May 17th, 2020

Words by Maeve Brammer · Photography by Lauren Tepfer

The right place to die could only be in the midst of wild, absolute life


In the car, my mother tells me that we’re all dying the wrong way. I am driving us away from my small liberal arts college, along the stretch of 90 West that lifts you out of the Berkshires toward central New York. It’s mid-March and the sky above Massachusetts’ westernmost cliffs is a pasty gray. My mother has to project her voice in order to speak over the sound leaking from my brother’s headphones. I don’t recognize the song, but the bassline that escapes from his earbuds gives our conversation a pulsing backdrop. 

As I pull into the left lane to pass a semi-truck, my mother begins to explain. In Louisville, Kentucky, two of my great aunts, Irish twins, live in a nursing home. It’s nice but a little too industrial, like an impersonal hotel room. The television is left to run all day, and the windows are shuttered, the air conditioner on. My aunts have been trying to grow tomatoes and flowers on the small terrace. Otherwise, there’s not much other life around. “All they want to do,” my mother says, “is feel alive. And instead, they’re sitting in that box waiting to die.” 

We take several minutes to imagine where we’d like to spend the last days of our own lives: in gardens with large mysterious plants and direct sunshine, with someone to sit at our table and listen to our life story. I think of my childhood in the Adirondack Park and it transforms into a real Eden in my imagination. I think I might like to die there: where sunflowers grow six feet tall and foxes scream in the nighttime that surrounds the house. The right place to die could surely only be in the midst of wild, absolute life. 

We reach Albany soon after, and I say goodbye to my mother and brother. I am headed back to Massachusetts, this time alone. In the three days since my school has announced its decision to close - the threat of COVID-19 lurks too ominously in the surrounding major cities - our family’s plan has formed. I’ll use our navy pickup truck, parked in the Albany Amtrak Station’s long-term parking lot, to lug all of my things back home before spring break. 

I wind slowly back into the Berkshires. I’m awfully hungover. There is an air of carelessness and desperation on campus, and the student body is drinking heavily as they prepare for their forced exit. In the next three days, I’ll pack everything up and fill the truck. But the scraps of my life here are pitiful when assembled: a rolled-up map of the world, a full box of books, cloth bags of markers, pencils, paints, my old roommate’s electric kettle, the suit jacket my boyfriend wore to a job interview last Friday. Now, though, the truck is empty, and I stay seated as the sun sets on the other end of the parking lot. 

It takes me a moment to identify the drag I feel on my limbs. I have come to associate the feeling with February and March because it was last spring that I first slumped beneath it. I still feel a sense of revulsion for my behavior during that time, something I am tempted to label weakness. Spending hours in my bed, fleeing quickly after classes to return there, watching the wave-like motion of my curtain against the brown wooden windowsill, talking myself out of meals, out of parties, out of friendships. I wonder what my mother would think of me then, sitting in my box, waiting to die. 

Over the next few days, during my last four days of school, I read articles about the spread of COVID-19 and fold my clothes into suitcases. I watch my friends as they live forcibly, getting drunk in the afternoons, spending money without hesitation, skipping their last few classes. I do the same, and then return to my room at night and lie under the great weight of the knowledge that we can not reclaim what is now coming to an end. The lost time is just that: lost. 

Earlier that week, a few hours before my college’s president announced the switch to remote learning, I’d had my first nightmare in a long time. In my dream, an airport had been constructed right next to my childhood home. Most of the walls of my house were gone: Now my old home sat on the edge of a large, polluted lake. A foot or two of oily water covered the floors, and I waded through it, kicking bottles and cans aside in search of something familiar. The lake stretched to the horizon on three sides of the house, and behind me, I could hear the sound of another plane taking off. 

The woodland I grew up in, which I’ll return to when I leave college, is where I imagine dying: away from televisions and particularly loud noises, the very opposite of my aunts’ old age home. The nights, unmarred by light pollution, are totally black. I feel much safer facing a pandemic in the woods, where the forty acres of trees around my house form a natural protective barrier. And though I dream of its deterioration, because it is so wild, my home feels untouchable. The secondary home I have created for myself in college really does deteriorate in front of me: in the end, it takes only four days for it to collapse. We bring it about ourselves. We’re the ones to take down our string lights, to recycle half-empty shampoo bottles and roll up rugs and strip the beds we slept in night after night after night.  

The day I can finally focus on my own happiness is the same day it becomes impossible to be happy without also being remorseful. I hold hands with my friends for no reason. I buy them dinner. One boards a bus to Boston in the rain and I insist on lugging his suitcase on the walk over. It is a silent apology for all of the lost time. I am sorry for not listening fully to their stories, sorry for not taking that walk because it was too cold out, sorry for being on my phone during the movie. I am caught between elation and grief, regret and gratitude, until it is suddenly, really, over. 

After I’ve loaded my life into garbage bags and suitcases, I walk back up the stairs and into my empty room. The walls are covered in little yellow pieces of tack and holes from thumbtacks. There are still dried flowers stuck up on the windowpane - hot glued, I discover, when I try to rip them off - and a handful of unpaired socks lying on my desk. Like saltwater that evaporates and leaves a white crust behind, only the imprint of my bedroom remains. 

I turn the lights off and lie in the dark, watching headlights animate a web of shadows across the ceiling of my room. Many of my friends have already left campus. Others run from one goodbye to another. Under the cover of darkness, there is no discernable difference between a room full of my things or a room empty of them, and I sleep soundly. By noon the next day, I am gone. As I drive away, I imagine my empty dorm room teeming with large plants and beautiful butterflies, transformed into paradise by a sudden ending.

Maeve Brammer is a student of writing and visual art. She's from the Adirondack Park. You can find her @partly.maeveb

Lauren Tepfer is a photographer, director and artist who splits her time between New Jersey and Brooklyn, NY. She works primarily in non-fiction photography and is passionate about reflecting the world around her. Some of her recent clients include Google, Netflix, Instagram and Crayola.