Death Becomes Us
Death Becomes Us
No one makes it out of this world alive. From tales of reckless funerals to spreading cremains in unusual places, these storytellers face mortality in heartfelt and surprising ways.
Guests: Trevor Cassidy, Mike Murphy, Geoff Jackson, Marion Leary, Teresa Marquard, Adrienne Mackey, Steve Knebels, Nick Kupsey, Mark Halladay
Photo: Dave Rose
Read the transcript
COMMONSPACE - DEATH
Jamie J: From WHYY and First Person Arts in Philadelphia, this is Commonspace. I’m your host, Jamie J. Here on Commonspace, live storytelling connects us to each other— and the world. And I’ll take you deeper into the stories with conversations that might just challenge your perceptions.
You know, most of us don’t like to talk about death. But you don’t have to think too hard to realize it’s inevitable. Like they say, “nobody gets out alive”. But as the sound of a New Orleans street funeral started playing in my head, I remembered that some cultures embrace the departure of family and friends by celebrating life.
Just think of Dia de los Muertos - the Mexican Day Of The Dead - when families gather together in cemeteries, and surround themselves with colorful paper decorations and brightly colored sugar skulls.
I mean, my great grandmother used to take a picnic basket to the cemetery and go from grave to grave visiting family, friends, and other loved ones.
The philosopher George Santayana, “There is no cure for birth or death save to enjoy the interval”. Keeping that in mind, a group of First Person Arts performers shared stories ranging from poignant remembrances, to strange farewells.
Not long ago, storyteller Trevor Cassidy and his family made a pilgrimage to the “Happiest Place on Earth” - with his Aunt Karen’s ashes in tow - to take her on one final ride.
Trevor Cassidy: So um, I love Disneyland and like the only thing that I can do to channel it out and away for me safely is just like, contract every muscle that I have in my body…and I live in genuine terror that I'm gonna walk into Disneyland one day and have like, a happiness aneurism, and they're gonna have to do that thing where they keep me alive long enough to remove me from the park property before I die because you know, no one technically dies in Disneyland. So…anyways this love for Disneyland is not just my own, it's my whole family. I'm an only child but my mom, my dad, and my mom's two sisters Theresa and Karen were all like avid devotees. Theresa lives in Seattle but Karen lives in my hometown of Denver or she lived there. But anyways we spent a lot of really great times there together, me and Karen. And Karen and I were very close growing up she was like a second mom to me. And she also had this really horrific auto immune disease called Scleraderma, which is this really dreadful disabling disease. It makes like your skin really tight and waxy and painful and it’s this wretched thing. But we still had our great times at Disneyland together.
So when I was in 7th grade and she finally died from her disease my family and I knew that we had to make a pilgrimage back to Disneyland to put her ashes there.
So…I don't know why we thought this was like, OK, but apparently it's an actual thing, like, Disneyland has like a cleanup crew that specializes in cleaning up human remains. So the summer after she died we showed up on Disneyland's doorstep and we're standing outside the bag checks and we're all nervous, we're very straight edge white bred people and you know my mom's standing there and she does what any good American lady does when faced with a like a situation like this. She targets the male bag checker and tucks what looks to be about a pound questionable quality cocaine under a layer of tampons and we're in! Perfect.
So we immediately book it over to Karen's favorite big thrill attraction: Splash Mountain, which is, you know, tucked way back in the corner of the park in critter country. And we're trying to you know, get there as fast as we can to limit our interaction with other people but it's a very popular ride so we're there. We're at the front of the line, we're loaded onto this flume log…now these are six seaters so we ask to be sat towards the back; there's the four of us and then these two poor ladies who got seated in front of us and the thing about Splash Mountain is as its name would indicate it is like, basically all water, and we're not trying to like dissolve my dead aunt into like some of this nasty, like, flop sweat tourist back wash, that's not-- we're not about that life. But we have two good shots right at the beginning of the ride to kind of hurl her up onto some solid ground. My mom gets a little-- a little over eager and ends up accidentally underhanding right into the faces of some people who are waiting in line and looking down on us. And they're waving their hands in front of their faces and like coughing because my dead aunt is inside of them.
And so we're like "OK. 0 and 1.” Um. But finally we round the corner and we see it. Yo, dude, that's Brer Fox’s house, like, that's the place! And pew! Pew! Pew! Pew! We each grab a handful out of the ziplock and get a nice big arc. We all-- we all made our targets perfectly like and it was a moment of utter joy and a little bit of guilt as the ladies with the white powder -- we like covered them basically. But fortunately their combined weight with my father in the front end of this log-- and my f ather's of a gentleman's girth-- the splash down was enough to remove any trace and now I know that when I grow up and I have my own kids one day I'll take them on a pilgrimage to Disneyland and I'll tell them, you know, the remains of your dead Aunt are on top of that mountain. And she's watching over you. Thanks.
Jamie J: Trevor Cassidy teaches group exercise classes and he’s planning a a trip back to Disneyland.
Chances are that visiting Disneyland meant bringing home all sorts of souvenirs and trinkets picked up along the way. You probably don’t think too much about what’s going to happen with that stuff in the long run. But when your kids are left with the task of emptying the house after you’ve passed away, a Mickey Mouse cookie jar or a wall full of Encyclopedia Britannicas become just so much dead weight (so to speak). I still have numerous items from my mom’s apartment that I’ve been carrying around from city to city for over 30 years! Here’s storyteller Mike Murphy.
Mike Murphy: My brother and I were in our parent's kitchen last March in Michigan and we had decided to give away all of our parent's stuff. Mom had died a couple months before and dad had died a couple of years before that. And in between, Mom had talked about giving away Dad's stuff and downsizing but never really got around to it, so it fell upon my brother and I to figure out what to do with our parents stuff.
And it wasn't just our parent's stuff. It was the stuff from our childhood. These were things we saw every day growing up and now we had to find a place for them. But I couldn't fit them in my house. We couldn't put it in my brother's house; my brother has a house in Michigan. It's full of stuff. So we had this sort of privileged and happy problem of what to do with the stuff.
We reached out to friends and family and took pictures and said "Come take some of our parent's stuff if you want it." And interest was not very strong. Our friends and family had stuff of their own. Too much stuff, they said.
So we thought, we look, our parent's stuff got to be valuable. So maybe we'll do an estate sale. We'll call a company, have them come in, they'll value the stuff and then you know we'll see how that goes. Well it went very badly. The estate sale came and they looked through the house and we realized almost immediately that the value we had for our parent's stuff was not the value that the world had for our parent's stuff. Here's an example.
There was a painting in our living room above the couch. It was there for 30 years. It was this Parisian street scene at night in the rain and you could see Moulin Rouge and I looked at this painting constantly growing up and I thought, "This is a great painting. This has to be by like a halfway decent artist and it has to be worth a little bit." And it was worth a little bit. It was worth about fifty bucks. The artist, after we googled his name, was a guy who sold sort of tourist trap, mass produced paintings to cruise ship passengers. That must have been where my parents got it thirty years ago. So that was disturbing.
Not as disturbing as the old timey grandfather clock next to it. That, uh, was an absolutely piece of my childhood. The clicking and clacking of that clock was really counted off my formative years and I figured that had to be an heirloom, like an antique. And it wasn't, it was a kit that my dad put together in the basement. When we took it off the wall that was pretty obvious and there was a sort of cheap plastic clock stuck in it.
Maybe most disturbing was when the estate sale people-- and they were very nice but they were going through my mother's jewelry and they pulled it out of the jewelry box that my father made for her in the wood shop in the basement. And they said, "look Mike, don't take this the wrong way but this isn't really worth much of anything and there's not really a whole lot here in the house for us to work with.
And so my brother and I were trying to figure out what to do with this stuff and we said "You know, we should just give it away." We called an organization that brings in charities and charities came in and all of this stuff from our childhood went out of the house in vans and in trucks and we felt OK about that but then even then there was still more stuff. There was still furniture that charities didn't want and there were books and we asked the organization company we said "What do we do now?" and they said "Well, we can bring a dumpster."
And that made me realize that we collect stuff through life and then we leave it to people because it has value to us and we think it has value to them and sometimes it does but sometimes it doesn't. And really, the people closest to you after you die have to go through your stuff and a lot of it might end up in the dumpster.
So I walked around my childhood home, empty of stuff and left for the last time and I went back to Philly. I looked around my own house and talked with my wife and we realized, "Yeah, we've got a lot of stuff in our house. We don't have a lot of people though," so we made good on a promise that we made to ourselves a couple years ago and became foster parents. So now we have two teenagers in our house at least for the time being and they definitely fill the space. And they've been helping us go through our stuff and kinda draw a line between stuff that we value and we use and stuff that we're just kinda hanging on to that we just don't want to get rid of. And a good example of that is we found a bunch of old concert t-shirts from the 90s with rock bands that I love still and I didn't want to get rid of these shirts because they're sort of one of a kind but I don't really wear them. And the kids who are really into rock music, they wanted to wear them to school and I told them, "Look kids, I don't know if your classmates in Philadelphia public schools are really gonna know who Better than Ezra is," but they told me the old fashion axiom, that if you held onto a piece of clothing long enough it will eventually become cool again so they get to become cool again and I feel like even though I feel bad about my parent's stuff ending up somewhat in a dumpster I'm sort of honoring them and honoring myself by making sure that this stuff that I'm just hanging on to can go to people who really value it and really use it.
And in that sense I really kind of embrace the idea that you can't take it with you.
Jamie J: Mike Murphy is an attorney who lives in West Philadelphia. He does improve comedy in his off time, to, as he puts it “you know, make money.” I heard that. Mike’s story reminds me of a poem by Mark Halladay. Check it out.
Mark Halladay: Every family accumulates photographs. And it used to be in the 20th century, that we all had big thick photo albums. Here’s a poem called “Quite Frankly”.
They got old, they got old and died. But first—
okay but first they composed plangent depictions
of how much they lost and how much cared about losing.
Meantime their hair got thin and more thin
as their shoulders went slumpy. Okay but
not before the photo albums got arranged by them,
arranged with a niftiness, not just two or three
but eighteen photo albums, yes eighteen eventually,
eighteen albums proving the beauty of them (and not someone else),
them and their relations and friends, incontrovertible
playing croquet in that Bloomington yard,
floating on those comic inflatables at Dow Lake,
giggling at the Dairy Queen, waltzing at the wedding,
building a Lego palace on the porch,
holding the baby beside the rental truck,
leaning on the Hemingway statue at Pamplona,
discussing the eternity of art in that Sardinian restaurant.
Yes! And so, quite frankly—at the end of the day—
they got old and died okay sure but quite frankly
how much does that matter in view of
the eighteen photo albums, big ones
thirteen inches by twelve inches each
full of such undeniable beauty?
Jamie J: Mark Halliday is a Professor of English at Ohio University He’s published six books of poetry. “Quite Frankly” comes from THRESHERPHOBE, which was published in 2013.
I’m Jamie J, and this is Commonspace - a collaboration between First Person Arts and WHYY. It’s been supported by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. Listen every Sunday at 8:00 PM or subscribe to us anytime on Apple Podcasts and Stitcher.
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
Jamie J: In her trademark, acerbic wit, Dorothy Parker’s poem, Resume, expresses the futility of abandoning life.
But storyteller Geoff Jackson is much clearer on his view of life and death. In his story, the specter of death is a monster, always knocking away at the edges of his mind. Life, he reflects, might be too messy, too lonely, too complicated.
Geoff Jackson: Good evening everybody. In our time together I would like to tell you a story of a delicate nature and for that to function, I need you to be cool. Can you be cool? OK, very good. Then we shall proceed.
I am enormously fond of the Incredible Hulk and the comic books. It's my favorite character. A lot of people misunderstand The Incredible Hulk. They think he's just this giant monster that smashes things and that is entirely inaccurate. We'll get to the true, the true depth of the incredible hulk in just a moment.
He's a monster, yes! He appears at inopportune times, yes. He does.
So! Ten years old. This guy. Sunday school. Rural Illinois. Dressed very similar to this.
We're going over the mortal sins. Very interesting discussion. And they say, "suicide!" They say, "Oh, this is a mortal sin." Now I was aware of what a mortal sin was but I hadn't heard this word before. I was very young. I said, "Well what is that?" They said "Oh that's when somebody takes their own life." And then to paraphrase, they said it makes the lord very angry. Which confused me.
I was already confused by these people. I had -- quick side bar -- already got into trouble by raising my hand when they said "Well, Columbus discovered America" and I said, "But he enslaved all the people that were already there!" To the office with this guy in my beautiful black velvet coat.
But it was the first time I'd heard this word. Uh, suicide, which is the killing of one's self and it was strange to me that this was a forbidden thing to do and that it came into the upper eschelons; the foundational rules of civilization. There’s a lot of things that they're OK with in that rule book. I'm not trying to shame you but a quick review of Leviticus is shocking. For instance, wearing this beautiful crushed velvet coat would be a capital offense because it's made of mixed fibers! Same thing, killing myself, against the rules. Don't understand why.
Shortly thereafter, the pressure of being -- being me in the living world, I found myself in my family kitchen late at night, early in the morning. Just, like, man it would so sweet to be dead! Just getting up, getting out of bed as a small child, holding kitchen knives and thinking to myself "Is there a way that I could jump off of the kitchen counter, here it comes, jump off of the kitchen counter and land on this? And not have to go to school tomorrow? Is there a way to do that?" And I couldn't come up with a good enough way, so I put the knife away and I went back to bed and had terrible nightmares.
I still have terrible nightmares! I had one last week where a polar bear devoured an entire village and it threw their guts all over. For no good reason at all. And I woke up like this: [screams]
Because I don't like it here! This is fine; this is great. You're all very nice. You've been gracious enough to come to this beautiful theater and to spend good money to listen to me speak. Among other people who are also very talented. But! I find it disagreeable. It's itchy! I don't like... being... alive! But I have to fake it for people. All the time. It's-- it's unseemly to be dissatisfied with having a human body. Which is unfortunate because the human body is disgusting. It excreets fluids and gels. It produces odors, it ages, it changes shape, it has hair that falls out because you have nightmares because you can't sleep!
So I try to squash the feelings that I have inside. With gin. And cheese. And sex. Uh, not all at once, of course. I have some decorum. Which brings me to the Incredible Hulk. Bruce Banner, he's a very smart, nice, young man but there's this terrible monster that lives inside of him. And if you've seen any of the comic books particularly those written by Peter David in the 1980s to the 1990s I'm thinking specifically of 319-- it's an issue where Bruce Banner and Betty Ross are going to get married. They're going to have a wedding, they love each other so much and then this terrible monster shows up and ruins it. And that is the essence of The Incredible Hulk it's not just a monster that's kicking down walls. It's this monster that is ruining the life of this nice little man in glasses and the woman he loves and his family.
So. Last summer. Mid June. I'm at the sky garden, it's this beautiful bar on the 51st floor of a building downtown not far from here. I'm there with the woman I love and I'm there with her friends. We're having our beers. And before I know it I'm drinking this beer and I feel the monster knocking away at the edges of my mind and I'm leaning over the edge of this 51st floor balcony. Holding my German beer. And before I know it, the following words slipped out of my mouth: “It’d be so quick.”
And then from over here on my left I heard, "Babe, are you okay?" Because she'd heard me! And her friends had heard me! And they'd all seen me being a weirdo, obviously thinking about jumping over the edge of this 51st floor building. On a beautiful spring evening while we're having beers and fun! So what did I say? I told a lie! I said, "Oh, I'm just singing an Alkaline Trio lyric, it's my favorite band, obviously. I have a tattoo on my arm, look at the way that I'm dressed"
But even with all of this, even with all of you being so gracious and so kind the whole time that I've been up here, the whole time in the green room, the whole time at the bar, this monster is cracking away at the back of my mind, that's why my hair's falling out like this. So I would very much appreciate it if all of you would continue to be cool and never speak of this again.
Jamie J: Geoff Jackson is a regular performer and occasional host at First Person Arts story slams. You can catch him hosting his monthly show, Schooled, at the Good Good Comedy Theater in Philadelphia.
For some, living with suicidal ideations is a constant struggle, a natural state of being – lived out while most of us cling to life with our every instinct. But in truth, none of us know the hour or the day when death might come a callin’…bringing sudden, incalculable loss. Here’s story teller Teresa Marquard…
Teresa Marquard: So, I work in a really popular brunch place in the city, and about a year ago we opened a new restaurant and I was one of the people that was decided would go over there and help things get started, and, uh, the first Sunday we were open was a day that I didn’t know that morning was gonna change my life forever. It was like a normal day, you know, open up bright and early, drinkin’ the coffee, get the cream out get the jam out, and, uh…around 9:30 one of my co-workers from the original restaurant to came in eat, she was with and her boyfriend, just checking the place out, it was the first weekend they were open, and yeah, it was just as busy as the other one was, people were waiting, they were ready to eat. They wanted their pancakes, and um, my phone rang, I had it in my back pocket, and I looked and it said “Daddy”. I call…my dad’s “Daddy” in my phone, and you know, whatever, he’s gonna leave a message, I’ll call him back. A few minutes later, he calls again, with no voice mail, the second time, I started to feel, like, a panic, something was wrong, and I’m talking to my girlfriend, I said I think I need to call him, I something’s wrong…my uncle’s in the hospital, he had like a pacemaker explosion, or something, earlier in the week. And he was he’s the uncle, my aunt, who, just lost her son earlier in the year, this was her boyfriend, and I thought oh no what is she going to do this is going to be terrible, this is like, and I’m in panic, I’m in a state of panic, I know he has his phone in the hospital, so I sent him a text message, “Hey, how are you?” and he responds, “I’m good, you need to call your dad.” So I said, I mean, is everything Ok? Is it something bad?” He said, “Yeah, call your dad.”
I walk into the kitchen, I tell my managers, I’m hysterical crying, I don’t know what’s wrong yet, but I know something is wrong. So I tell them, “I gotta go outside, I gotta call my dad, something’s wrong.” So I’m standing at the corner, like in an alleyway at the corner of 21st and South, I call my dad’s phone and my sister answers. She said “Are you on your way?”
“Where are you? What do you mean am I on my way?”
“We’re at the hospital”
“Well what’s going on there?”
“Mommy and Daddy were in an accident and Mommy didn’t make it.”
I said “Whaa…What?”
“They were hit by a car.”
The first thing I think is what adult gets hit by a car? Um…and then everything just started to move far away, I wasn’t standing on the ground, I wasn’t in the city…There wasn’t a crowd of people waiting for their pancakes and their eggs benedict like, staring at me having this wild, animalistic reaction to finding out that my mother was killed…um…
So…and I’m surprised that I even remember, I can remember all the faces of the people at the table and I can imagine them thinking “Where’s my f***in’ waitress with my coffee?” F*** your cup of coffee, like, are you serious? My life just changed, but…so I went back in and I told them “I have to go, I have to go…” Um…waiting for somebody to pick me up because there was no way I was going to get behind the wheel. And I went into the bathroom with my girlfriend from the other restaurant, who knew something as wrong, because I was waiting her, she was probably waiting for her cup of coffee too…um…on the bathroom floor, hysterical…crying I couldn’t believe that, I still can’t believe…I couldn’t believe that, um…I didn’t believe that she was dead, I didn’t understand, like, there was something that I could do to fix this. This was going to change. It couldn’t be real. By the time I got there, I would get to the hospital, I’d tell them, no, you can fix this this is something that just can’t happen right now.
And I’m trying to figure out how the f*** did two adults get hit by a car, like, they’re in their fifties, they’ve been doing this walking in the street thing their whole lives. Turns out later that I found out that 9:30 that morning, Sunday morning, my parents were taking a walk around the park where I grew up, and my father had done this walk every day…heart problems, diabetes, this was his way of getting his life back on track, and my mom would come to support him on the weekends, and you know, was happy to do it, loved doing it, loved the exercise…so when the car came from the opposite side of the street, drunk driver, hopped the curve, my mom pushed my dad out of the way, and not in time to make it herself, and, uh…
But that was, um, you know, the morning that my whole life changed…and I thought, if she was gonna go anyway, I think that was the way to go, with him, her husband of 42 years, taking care of him, as she did, all those 42 years, in the park, where they spent so much time with the kids, the babies, the dog…
Um…a few weeks later, it took me awhile to get back to work, and it when I got back to work it dawned on me that the people must have gotten their coffee, somewhere…the people must have gotten their check from somewhere. The people who out on the streets who were watching my animalistic reaction, um…like, it might have been funny to them, because I think if I saw someone screaming and do the things that I was doing it might have been funny. And I wonder, like, I can remember all of them so very clearly…and I wonder if they remember me. And I wonder if they remember that in that moment my life completely changed forever, and they didn’t get their cup of coffee.
Jamie J: Teresa Marquard lives in Germantown. Where she’s busy raising 2 children with her husband.
Preparing for imminent death, whether one’s own or that of a loved one, has to be one of most difficult of human experiences. Marian Leary is a resuscitation science researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. And she’s seen death up close more times than she can count at this point. This is her perspective.
Marian Leary: Death will not escape us. Any of us. Though it seems that death has a fond proclivity for me as it has followed me throughout my life thus far. Case in point: I started writing this from a room in a hospice center. Watching as my father in law took his last breaths.
When I was young I had many relatives die. Grandparents, aunts, great uncles. It was sad but it was also formative. All this had a profoundly lasting effect on me.
In my early adult life I volunteered and worked for a number of AIDS service organizations, and befriended many people who today are no longer among us. I watch as some died from AIDS related complications, some from old age, some from violent crime, and some by their own hand. In my early 20s I had the privilege and honor or caring for the mother of one of my dearest friends while she was dying from cancer. Something that neither of us will ever forget and which has bonded us together to this day.
And today after working as a critical care nurse in the medical ICU, watching more people succomb to death than I care to remember, I am now a cardiac arrest researcher and clinician doing what I can to bring people back to life. But unfortunately, my friends, the end is nigh for all of us.
I was with my father in law when he passed away. As he lay there, unaware, taking those last breaths, I played him an audio recording of my daughter. His only grandchild. The love of his life and light in his day, as he would always tell her. She had recorded a message for him telling him she loved him, she was 10 years old at the time.
As soon as that recording ended, so did his life. A moment I would be hard-pressed to ever forget and one that had me pondering the questions I always ponder when someone dies. What did his life mean? And what do any of our lives mean?
We come and go in the blink of an eye. On average, humans in this country live to the ripe old age of 80 years. In the relatively brief history of human existence, humans have occupied this planet for a little over 100,000 years. Versus the 4.5 billion years the earth has actually been a planet. 80 years would seem like an infinitesimally short time yet in less universal terms, 80 years is, well, a life-time.
My father in law was not an extraordinary man by societal terms. He was not rich or famous, he didn't discover or invent things but he did make the most of his lifetime. He served his country, raised a family, and traveled the world. Sometimes, reluctantly, and without the knowledge of his destination, his loving wife always one step ahead. He worked extremely hard, played hard and was genuinely loved by all who knew him. Maybe that is enough.
Over my lifetime I've had the privilege of bringing life into the world, bringing people back to life, and helping people pass over to the next one. I firmly believe we should make the most of the short time we have on this earth. And so I will try to model my life after his. I will be a good wife, a good mother, a good friend. I will go where the road, or my wife, takes me within reason. I will work hard, I will play hard, and I will always do good. Maybe that is what defines a life well lived. And maybe, just maybe, that really is enough.
Jamie J: Marian Leary is a resuscitation researcher at the University of Pennsylvania.
So here’s a question for you: have you ever thought about the ideal way to die? I can imagine myself draped over a king size bed, fashioned with satin sheets of all kind of beautiful colors, surrounded by Casablanca lilies. And of course I’m fully made up. Well, Adrienne Mackey has given a lot more thought to the ideal way to die than I have. In fact, she’s developed a way for everyone to process their end. She spoke with Commonspace Associate Producer Ali L’Esperance.
Adrienne Mackey: If you wanted to imagine the perfect way of dying, rather than thinking about it as about this process to just avoid-- how do you think of it as a thing to celebrate and be awesome and filled with all of the things that are the last things you want to think about and hear and see and be with before you die.
Ali L’Esperance: That’s Adrienne Mackey. She wants us to start thinking about death. Not just think about it — but become comfortable with death. So Adrienne’s company Swim Pony, based out of Philadelphia, developed an interactive game called “The End.”
Adrienne Mackey: Every single day you text in to a phone number that is the character of "The End" and The End says “Hey, how you doin? Like, are you ready to draw a card?” I mean if there's anything you can say about The End, it is-- we called it an amorphous comfort. You get to tell The End, you know "I want to go outside today or I feel like doing something kinda thinky.” Or, “I've been thinking a lot about my grandmother, can you give me a card like that?" So you sort of give like some stipulations and then The End will recommend a series of cards and you pick one and then depending on which card you pick you go to our web portal and type the name of the card in, and it gives you a quest.
Ali L’Esperance: So, every day for an entire month, you’re sent on a different quest to help you face your own mortality. We’ll get into these quests in just a minute, so hang on for that. First— we wanted to know: what kind of person makes a game like this?
Adrienne Mackey: Well, I guess I noticed in myself that I had a lot of fear of regret. I mean I think I'm a person who in a lot of ways you might look at me and say "Oh, you've shunned normal life to like do this crazy artistic career," and all these different kinds of exciting things where I've gotten to travel, all kinds of things, but I did notice that there was a way when I'd make decisions I would often make them because I was calculating all of the things that might go wrong? And just noticing that pattern in myself and thinking back to and like, even to when I was a little kid I would just like get in these spirals where I would start to think about infinity or something, and just think "when does it end?" you know and sort of have these childhood existential crises.
Ali L’Esperance: So Adrienne started researching this --
Adrienne Mackey: I read one book in particular which is this book called "Staring at the Sun" by an existential psychotherapist called Irvin Yalom. And he talked a lot about this idea of regret springing from a fear of a life unlived. Which to me felt really exciting, and so I thought well maybe rather than this anxiety provoking me to stay away from things that might have a negative outcome, how can I use that sense of like there's a limited amount of time and that anxiety can be a productive factor rather than something that kind of shuts down other things that I might want to avoid.
Ali L’Esperance: Using what Adrienne calls her “healthy death anxiety” along with countless hours of research, and building a staff, she has The End! So! Let’s say, when you woke up this morning you felt … nostalgic— or..you wanted to reflect on something from your past.. You text that amorphous comfort, The End, and they recommend card number 42...
Adrienne Mackey: And the quest would then instruct you to just make a list of all of the people or things in your life that you have that feel like a loose end. And then just take a look at that list and put it in order of things that feel the hardest to the easiest to resolve and then you'd pick one of the things at the bottom of the list to complete today and then you text back in and have a conversation with The End about what it was like to make the list and what it felt like to check that one thing off.
Ali L’Esperance: And so how does that relate to death?
Adrienne Mackey: People are afraid of pain, people are afraid of nothingness but a lot of people are afraid of getting to the end of their life and not feeling like they've really lived it or that there are things that are left that feel unfinished. And so that loose ends card is one way of saying, well if this is something that you want to have happen, how do you use that fear of "Oh my god, I don't want to be on my death bed going 'I never resolved my friend Katie from college who I had that awful fight with'". like what are you waiting for? It's not going to get easier and if you can use that like I said healthy death anxiety to push you over the edge. It will get you to do those things you already know you want to do by saying "Well, if I can get over that discomfort of actually thinking about my own mortality, like, calling up Katie really can't be that bad."
Ali L’Esperance: After you’ve completed your quest that day, you check back in with the end over text message...
Adrienne Mackey: "Hey, The End. That was crazy or awesome or terrifying or I hated it or it was wonderful," and you just have a conversation about what you felt having done it. And over time The End starts to learn about you and can both suggest things that it thinks you might be interested in, but it also can notice patterns of saying like "Wow, it's amazing you always bringing up your Nana whenever you do a story about the past," and just a way to sort of reflect back and witness you through your own experience.
Ali L’Esperance: I'm curious about the vulnerability between who The End is and the person playing the game. And it seems like it becomes a very intense, personal relationship but you don't know who the person is on the other side.
Adrienne Mackey: I remember being a kid on instant messenger and I was really shy and really introverted, and interactions that I would have in person I couldn't have in the same way that I would talk to somebody on the computer because you just get that little bit of distance. And there's actually a thing called the online dis-inhibition effect that like on a Youtube comment section means you get trolls who say whatever but when it comes to really intense topics like death, it just lowers the barrier because you can't see somebody judging you or thinking about what you're saying, you can just sort of take the data as the data and I think actually in a weird way that allowed people to be more honest because they weren't looking at an actor. They were able to imagine this character however they wanted and The End would often mirror like if you have a phrase that you use all the time, The End remembers that. It might send it back to you and it adjusts in small ways to mirror who you are to create a space that's most comfortable for you.
Ali L’Esperance: The people that are working as "The End," do you go through some kind of empathy training with them?
Adrienne Mackey: We did crazy amounts of -- like, we have this handbook that is inside the game about how to play the character and we talked a ton about -- you know, cause it's a supernatural entity. What does it know? What does it think? Can it feel? What can it do? How does it talk?
Ali L’Esperance: Ultimately, players felt really comfortable with this supernatural being on the other side of their text message. They weren’t always comfortable, however, with their day to day challenges.
Adrienne Mackey: There were a couple of quests that people found really really intense in the moment, that people right afterward would go "I hated that. That was an awful experience." And then interestingly a week or a couple weeks later would comment back on it and go "You know I know that was really hard in the moment but that actually might be my favorite thing that I did in the entire game." I mean people had tons of revelations about family members or wanting to be more vulnerable or open with different kinds of people, or realizing that all of these intense ideas they had about accomplishment or career maybe actually weren't as important as they thought they were. I mean that was the biggest thing is a lot of people just realizing what actually is exciting or happy making for them in life. The End doesn't care what you want your life to be. The End just wants you to know what that is and go after it.
Jamie J: That’s Adrienne Mackey, speaking with Commonspace Associate Producer Ali L’Esperance, about her game “The End.” She says her company is developing a new version of the game, expanded to include a player’s family members and friends, so everybody can get in the game.
You’re listening to Commonspace, from WHYY and First Person Arts – where live story telling and conversation connects us to each other, and the world. I’m your host Jamie J, and today’s episode is all about death.
You know, the older you get, the more you experience death’s many facets - and realize that death is always personal. Some aspects of dying, like wakes, family gatherings, odd conversations over inheritance, and weird burial requests from the deceased - are the materials for this episode’s storytellers.
Today we have two stories that fit in the category of “Going Out With A Bang”. The first is Nick Kupsey’s over-the-top, out-of-control farewell to his aunt Dolly. Oh, and by the way, in case you don’t remember, Jerry Blavat, The Geator With The Heater, is a famous Philadelphia radio DJ from the early days of rock and roll. You’ll thank me for this info later.
Nick Kupsey: Every time I go to a funeral, it always reminds me of how many dreams that we have that are unfulfilled, all the promises that are un-kept. And I felt this way when we buried my Aunt Doll in March of 2015. Now my Aunt Doll, she was this lady, she was timeless, and like ageless. From the day I gained object permanence to the day she died, I swear she looked the same. So I used to tell my mom, I’m like, is she a vampire?
But she was kind this matriarchal figure in our family, she would throw these huge elaborate parties, and kinda just sit very calm in the center of it all and just drink beer from a very tall glass.
And I have to tell you we’re kind of a typical Del-Co Irish Catholic family…please don’t applaud, don’t…meaning that there’s some stars, but most of us have starred in the police blotter in the newspaper. So, we had a very typical Irish Catholic funeral mass for her, which was…goes on forever, and it’s really impolite to duck out after you get communion, ‘cause you’re not supposed to leave before the body.
So after we buried her we were invited to a luncheon, put together by her insanely successful son Larry. Now, Larry is rich, sorta famous, and well connected. Basically he’s like the crown jewel in the Burger King crown of our family. Now, Larry was Donald Trump’s right hand man for twelve years. News flash, Trump’s an ***hole…I’ve met him.
So we go to this funeral luncheon, and we walk in, and you know, there’s just tables and chairs…and then I look to the left and I see a dance floor and a DJ setting up. And there’s, like, a bunch of Phillies, like, accoutrement around, and I’m like “Oh, s*** we walked into a bar mitzvah.” You know?
But then, my cousin Steve, who has a shaved head and the Yeungling barcode tattooed on his neck, waved me over and I was like “Woop, we’re in the right place.”
So I go over and it’s my whole family’s at the bar, and it’s not a surprised because like ten minutes after my mom died they literally rolled a keg right through my front door. So we begin to drink like Vikings. Shots, beer, shots beer, there’s music playing…and I don’t know if you guys know how weird it is to be at a funeral luncheon when there’s a DJ…especially when he’s playing “Get Low” by Little John.
So I’m hammered and I decide, ok, I’ve got to go to the bathroom. I walk in the bathroom, some of my cousins are doing coke. And I’m like, “Wow, this is interesting. And I get real pee shy, and they didn’t stop talking. And they’re like, “Do you know who’s coming to this funeral?” and I’m like, “That’s not something that anyone ever says, “Who’s coming to this funeral?”
So I exit the bathroom quickly, and I go to walk outside, and I’m passing relatives, and everyone is happy and in a good mood. I go outside, I open the door because when I drink I like to smoke…sorry. So I go outside, the door opens, and I am immediately hit with a plume of marijuana smoke, because twelve of my cousins are passing a joint. And I’m thinking, this is not a funeral luncheon, this is a Metallica tailgate. So I make my way back inside, I’m drunk, I go back to the bar. I go over there, and my uncle’s there, he hands me a shot of Crown Royal, and we’re all doing shots and we’re saying, “Let’s give it up for Dolly” So we’re like “Let’s give it up for Dolly!!
And then from behind, a voice came over a microphone, “Hey let’s hear it for Dolly!!”. And I turn around and it’s none other than The Geator With The Heater, The Boss With The Hot Sauce…Jerry Blavat!!! And if this funeral luncheon was like an EDM song, Jerry Blavat was like the bass drop, ‘cause all hell broke loose. Elderly people were forsaking walkers…parents throwing children. It was insane!! INSANE!!!! And then I’m…apparently, I just found out the other day, I turned to my cousin in my drunken stupor and said, “I’m gonna make out with Jerry Blavat!” So I’m tryin’ like to push through a phalanx of grey hairs and AARP subscribers…and I can’t do it, I can’t get through. You know? So I turned to her son, and I go, “Larry,” and this is exactly what I said to him, “WHAT THE F***??!!??”
And he looked at me and he goes, “My mom loved Jerry Blavat, and she said to me before she died, that when she died, she wanted to have a party for her funeral. And I looked around at all my relatives, they were happy, and they were smiling, and I was like, “Man, that’s right.” And then I blacked out.
I woke up the next morning, like Biggie Smalls, was it all a dream? Went through my phone and noticed there were 70 pictures of me trying to sexually accost Jerry Blavat at my aunt’s funeral luncheon. So now when anybody ever asks me what the best day of my life is, I always tell ‘em, the day we buried my aunt. Thanks guys…
Jamie J: Storyteller Nick Kupsey is the author of The 5 People You Meet In WAWA. He’s also the co-founder of Laffcast.com, a comedy podcasting network. Rock the afterlife, Aunt Doll!
Jamie J: Now, you might think it would be hard to top Nick’s story of the funeral that was way too much fun, but: Steve Knebels has this take on remembering the passing of his beloved grandfather.
Steve Knebels: My story is about my grandfather, his name's Paul Knebels and his extraordinary death.
He's a leap day baby, so he was born on February 29th, 1932…but the story goes back a ways because every since I was of legal drinking age or maybe a few years prior to that, me, him and my dad we started our own little tradition of shooting pool, drinking about a thousand beers and just like kind of celebrating with pizzas and cheesesteaks and junk food at a local watering hole. We did this literally from 21 up until the day before he died.
But the long running joke was, you know what, one of these years you're gonna be carded. You're gonna tie one on and get served the beer legally. You know, and it never lost its luster that story because even though we joked about it with the three of us, every friend, every family member, every patron at a bar, every bartender we told that to got a kick out of it like "Oh my god, check his ID! He's not 21 yet!" You know even though he was in his 70s and early 80s.
So flash forward to 2016, and this countdown that we were doing. Whenever we saw each other at holidays we would always tease each other that one of these days he'll be legal. And that time finally came. So the position that I'm in working in media I reached out to some of my contacts to kind of make this day and our little tradition a little bit more special than it usually was.
So CBS 3 and KYW News Radio ended up coming to the bar that we went to shoot pool at. So he was coming expecting to just hang out with me and my dad, and low and behold he shows up, walks through the door, and it's cameramen and reporters and like, you name it, a bar full of people he doesn't know that's there waiting for him. To celebrate him on our -- not only his special day, but like, our tradition. So it was a great celebration. He was totally shocked, he didn't expect any of it. There was a news story on later that night that we all watched but that was only the beginning cause the following day, that Monday, was the 29th, his actual 21st birthday.
So FOX 29, when I had told them about it a few days prior they were like "Well, we want to one-up CBS 3. And we want to take this to another level so don't tell them what we're thinking but we really like this story. We're gonna try to get a bar in Old City to open up before their normal hours to see if we can do a segment in the bar and get him served his literal first legal drink." I was like "That's fantastic. Because that's the long running joke that we've been counting down towards for years."
So long story short I asked him he's like "Yeah sure, let's do it, sounds great." Didn't know what to expect. Bob Kelly who does the traffic and is kind of a staple here in Philadelphia TV, who went to North Catholic High School, the same high school that my grandfather went to, ironically, so they hit it off immediately upon meeting each other.
Plow in the Stars in Old City, they opened at 9 o'clock in the morning just for the three of us, in addition to the Fox people. And so Bob Kelly is interviewing my grandfather and me and my dad are drinking free beer I mean it's the best thing in the world. We're having a great time and I'm like "this is his day, his 21st birthday, you know and he's gonna be featured on his own segment on the news." So leading up to it approximately about 9:25, 9:30 that morning the four of us are sitting across the bar. It's us four, the Fox 29 Cameraman and the bar owner, who is the bartender at the time. And they go live on the air, Bob Kelly says, I quote, "I'm here with Paul, he's a leap day baby, we're gonna check his ID and see if we can get him served a legal drink. Apparently he's turning 21 today! You think it's gonna work? What do you think about that, Paul?" and he's like "I'm ready! Let's do it!" “Alright we'll be back right after this,” alright?
So it goes dark and we all just take a break and sit back in our seats. And probably not even 30 seconds later he slumps right off the bar. So the joke -- well, not joke, but, like, the analogy I like to use as soon as the camera went dark, so did my grandfather.
So he fell off the barstool right into me and my dad's arms. And, understandably, we were like "What is going on? What the hell?" You know, like, no way, no way ,oh my god no way you've got to be kidding me right now. Is he having a seizure, did he have a stroke, did he have a heart attack? No one knows. We're doing CPR, we're trying to you know, get him to stick with us.
Meanwhile in my head we're like-- even though we're shocked we're like "Oh my god, thank god this wasn't 30 seconds prior when we were live on the air!" It was crazy from that respect but regardless, you have the million thoughts in your head because like all our friends and family are sitting there waiting for this because they're supposed to come back from commercial and you know he's supposed to get carded and have a sip of his first real beer-- or legal beer. You know so they went away, technical difficulties but meanwhile we're there in the bar doing damage control, trying to do CPR, which we don't know but at least to do something but meanwhile while the guys who work there, and Bob Kelly, they’re calling the ambulance and talking back to the station. There's people outside waiting to meet my grandfather that were sent from the station to say like "Hey, go to Plow In The Stars and meet this guy named Paul Knebels. Because he's turning 21 today. He's not only a leap day baby or a leap year baby but he's turning 21.” So there's a girl outside of the bar that knew CPR and they let her in. She took over for us until the medics got there. Threw him in the ambulance and took him to Jefferson.
Flash forward about an hour later they broke the bad news to us that they couldn't save him. You know, so despite the shock and awe of it all you're like "Whoa. Not only were you born and you died on your birthday. But you were born on a leap day and you died on your birthday." You know, so the odds of that are just, you know, impossible. And then from there, like, you know, you have an only son, he has an only son. You die in their arms on the day that like, you celebrate for years and years, it was one of your traditions. Honest to god, it’s like, if you're gonna go, what a way to go!
Jamie J: Steve Knebels is a media director for Harmelin Media in Bala Cynwyd. Full disclosure – Harmelin Media is a sponsor of First Person Arts.
And on that strange note I can’t help but think of the words of writer Gabriel (gah-briell) Garcia Marquez (mar-quezz):
“I discovered to my joy, that it is life, not death, that has no limits."
So happy living, my friends
This has been Commonspace, a collaboration between First Person Arts and WHYY…and it’s been supported by the Pew Center For Arts And Heritage. Check us out at Apple Podcasts at Stitcher…
Our Commonspace team includes Executive Producer and co-writer Elisabeth Perez Luna, Producer Mike Villers, Associate Producers Ali L’Esperance and Jen Cleary…Dan Gasiewsky and Tanesha Ford from First person Arts, and Archivist Dr. Neil Bardhan. Our Engineer was Adam Staniszewsky and our theme music is by SUBGLO. I’m your host, producer and co-writer…Jamie J. Thanks so much for listening.