Death Tolls on Television
by Sophie Cloherty
Moments after you die you find yourself in the third row of an unlit movie theater. The floor is swimming with rust colored carpet and water’s dripping from somewhere. You can smell it. You’re alone. Except you’re not. Someone coughs and you turn your head. A crinkly older man stoops over a mop, the pale outline of him floats in the dimness. You know he’s old by the way the neck curves below the shoulders. You turn and notice the screen. It’s growing white. Four, three, two, one— as the black numbers appear something shutters awake in the back of your head. You watch your life on loop.
When I was sixteen I decided the afterlife looked something like this. I wrote the episode on the back of some art history homework, a fitting essay on Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa.
It’s over ten years later and winter. All the trees are dead and yesterday’s nor’easter buried the branches in six inches of snow.
I found the scrap with the movie theater bit on it at my parent’s house, in the bedroom I still move back into during the holidays. The small space is full of dead things—a stiff paintbrush, a poster of James Dean, expired Charlie Cards, magazines cut up for collages, a photo of myself and a prom date.
It’s 2020 and there’s a growing death toll on television.
Walking through a Boston graveyard a few days after Thanksgiving I explain the invention of embalming to an old flame.
“The Civil war,” I said, “the Civil War is when they started to care about where a body was buried. Black bodies separated from white bodies. Union bodies were more often preserved, taken from battle fields in the South and laid to rest in the North.” I had read this in a suggested New Yorker article just the day before.
I touch death everyday. In small ways, in forgotten ways.
Driving on the Interstate from Boston to Ann Arbor, my last boyfriend and I watched a Prius skid out on gravel and flip four times across three lanes. It was August and all our windows were open.
We stopped to catch our breath. We’d been fighting about something important. I forgot about it immediately and began to love him again.
A few months later, after we had agreed again to stop loving, I asked him what he thought happens when we die. “Something magical” He said. I was excited. But what he meant, he explained, is something akin to taking psychedelics, something chemical in the brain.
He’s right, in a way. The moment of death is defined in some countries as when either blood circulation or brain function irreversibly cease a person. Blood circulation is more common. It takes brains cells almost two minutes to die after the loss of blood flow.
In those two minutes, some have noted that those on their deathbed can snap into a moment of clarity—to say something to a family member, a loved one. This phenomenon is thought to be a last ditch effort by the brain to survive.
When I ask my friend Alex, drunk over a game of Yanif, he recites the Law of Conservation of Mass.
“You know, what that Newton guy said.”
It was a French chemist, not Newton, but I appreciate the conflation. The cheap beer makes Alex’s green eyes glassy, but the question makes his already angular face taut and serious.
“Nothing’s lost. But I think it’s further than that. I think you choose your life.”
“What do you mean, exactly?” I mask the questions in my voice and stare at my deck to appear only slightly interested.
“Well, I imagine it’s something like a universal mind. And each of us, each of our consciousnesses cycle through it. Gathering and dispensing information.” He gestures upward with his hands, “So all the information of the world is stored in one celestial body.” He didn’t use the word “celestial” exactly, but I heard it.
“Like samsara in Buddhism then? Without Nirvana?” He doesn’t hear me.
“You can choose to experience different things. When’s your birthday?” Alex forgets we share the same birthday. February thirteenth, a Friday. It’s my favorite fact.
“Right! So we selected that day and those parents because we wanted to experience this life, and bring the knowledge from it back. We don’t know what that knowledge is but we know the path it begins on. The luck of it is relative.”
Alex is studying to be a pilot in Michigan and in his spare time he builds things—a new deck, a home gym, a boat dock, an elaborate hotel for birds. My astrology friends would say he’s an Aquarius trapped in a Capricorn world.
It’s just after Christmas. Starved for adventure, Alex, myself, and my forever friend Hannah have driven somewhere near the secluded shoreline of North Carolina. We sleep on a mattress in my car and by day explore closed trails that have been ravaged by a recent hurricane.
One of the trails leads to a lookout made of wooden planks that have warped sideways. The curved wood mimics the gnarled roots of cypress trees underfoot. The guardrail is still horizontal and we cling to it to hold ourselves up. In front of us stretches miles of salt marsh. The wind makes the long grass dance. We wonder aloud if it’s the wind making the grass move or really a great mass of snakes sliding through the mud.
Our impulse is to search for signs of the living.
I don’t think a reference to Newton is that far off track for Alex’s theory. The first law of motion states that every object persists in its state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed on it. An object in motion stays in motion. Maybe just that first part remains relevant: “every object persists.”
Maybe we choose the beginning, but we certainly don’t choose the obstacles.
Newton was twenty-three when he discovered gravity and twenty-six when he wrote his three laws of motion. I want to think there’s something significant about a twenty-three-year-old regulating the whole world back down to Earth. Is it a common impulse of the twenty-somethings to be in constant search of ground to land on? His theory out of context seems naïve, maybe even male. It implies that all paths are straight. It assigns responsibility to exterior forces.
I went to write the phrase “Newton didn’t know the same world of television death tolls.” In confirming research I was shocked to find that Newton did similarly live through a major pandemic in his early twenties while he was studying at Trinity College. The Great Plague of London was the last major epidemic of the bubonic plague in England. As a result, Newton was sent home and regulated to his family Manor, a few days travel northwest of Cambridge. Many of his discoveries occurred in the interim.
An article titled “Death and Dying in Medieval and Early Modern Europe” is open on my laptop and there is a growing death toll on television. How lucky we are to persist.
A couple days ago I asked my friend John about the afterlife. He majored in physics in college and I thought maybe he’d have something Newtonian to add. Instead he was flustered. Flustered not because he had never thought about the idea before, but because, he said, he thought about it nearly every day.
“I don’t think I have ever thought to vocalize it, the idea just lives in my brain.”
I thought this a fair enough response. The closest he could come to a theory was a ghost story.
“I was in my basement watching a news channel. All of a sudden a book fell off the bookshelf behind the television. For no reason, completely fell of its own accord. I went to pick it up. It was a Bible, and in the inside cover was a note that read ‘To my dearest
Evie.’ It was gifted to my Great Aunt Evie from her father. Just that morning I had been asking about our Scottish heritage and my mother had mentioned Evie and how she made the journey alone. I had never heard her name before then.” He exaggerated a shiver, “And that’s all I’ll say.”
How often do the Great Aunt Evies of the world call us? How often do their voices go unnoticed?
All the movie theaters are closed and there is a death toll on television.
For Christmas, Hannah gifted me a thrifted copy of Patti Smith’s autobiography. In the final chapter, Smith croons goodbye to Robert Mapplethorpe as he dies of AIDS. She writes, “Why can’t I write something that would awake the dead?” It was simple and blue and made my stomach hurt with longing.
Will knowing the afterlife awake the dead? I ask myself this while watching a Netflix documentary on people’s near-death experiences.
One woman from Colorado drowns briefly while kayaking and in her trance is told she will lose her oldest son. Another woman dies in childbirth and watches the doctors in the surgical room panic. I wonder what occurs when two bodies die in the same place at the same time. Do they turn towards each other, or drift separately?
My mother is under a blanket and the cat is watching the death toll grow on television.
The last night we spent in North Carolina, the three of us—Alex, Hannah, and I— holed up in a wooden cabin in Kitty Hawk. We huddled around a wooden table playing Trivial Pursuit. Alex, near drunk on a box of red wine, ignored the question on the card and told us about a time his closest friend had a fling with his then girlfriend.
“I haven’t really known much about his life in the three years since. I guess I just swept it away and we kept on.” He looked relieved. Hannah had tears in her eyes. I wondered if he’d ever had the space to tell anyone before.
It just so happened that the close friend was my last boyfriend. I thought then that maybe Alex and I did choose this life. The world was teaching us similar things . I’m keeping a running list for my return to the hive mind.
I am in constant search of the living snakes in the grass. I am on a raft and there’s a death toll on television.