What is Dead? Nicole Blaisdell Ivey
The heart stops BOOM like my DadÕs, cardiac arrest, and he slumps down with a thud in the middle of a parking lot only six feet from his car, and two hours later the doctor says to the family that he was probably dead when he hit the ground. ThatÕs a medical doctorÕs version of dead.
Well, the heart stops, yes, but the ideas, feelings, relationships and connections to a person suddenly spring to life. The news of my father, Gus BlaisdellÕs death sailed across oceans and continents seemingly within moments. Grown scholarly men in seven different states and three countries broke into sobs on the phone when his wife called with the news. Over three hundred students, colleagues, family and friends packed the small adobe chapel to pay tribute to him. Those are the reactions and relationships I know about, so far. And some of them accept the doctorÕs version of dead, but not all.
My husband Mark, who loved and related to my father through intellect, was amazed at how quickly people from so far away found out about his death. Mark wanted to work on a mathematical algorithm, map out a network or web with Dad in the center and through peopleÕs connections, find out how many degrees of separation there is from any one person to Gus. What time and day did they receive the information and from how many different sources? Gus would be intrigued, Mark said. New connections in the Gus web would need to take place in order to get the information, and Gus would like that. MarkÕs brain is filled with Gus. So Dead, according to Mark, is to leave no legacy: to fade from memory.
In memory Gus is very alive. So is he perhaps alive in a new sense and flying free? No longer encased in that body, weighed down by the great gravitational pull. WeÕre made up of energy and, according to the laws of physics, energy dissipates but never totally disappears. It just changes form.
So is Dad just changing form? Moving entirely out of the physical realm and into a more nebulous mental/emotional realm. Photographers, philosophers, publishers and poets in places like Paris, Berlin, San Francisco and Cambridge are discussing his ideas, studying portraits of him, contemplating his essays and reading his poems out loud. If thatÕs not alive in a new form, what is?
Dad is alive because so many people are analyzing his entire life and legacy, because tears are streaming down, anger flaring up and questions flying around about him like fireworks. When the collective brainpower and emotional energy of hundreds of people is focused on the life and death of one person, some form of that energy that makes up that life (ideas, words, relationships, connections) must exist.
Over in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he taught film at the University for twenty-five years, his colleagues are working on a visual tribute to him. One of the Media Arts instructors asked me about the video IÕd started on Dad called A Great Subject. HeÕs very alive in the video. As I pace in my empty living room, watching the footage of him in his book stuffed and cluttered study, I feel unhinged, like IÕm floating in some surreal non-linear space and time. I know that he no longer can do the things IÕm seeing: talk to me, answer questions, move about his study, pet his cats. But somehow it feels as if some small part of him is still there, trapped in the ions of the magnetic tape, trying to impart new ideas and information to me.
On the TV screen DadÕs sitting in his straight backed wood chair, brown eyes bright, talking to me in his deep, gravelly voice. As he explains the contents of his Mojo Pig (a furry brown and white pig-shaped coin purse heÕs carried in his pocket every day for the last five years) he looks good, comfortable in his body, in his study, in his life. IÕm listening very carefully this time to everything he tells me. This is now history heÕs talking about. Because heÕs ÒDeadÓ he canÕt communicate through typical channels anymore.
ÒDeadÓ, according to WebsterÕs Dictionary is 1. no longer living 2. without life 3. deathlike 4. lacking warmth, interest, brightness 5. without feeling, motion or power 6.extinguished; extinct.
So heÕs dead but heÕs not, because IÕm staring right at him on my TV screen, watching him talk to me. Of course itÕs a one sided conversation but thatÕs not really so different than before. Except that now, looking at the video, without those father/daughter pressures, I can think of all these great questions that I didnÕt ask while he was alive and able to communicate directly. Like how did you, a poet at the age of thirteen, survive being sent away to military school? Why did you never get your teeth fixed? Did your father beat you? Were both your parents alcoholics? What happened at Stanford to end your dissertation? Did your dad die of a heart attack, too? What form are you in now?
All but one of these questions can be answered by digging through boxes and boxes of papers crammed in his study, but with the information, I can no longer get that intonation and those subtle insinuations that come with his good direct intellectual communication.
Now I can only gather so much from the video footage IÕve recorded. So I have to rewind and read between the lines. Read the body language, the shifts in position, his ever-changing gazes, each grunt, deep inhale, sigh and laugh. His smile. There are entire books in these.
And because I can listen to my video dad, look at his portraits, read his essays, poems and letters; talk to his friends, students, colleagues and my family, I realize that he wonÕt be dead for years, certainly not during my lifetime. For twenty-five years he filled studentsÕ minds with ideas, information and questions and sent them out into the world. Knowledge, ideas, relationships, art and music meant everything to Dad.
Material things, possessions meant nothing. So was his body just another possession, a material thing? If so, then without it, canÕt he live on through his passions and his words? Through his students, the authors he helped make famous, the photographers he wrote essays for, the friends he counseled and pushed to excel, the wives he loved. His children?
So, what is Dead? Dead is just another spoke on the big evolutionary wheel. ItÕs something that each of us, eventually, will have to deal with and come to understand on our own. We canÕt truly know what Dead is until weÕve experienced it for ourselves. So far nobodyÕs been able to pass on that information, at least not to my satisfaction. Ideas, thoughts, relationships and dreams are alive to me. And Dad is flying all through these.
November 11, 2003