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  • Writer's pictureCandace Nola

05/03/2024 Bodies: an essay


It’s an uncomfortable word, isn’t it? How did you feel just now? Seeing that word? Staring at you in black and white, cold letters on an empty page. What image popped into your head? Aunt Ethel’s funeral? Uncle Bob? Your pet goldfish?

We are told that death is a natural part of life. We all die, every living thing dies, from earthworms to orcas. Natural though it may be, death is uncomfortable. It’s a taboo subject, meant for somber rooms and hushed voices. It’s meant for funeral parlors, and hospital rooms, church pews, and cemetery walks, certainly not meant for afternoon tea or date night.

I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately, how our perspective changes as we experience it from one stage to the next, child to adult, bystander to loved one. How the emotions differ, how our reactions vary, how we are impacted, for better or worse. I’ve seen a lot of death over the years, natural and unnatural, as a child, as an adult, a bystander, and a loved one.

Now, firmly in my middle-age years, I look around with new eyes, a deep clarity and empathy for all those around me, younger and older than myself, and my heart aches with each new obituary. I lost my father just a few years ago. I lost my brother twenty-five years ago. I’ve lost countless relatives, family friends, and acquaintances. I’ve seen my mother lose friends more rapidly in recent years than ever before. My own friends are facing terminal illnesses, losses of their own, and yes, some have died. My youngest daughter has lost more peers than any child should ever experience.

Even as I’m writing this, there’s a montage of moments in my head. Lives ended far too soon, loved ones gone forever, frozen in time in our last memory.I won’t try to count. It’s staggering if I look at it head on, full frontal so to speak, a kaleidoscope of grief, loss, and heartbreak. I think as an author, many of those moments sneak onto our pages unbidden and raw, inviting us to process those feelings in a new way. I find that interesting because when my own experiences sneak into my words, it’s never planned, but yet, when I read my pages back, there they are. Some are more hidden than others, but my most impactful memories, the most painful deaths, appear and re-appear.

For instance, my first two novels, Breach and Beyond the Breach, are set in a campground in Ohio. The actual name of it was Hide-A-Way Hollow. My family camped there every summer for most of my childhood. We would park our camper there all season long, and every weekend found us there while school was in session, and for days at a time while on summer break. Some of my earliest memories of summer are of this place. This was also my earliest experience with death that I can recall.

One sunny afternoon, my brothers and I had just been called in from the lake by my mom since it was near lunchtime. The lake was large and sparkling, with a huge wooden raft anchored in the middle of the swimming side. The other half of the lake was roped off for fishing. I was maybe seven or eight years old and a strong swimmer. We all were, having been raised in or near water most of our lives.

I remember standing on the grassy lawn that stretched along the water with my mom. A thin strip of rocky beach separated the lush green from the rippling waves. There was a commotion. Some yelling, a couple of shouts, and people running. My dad was one of them. A little boy had fallen from the raft. A boy, younger than I and not a trained swimmer, was being pulled from the water.

Through the haze of childhood memories, and the surreal quality of the moment itself, I somewhat recall the small crowd on the beach. My father kneeling over the pale body. A glimpse of blue gray lips and unmoving limbs. Screaming. Shouting. I remember watching with my mom close by, my brothers standing a bit closer to the scene than I was. And I remember the hushed tones after and in the days that followed. Despite all efforts, the little boy had died.

Some may ask if we kept swimming there. Of course we did. It was our lake. The Hollow was our second home. And death was natural. It was tragic, an accident, a curiosity for a child my age. It was not yet time for me to share in the somber expressions and hushed voices. Life went on, and years later, decades later, Hide-Away-Hollow snuck into my first and second novel.

Later, while writing The Generator with M Ennenbach, Eric Butler, and Nikolas P. Robinson, another devastating death snuck into my words and made a home there. Without giving spoilers, there are references to a person with ALS. That person, for me, was my best friend, Vaughan Thomas. I met Vaughan at work, and he immediately became found family. We adopted each other almost from day one. I had lost a brother years before and suddenly, I had a new one. We were friends for nearly seven years before he was diagnosed with ALS.

The illness progressed rapidly for him and within eighteen months I watched this vibrant man and father go from fully healthy and functional to trapped in his own body. Unable to speak, or move, trapped in his mind. I became a part-time carer for him, helping his mom when she needed it, when nurses called off, when she needed time off. I learned how to interpret his eye motions, and his facial expressions to communicate, but that was fairly easy since I had known him for so long but devastating all the same. He was able to use a device called a TOBI to speak for him, but it wasn’t the same. He had the best laugh, the greatest laugh. Deep and booming, it could fill a room and make others laugh with him. I missed his laugh the most, still do.

His life expectancy was only a few years, but he lasted for almost eight years before the illness took him. The void he left still lingers. He was a great friend, a wonderful father, and one of the few people in my life that believed in me, no matter what I took on. He would be proud of my writing. He would be here as my biggest cheerleader, telling me to “blaze on.” A saying he used often. He’s missed, daily and deeply, by many, but in a small way, he lives on in The Generator.

In yet another story, my brother that died, Alex, shows up in “Click.”  It is a short story that I wrote for The Perfectly Fine Neighborhood anthology that was published by French Press. Click is about a sister waiting for her brother’s ghost to appear after his untimely death. In the world of The Perfectly Fine Neighborhood, ghosts are real and almost everyone can see them. The story is almost an exact replay of the day my brother died, from my point of view, but heavily fictionalized. The scenario was fiction, the emotions are not.

It’ll be twenty-five years in August since his death, and that story hurt me to my core to write. In fact, during the live launch, I almost broke down just talking about the story. I don’t regret writing it. It was time. My brother wouldn’t have minded. My mother didn’t mind, though it made her cry too. But Alex would be pleased, knowing he lives on forever in that story.

At the risk of getting too personal, in yet another story, my own body shows up in SKINS, my story from Splatterpunk’s Basement of Horror published by Jack Bantry. This story was written around a concept and a short poem I had written many years ago when I was around twenty-six years old. Suffering from depression and a whole host of other issues, I was very suicidal and rapidly losing myself in the darkness that lived in my mind. SKINS reflects what I was dealing with then, how I was feeling, and the suicidal ideation that I fought daily and sometimes still fight.

The entire story takes place as a woman is falling to her death from a bridge, played out as a series of memories and moments in her mind. I walked over that bridge to and from work every day and often found myself staring at the dark water below, craving the peace it would bring. Fighting my every step to keep walking to my car, and not just give in to the darkness that was calling for me.

I’m sure there are more moments that have crept into my work, more bodies to be found, more to come in future works, but it's those moments that impact us the most, that shape who we are. Death is natural, as are our attempts to understand it, crave it, and process it. I hide my bodies in my words. Where do you hide yours?

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