What novelist Cai Emmons taught us about dying

Cai Emmons, a writer and playwright, was furiously busy in the months leading up to her death on Monday at the age of 71. But she may be best remembered for a blog she maintained after she was diagnosed with bulbar-onset amyotrophic lateral sclerosis on Feb. 4. , 2021.

In a series of posts, she candidly discussed the changes in her physical self, while also celebrating moments of joy. She wrote of his willingness to hold back nothing, to mend the fractures of the past, to focus on the moments of beauty and to notice the sublimity of a life well lived. As she wrote in his latest post on Dec. 28, “I wanted to devour the world, do it all, even with the end in sight.”

In late November, Cai went on a guided psychedelic mushroom trip meant to get her comfortable with the physical process of dying. “When the mushrooms took hold,” she wrote, “I imagined breaking free of my body, wriggling like a worm discharging a thick skin, then hovering above it as I watched myself be carried away.” Shortly thereafter, she asserted her right to die under Oregon’s Death With Dignity law and obtained clearance from her doctors.

A drug trip to explore what death might be like was in the nature of a woman with boundless curiosity. Whether she was recounting her love of the skinny dip, playing practical jokes, or diving into a new writing project, her sense of play and humor have endeared her to friends and readers.

Emmons, whose novels have explored topics including women’s anger, motherly love and grief over a planet in crisis and whose most recent novels, “Livid” and “Unleashed,” were both released in September, has died surrounded by family and friends in her home in Eugenio.

“Cai Emmons ended his remarkable life today,” reads a statement released on Twitter Monday from his family. “He faced his last days with clarity, untold amounts of courage and entirely on his terms. She died while she lived, surrounded by love.

Eventually, Emmons was making some new friends, and I consider myself extremely lucky to have become one of them. I first met Cai about her and her husband, playwright Paul Calandrino, in August when I interviewed her for a profile in The Times. We sat on a patio surrounded by flowers and hummed by hummingbirds, communicating with the help of Emmons speech synthesizer. Several hours passed as we discussed her writing career, her political passions, and her more than 20-year partnership with Calandrino, whom she married shortly after her diagnosis. One of my best memories of that afternoon is the sound of Cai’s frequent laughter.

Emmons was born on January 15, 1951 in Boston and raised in Lincoln, Mass. She graduated from Yale before earning an MFA in film from New York University and another in fiction from the University of Oregon. She taught at USC before joining the faculty at the University of Oregon, teaching fiction and screenwriting from 2002 to 2018. A documentary about her by director Sandra Luckow is in production.

A woman sits cross-legged on a bed and writes on a pad of paper.

Cai Emmons, in the bedroom workspace he called the “cockpit.” He finished his last novel shortly before his death.

(Todd Cooper / For the Times)

Initially a playwright, Emmons wrote the plays Mergatroid and When Petulia Comes, both staged in New York. In addition to a collection of short stories, he has published six novels. “His Mother’s Son” (2003) received the Oregon Book Award for fiction. Her 2018 eco-feminist novel, “Weather Woman,” was praised by KLCC-FM, the NPR affiliate in Eugene, for its “evocative writing and resonant themes” and balancing “a thoughtful concern for the world” with “individual human concerns and passions that make for a compelling story.”

Even though “Unleashed,” which intertwines a mother’s grief over her only son’s departure for college with the ravages of a Northern California wildfire, was written before her ALS diagnosis, Emmons felt it reflected the his body’s awareness of the disease. “The novel was written during the year I was losing my voice,” she noted. “It seemed to run out, and it was so weird, but I didn’t care… That book felt like something that was a roar from my body.”

When we first spoke, he was working on a new novel, which he completed shortly before his death. His most recent work is an exploration of anger at the rise of fascism and nationalism in 21st century America. Cai lamented the setbacks in the movements towards gender rights and racial and social justice. She recognized that her growing sense of peace with death had to be balanced with her passionate anger at the injustices that would befall her.

He has also explored these themes on his blog. In response to a friend’s question about whether Cai was “a Pollyanna,” she said she was genuinely optimistic, as the presence of her friends and family encouraged her. But she, she observed, “I live in a state of cognitive dissonance, floating in my hammock of love as I watch humanity fall apart.”

Shortly after interviewing Cai, I received an email inviting my husband and I to dinner. More meals soon followed. One of these occurred on the night of the midterm elections; we toasted as Cai was reassured that, at least for now, American democracy had been preserved. His parents’ civil rights activism inspired his first literary work, a poem about racism. On this November night, he shook his fist in triumph as various contests were called.

During my last visit with her in mid-December, it was obvious she had lost most of her physical strength. But as we spoke in her “cockpit,” the full workspace she’d created in her bed, she still radiated exuberance as she recounted the richness of Thanksgiving moments she spent with those who now survive her: Paul and their son, Ben ; her sisters and their families. The smallest custody interactions between Paul and Cai showed what you can only call true love. In a blog post by her, she wrote about Paul brushing her hair every day: “I close my eyes as he strokes and strokes and tousles. I’d be happy to sit there all day under his gentle care. The ritual has become almost sacred.

I feel honored that chance has brought Cai into my life; watching his journey has changed me in ways that I am only now beginning to process. Shortly after 4pm Monday at my home in Eugene, I observed wild cloud formations from my window and figured it was loose and riding the wind. She died at 4:12pm

In “Unleashed,” Cai penned a passage that’s hard not to read as her reckoning with those she would leave behind. “We would become a memory for them, or a dream that they could make sense of and think over and over again, trying to understand… We imagined them wishing that one day they too could experience the satisfactions of a bare and simple life.

“No greed, no greed, no ambition, no malice.
Enough. Left. Point.
Smell the glorious world.

Berry writes for a variety of publications and tweets @BerryFLW.

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