eva returned to Homer from Seattle last Thanksgiving, when she’d made the decision to stop treatment, she wrote a letter of gratitude—a thank you to this place and its people—in the local paper. A two-part essay appeared in successive weeks in the Dispatch. She continued her online diary. Her words were everywhere, it seemed. She was openly examining her death, and we couldn’t turn away.
A month and a half ago, I visited with Mavis Muller, a local artist who every fall builds a massive basket—a piece of public art—with the help of a dozen or so volunteers, including Eva over the years. Each fall, the basket is ceremonially burned on one of the beaches in town. As part of preparing for her own death, Eva asked Mavis to help her and a few close members of her family weave what Mavis would refer to as a “basket casket”—an overly cute term that described exactly what it was. A little more than a month before Eva died, I stopped by Mavis’s studio to see the casket. Like Eva’s beautiful and deeply moving writing, the casket was a testament to her connection to the natural world. Woven out of boughs from alder, chokecherry, birch, and willow, the basket was decorated with treasures Eva had collected in Prince William Sound and elsewhere—kelp, a dried sea star, the wing of a green-winged teal. Eva had bundled grasses herself and laid them inside the casket—the pillowy surface upon which, after death, she would lie. And as she had invited others to travel the end of her life with her through her writing, she had invited friends and acquaintances to weave something meaningful into the casket—a braid of sweet grass from one friend, a bundle of sage from another.
In contemplating “taking the other trail,” as Eva referred to her impending death, in sharing the fear and fury and gratitude that stormed within her, Eva helped us all see death more clearly, and in that way to learn more what it means to be alive.
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