Knowing What’s Going To Happen Next: When a Friend Dies

“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme,and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end.   Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity.” – Gilda Radner

Left ot right: Maureen, Melissa and Natalie, front row at the Château de Versailles.

Natalie in her light brown curls, signature smile, and beige trench coat, sitting at my left elbow (I’m center, in burgundy). Château de Versailles

I learned this morning that Natalie, whom I’ve known most of my life, and who is only a few years older than I, passed away yesterday at 6:32 p.m.  She had battled the devouring dragon of cancer for a long time. Her death, I have been told, was quiet.

At my desk, blithely culling my decades-deep archives for pictures for yesterday’s post, I was thinking of this woman as her image passed under my eyes. It’s strange and painful but somehow beautiful to think that in the same moment I was posting away, crossing and recrossing my legs, breathing steadily and smiling while studying a friend’s features, that very friend was being released from this life and the diseased body that encased her buoyant spirit.

Someone wrote on Facebook that “her spirit [was now] free as the wind,” and someone else expressed her conviction that Natalie is now surrounded by loving heavenly beings. These are things I believe.

Correction: These are things I know.

I don’t expect anyone else to believe or know them as I do. But given that the header-title up there announces the fact that Melissa Writes of Passage, it makes sense that I stare down the ultimate and common passage, death. I do not know death from the horrifying and perhaps purifying experience of extended suffering that Natalie had, the one that her family and closest friends have ushered her through; I do, however, know some other things from irrefutable, repeated and shared experience that is so intimate, I hesitate to put it in words, written or whispered. Forgive me as I lurch and fumble.

“Life after death” is about two realities: what happens with those of us who survive the death of another, and what happens when we die.  Life in some form follows both events. I’ll talk first about the first, grief, which I know well. I’m still moving toward the second experience, as are we all.


Natalie, front and center; ninth from the left, tenth from the right

Surviving another’s death; Living with grief

In this slippery passage of life, we can’t be certain about what’s going to happen next. We can, however, be sure that death will be at the end of all the uncertainty, the final leveler. It will be there, waiting, at whatever will mark the end of your mortality and mine, and of the mortality of every last person we know and love. Death can come in any way, at any moment, and to any one. Let that be a warning. Let that be a reward.

With that backdrop, being in this life might sometimes feel like we’re Mr. Magoo bumbling through an obstacle course built on lava-filled and rapidly shifting plate tectonics while being chased down on all sides by Dementors, Orks and Aliens.  I’ve had those not-so-deliciously ambiguous moments, which sprang not from anticipating my own death, but from outliving my own child.

Gildna Radner, the comedienne, was a performer, as was Natalie, the violinist.  Both women died too young of cancer. For some bereaved, I can imagine their friends’ suffering and deaths feel cruel, brutal, heinous, ironic, senseless.   As the survivor of my son’s tragic death at age eighteen, I know something about the way these feelings of grief can throb and rage inside the rib cage, gnaw at the base of the brain, put dangerous tension on relationships, and how they can singe the corners and core of the heart.

There are other responses, however, which might come over time and from making challenging, deliberate choices. They can lead from raging in the rib cage to enlargement, from gnawing in the mind to illumination, from tension in our ties to welding, from singeing in the heart to singing.

What is the most important ‘”challenging and deliberate” choice we who live might make in order to glean something from death?

I suggest we begin by choosing to look at it. “Let death be daily before your eyes, and you will never entertain any abject thought, nor too eagerly covet anything,” wrote Epicetus. A modern spiritual leader expanded on the same thought:

All men know that they must die.  And it is important that we should understand the reasons and causes of our exposure to the vicissitudes of life and of death, and the designs and purposes of our coming into the world, our sufferings here, and our departure hence. . . .  It is but reasonable to suppose that God would reveal something in reference to the matter, and it is a subject we ought to study more than any other.  We ought to study it day and night, for the world is ignorant in reference to their true condition and relation.  If we have any claim on our Heavenly Father for anything it is for knowledge on this important subject.

Joseph Smith

Until the evil of death is acknowledged for the traumatic event it is, we live, I believe, actively devaluing and rejecting two of our most humanizing qualities; vulnerability and compassion. Minimizing the impact of death also numbs the innate spiritual ability in all of us to refigure our relationships, which I believe continue in spite of separation through death. These continuing ties can greatly enhance our living years. They can guide us.  They can, even, give us greater life. Dr. Kaye Redfield Jamison, clinical psychologist and author, says something similar:

‘Blessings may break from stone,’ wrote George McKay Brown. ‘Who knows how.’ Grief is such a stone. It gives much to the living, slows time that one might find a way to a different relationship with the dead. It fractures time to bring into awareness what is being mourned and why. … ‘Sometimes I think that the search for suffering and the remembrance of suffering are the only means we have to put ourselves in touch with the whole human condition,’ wrote Graham Greene.  Grief is at the heart of the human condition.  Much is lost with death, but not everything.  Life is not let loose of lightly, nor is love.  There is grace in death.  There is life.

Kay Redfield JamisonNothing Was The Same,  pp.181,182

Our own death; Living eternally

What I can add to Gilda Radner is that after death, I know something does happen. That is delicious to me. Deliciously unambiguous.

Death as an event is not shrouded in ambiguity. It is straightforward, natural, an advancement, a transformation, a passage. As spiritual entities inhabiting mortal bodies, we are not meant to remain in this decaying state nor on this earth forever.  We are intended for far more magnificent and expansive experiences. As said the French philosopher and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience.

Natalie wearing a flowered peasant blouse and her irreplicable smile.

Natalie in a flowered peasant blouse.

But we cling desperately to this life. It’s only human to do so.  Hundreds of devoted friends fought and campaigned and lobbied the medical and heavenly powers that be for Natalie’s life. There were glorious benefits concerts, generous donations, organized caretakers, trips for retreat, quiet mornings spent just sitting with her, I’ve been told, and the countless communal fasts and desperate prayers, I’m sure. Mine were among them.  We’ve all known how the best in the human spirit can be caught into the warm updraft of the divine, and how entire communities, entire lives, can be altered by a crisis like this. How we will tear, tooth and nail, and shred at heaven’s curtain for a brother or sister’s survival!

Last month, however, Natalie visited my parents.  She’s known them, fellow musicians, since the days captured in these photos from the ’70’s. It was a simple, brief visit in their living room.  Natalie was conserving energy, she said, which explained her hushed voice, her stillness, the palpable calm that spread out in the room like the sound and shade of a sunset.

“We’re redoubling our prayers for you, Natalie,” my Mom said.

“And hoping for another breakthrough and some sort of–”

Natalie cut my Dad off, mid-phrase, with a limp wave of the hand.

“No, no. Please. Don’t pray for healing,” she insisted, her eyes steady.  “I’m prepared now. Pray for my release.”

I have to conclude she told others the same. And released she was.

Natalie didn’t know in July of 2007, when she played prelude music on her violin at our son’s funeral, that cancer cells were already conspiring to assault and destroy her body.  That only six years later, she would join our musician boy in the neighboring realm – “the next room”, as a prophet once called heaven, the vast world of spirits.

What happened next? Graceful, ivory-skinned Natalie stepped into a slow explosion of ultra radiance peopled with “loving heavenly beings,” who from their watchful position, have known and mentored her in life, who have in turn awaited her arrival with shimmering joy and outstretched arms, who have since swept her up,  gathering her into glistening, swirling currents of unbelievable, unearthly music. She is playing as never before.

Natalie in lavender  maid of honor at my sister's wedding.

Natalie in lavender sash, as maid of honor at my sister’s wedding.

DO THE WALK OF LIFE: Thoughts On Mortality While Limping Around Provence

Walking, jogging. I don’t know how I could survive without either of them.  I inherited my highly-mobile gene, I think, from my Dad, who was jogging in the ‘60’s, decades before it was hip to do so.

“Was that to keep you young?” I once asked him.

He lifted a brow. “No. It was to wake me up.”

Dad, snoozing.

Dad, snoozing.

Raised on a dairy farm in Utah, my Dad had gotten used to awakening to the shock of cold water splashed on him either by his father or by any one of his three brothers. Predawn, those men tugged on boots, denims and gloves and loaded into the back of a huge red cattle truck.  If ice water hadn’t gotten them started, a lung-full or two of the stinging smack of fresh manure usually finished the job.

Years later, when Dad was knee-deep in other kinds of. . .well, when he was deep in his Ph.D. studies, he pushed himself out on a jog every morning at dawn to wake himself up for long days of study.  He jogged daily until a few years ago. I think he jogged in the same pair of baggy grey sweats and worn tennis trainers for four decades because this was not about trendiness or beating a personal best or controlling body fat. It was more about waking up and staying intensely awake, which is the way he lives.

Student group, Château de Versailles. (Dad's taking the picture.)

Foreign study group, Château de Versailles. (Dad’s behind the camera.)

Student group, Rome. (Dad's taking the picture again.)

Foreign study group, Rome. (Dad’s again behind the camera.)

When I was a teenager and my parents led a foreign study group to Austria, my Dad out-cruised every last of the 30+ college students. Up mountain faces to European castles. Down winding paths into ancient grottos. He blazed the way, puffs of smoke trailing him like The Road Runner from my childhood cartoons.  Bee-beeeep!

Dad in the '70's, Madrid, Spain.

Dr. David Dalton, my Dad, in the late ’70’s, Madrid, Spain.

Because of that energy, the students gave him the name “Bionic Beine,” (Beine: German for legs), which proudly-worn title makes today’s gradual physical wearing down that much more frustrating. At almost eighty years old, my father’s body is starting to show its many years of good use, and now it’s come down to the hard truth that he needs a hip replacement, and soon.

But until he gets that real bionic Beine (or better, bionic Hüfte, or hip), his mobility is crumbling right along with the head of his right femur. “Avascular necrosis of the femoral head,” the orthopedic surgeon called it.  “But in my language,” my Dad said, “it’s called agonizing.”

First there was the limping.

In Rousillon, France

Dad in his late ’70’s,  Rousillon, France

Then the cane. . .Then the crutch. . .Then two crutches. . .


Then more and more sitting to rest from constant discomfort . . .


And then, last week, the shooting, excruciating agony. . .

Hiking up inner walkways of too-photogenic Rousillon, France

Hiking up inner walkways of the too-photogenic Rousillon, France

We’d been marking my parents’ 56th (fixty-whuooaaw-sixth!) wedding anniversary in southern France.  There’s much beauty to photograph in Provence where we took them, and my Dad’s not one to be told he can’t catalogue the whole thing in pictures.  He’s one to sling his Nikon around his neck and climb up that drawbridge, take photos from the other tipsy precipice, run around this turret, slay the dragon, and climb on top of its back, only to get better light for the prefect shot.

Main square, Rousillon

Main square, Rousillon

Door, Roussilon, France.

Door, Roussilon.

Mausanne-des-Alpilles ladies

Mausanne-des-Alpilles ladies

I followed his lead and let him function as he wished. (Sometimes, though, I hijacked the Nikon as surrogate photographer, especially when stairs were involved.)


But I learned something: folks raised on farms don’t acknowledge pain. That is, maybe, until they are immobilized by it.


It wasn’t the ambulance that was most disturbing for my Dad. Neither was it the gurney, the wheelchair, the emergency room staff chattering at him in rapid fire French (one language he doesn’t speak).  Nor was it the crews wheeling him in and out of laboratories for hours on end taking imaging and tests. It wasn’t the morphine drip, nor the long needles to draw fluid from his joints, nor the news that he not only has a deteriorating joint, but that he also has ancillary symptoms that manifest like acute gout.  He didn’t seem to be bothered by the news that for as far as he can see, he’d be in pain that cannot be eliminated, only muffled.

It wasn’t all that. What was disturbing – and I saw this in his eyes – was that this body, the one he’d taken such good care of all these years, was betraying him. He was trapped. Inside himself. And there was nothing he could do about it.  Laid flat out and unable – regardless of intelligence, training, charm, will, wit, or all those accumulated years of hard farm labor and morning jogs – unable and incapable of demanding his body’s cooperation.  Dad was scared.

Bionic? Ironic.

The guy who was hip enough to jog in the early ‘60’s, now hobbling on a disintegrating hip?


We’ve brought him home to our Swiss village, where, thanks to medication, he can try one daily stroll with my mother at his side. Here, there are red velvet flowers hanging in the window boxes and healthy brown-splotched cows grazing in a neighbor’s plot of green.  The people with Nordic walking poles come tramp-tramp-tramping past our home every day, walking (some of them) the last kilometer or two of three non-stop months of cross-country trekking.  Some, on the other hand, are loaded with giant back packs, heading down to the Santiago de Compastela. That walk ends in Spain.

My Dad sees them with their jaunty gaits, nifty titanium sticks, and hip joints probably polished to a slick ivory sheen.  He remembers when he headed a pack like that, unfazed.  And he can think, as I do a lot lately, about this one recent set back, which will be followed, we trust, by many colorful, photographable passages yet to come, starting with that hip replacement in a few weeks.  Then rehabilitation.  Then learning to walk all over again. All of which is part of simply moving onward, as every one of us must, through this mortality.



What defines brilliance?

What is the relationship between creativity and insanity?

How do you judge what is inspired and what is insipid?

What breeds eccentricity: extraordinary gifts, or the drive to be extraordinary?

What breeds the extraordinary: excellence, extremes, excess or some combination of the three?

Or something else altogether?

Is there really such a thing as an inborn artistic temperament, and how does one temper it?

Do you necessarily want to?

What makes the difference between a bright mind and one that ignites randomly, setting the soul on fire?

Whose self-painted eyes are these?

Why did he sell only one painting in his lifetime?

Why did his neighbors call him the “fou roux”, (the crazy redhead), demanding he be institutionalized?

Why did he cut off part (or some say all) of this ear?

Why did he admit himself for a full year to an asylum?

How could he paint, in that one year, 150 canvases?

And why did only seven of any of his canvases draw any public attention whatsoever during his lifetime?

Why, just a few months after that calming and productive institutionalization, and just as some of his work was noticed by critics for the first time, why then did he kill himself?

Why, a century later, are seven of his paintings among those that have drawn the highest dollar in history at auction? ($147 mill, $107 mill, $80 mill. . .)

Why are all those above-mentioned works among those he painted during that year in asylum, the last year of his life?

And why has this man — and why have his eyes —- followed me for the last five days? Stared me down for the last 35 years?


Five miles over the Alpilles from Maussane lies St. Rémy, a bubbling Provençal hub with its weekly market, grayed lavender and periwinkle blue shutters, squares shaded by speckled plane trees, and our favorite barber who for 42 years has cut men’s hair and shaved their beards in the same small shop off the plaza where (the same barbered) men used to play péntaque every day after lunch.

St. Rémy is a plateful of all you can hope for in deliciousness and a paletteful of all a painter could want in vividness. Yet acres and acres of soft slopes colored in peace and quiet.

That thick quiet suffused with a special light and the sun-warmed earth are what drew the crazy redhead to retreat here to a cloister called St. Paul-le-Mausole just outside St. Rémy’s center.

The cloister, dating from the early Christian period, is part of a small compound bearing the name of the nearby Roman mausoleum. The mausoleum – an imposing tower and arch — are the first structures discovered from the adjacent Roman community called Glanum, completely uncovered a generation after the painter lived a few hundred meters from it.

But the painter rarely if ever walked outside of the walls of the cloister. He wouldn’t have seen the tower.  In fact, his letters suggest he kept not just within the walls of the cloister, but mostly within the walls of his two rooms.

There, he seemed to find plenty to stimulate his acute eye and unquiet mind.

Asylum of St. Rémy

He wrote about what he saw through the small barred windows:

“A view of the garden of the asylum where I am, on the right a gray terrace, a section [of] the house, some rosebushes that have lost their flowers; on the left, the earth of the garden – red ochre – earth burnt by the sun, covered in fallen pine twigs. This edge of the garden is planted with large pines with red ochre trunks and branches, with green foliage saddened by a mixture of black. These tall trees stand out against an evening sky streaked with violet against a yellow background. High up, the yellow turns to pink, turns to green. A wall – red ocher again – blocks the view, and there’s nothing above it but a violet and yellow ochre hill. Now, the first tree is an enormous trunk, but struck by lightning and sawn off. A side branch, thrusts up very high, however, and falls down again in an avalanche of dark green twigs. This dark giant – like a proud man brought low – contrasts, when seen as the character of a living being, with the pale smile of the last rose on the bush, which is fading in front of him. Under the trees, empty stone benches, dark box. The sky is reflected yellow in a puddle after the rain. A ray of sun – the last glimmer – exalts the dark ocher to orange – small dark figures prowl here and there between the trunks.”

I’ll bet you’ve seen these paintings. Maybe you even remember, as I do, the first time you saw any of them.  Maybe the moment knocked you flat. It did me.


I’d just become a teenager and was in Europe for the first time, and found myself standing in a famous museum creaking along the wooden floors until I paused — froze — in the middle of a room entirely full of his works.  Irises.  Sunflowers. Cypresses.  Wheat fields.  A glimmering, disco-ball starry night.

In that hour I felt what you felt, too, probably: I and I alone had discovered electricity.

Not the Ben Franklin current. And nothing as banal as a pronged plug at the end of a twisted plastic chord.

What I’d found was more like what would have happened had I stuck my tongue right into the socket of the center of the universe.  Scorched through.  Whizz-zammed.  Lifted off my toes by thunder.

I crept closer to the canvas — as close as I could get without getting slapped by a guard — to see if the brushstrokes still smelled of oil. Weren’t they painted just an hour ago?  And then I looked both ways, thinking maybe if I staged the right distraction or turned at the perfect angle, I could lick the canvas.  Honest.  Weren’t chunks of color that fresh and moist made to be tasted?

Today, they are in every dentist’s office, those pictures.  And you can pick them up in every Three-For- $4.99 student print shop.  (You’ll find them right between the posters of greased surfers and kittens hanging on a clothes line by their paws.)

As soon as Randall and I, students at the time, had saved $20, we bought a “Starry Night.”

We framed it ourselves with a plate of discount glass and cheap little clippy thingies.  And it followed us in that simple frame from house to house for years.  When we eventually visited Amsterdam, we’d graduated from grad school and to a big, canvas reprint of those succulent almond blossoms.

We had it framed professionally this time (hand painted wood and all), and it’s followed us ever since.  Both works were painted in that intense last year at St. Rémy.

Much like they’ve become clichés those two pieces, so have the painter’s life and even his name. I heard, for example, an automobile manufacturer tried to market a family car using his name: Van Go.  The campaign didn’t make it out of the starting gates due to legal snags.

We can all thank our lucky starry nights.

And now here I was again, strolling the modest garden that once grew the irises he captured with his brush.

Walking by the old stone wall with his cypresses,

standing beside his bleached blue door,

circling the inner courtyard where he’d walked in an infinite loop for hours on end,

hearing his own description of what his peculiar and fiery eye saw. What my thick lenses hardly notice:

“You’ll understand that this combination of red ochre, of green saddened with grey, of black lines that define the outlines, this gives rise a little to the feeling of anxiety from which some of my companions in misfortune often suffer, and which is called ‘seeing red’.”

To a friend, he wrote of his

“. . .Moods of indescribable anguish, sometimes moments when the veil of time and fatality of circumstances seemed to be torn apart for an instant.”

To his sister he wrote:

“I should like to paint portraits which appear after a century to people living then as apparitions. By which I mean that I do not endeavor to achieve this through photographic resemblance, but my means of our impassioned emotions — that is to say using our knowledge and our modern taste for color as a means of arriving at the expression and the intensification of the character.”

“Intensification of character.”

Van Gogh himself. As well as being a genius with his tormented, mercurial moods, furious and radiant manic episodes, passions at once so violent and so virtuous, he feared he was the devil and his brother thought he was a saint.  His vigor was physical, intellectual and spiritual, making for such a tempestuous existence, he seemed fated from early on to self-extinguish — destitute, alone, a pauper — as he in fact did at an early age.

And so I wonder.  I ask again all those questions at the top of this post.  Is “intensification of character” and all its distantly-related cousins — passion, zeal, pushing and obliterating boundaries, creativity, perfection, sensation-seeking — are they really, in the tragic end, all they’re cracked up to be? Isn’t surviving — reliable steadiness, normal plodding through, being there for others — a pretty intense quest? All by itself?

What price art?

I have no answer. Except perhaps to the first question:

What defines brilliance?

Well, that’s an easy one:

Which begs the obvious: What price no art? 

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.