The writer who wrote about living until her death.
The notebook in the log cabin at the writers’ retreat had entries from previous occupants. The immediate occupant before me last summer was Cai Emmons, and she wrote happily about her most recent stay in that beautiful and remote place.
I eagerly looked up Cai Emmons on my laptop, and discovered her webpage, that she was an award-winning writer, and that she blogged frequently on Medium. I wrote her a note on her webpage, saying her energy was still in the cabin, and I was having a productive week.
I discovered in reading her essays on Medium that she was about my age, and had been diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease.
As ALS progressed in Cai, rapidly it seemed, she lost her ability to talk. She did not lose her voice. She continued to type out eloquent posts for all of us to read and to learn from. She chose her day of departure through Oregon’s Death with Dignity law, which allows for euthanasia when the patient has a diagnosed terminal illness and less than six months to live.
I can only guess that the use of a laptop and keyboard as her muscle function waned was painstakingly slow. I think her writing was her final gift — to all of us, and perhaps to herself, as she described herself as a completionist.
What are the lessons I learned from Cai? I was reminded that the written word can touch people across miles and time, people we may never know personally, and yet are personally connected to.
I learned how to choose life while in the process of dying. Cai did not waiver from attending to her writing, not it appears, from her friendships, although I am sure she had to ration her energy and strength. Her final book tour was last fall, to promote two new novels. She traveled in her wheelchair, with her agent.
She tidied things up. I have had tidying up on my list for a long time — the list of accounts, passwords, things other people should know, things I don’t want anyone else to know. Writing projects to finish (and start), written pieces stuffed in files and on the cloud to organize.
She surrendered self-control over her physical body. For me, maybe for most of us, the loss of physical independence is a huge fear. She became dependent on the caregivers in her life, and her willingness to surrender control is an example to me.
While we may have a fantasy script that we will pass gently to the other side in the middle of sleep, the final wrestling with how to leave life is not pretty.
Cai’s final post to us said she would see us next week. Maybe she meant to still be on this side of the curtain. Maybe she does see us. I do know her scheduled death date was moved up from what she had publicly announced.
I admire her choice to exit on her own terms, as much as she could. She had a deadline, with all the meaning that word originally invoked.
She sent her last novel to her agent on the day of her death. She did, after all, describe herself as a completionist. Cai is, was, a novelist and teacher at the University of Oregon. She died on January 2, 2023.
I wondered, who am I, to write a memorial essay about Cai? She has many friends, students, acquaintances, people she knew in the writing world.
I am none of those things. Just a would-be writer who discovered her blogs on Medium.
I want as many people as possible to read them, now, and be inspired, too. As she said, not unironically, her writing career is on an upswing.
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