Suddenly, miraculously, it was no longer dismay that I felt. It was freedom. It was Death doffing its blackness and revealing itself to me as life.
The thingI am not alone
You are alive
“Grateful Dead, the expression, is not really about death,” says The Dead’s biographer Dennis McNally in Long Strange Trip when attempting to explain both the philosophy of the band as well as the fortuitous circumstances that led them to the motif. After The Dead discovered that there was another band called The Warlocks, frontman Jerry Garcia picked up a Funk & Wagnalls dictionary with the vague intention of finding a new name. The first thing he saw was the spooky, and now ubiquitous, combination of words, Grateful Dead.
In the tale, slightly differing variations of which exist in several cultures, there is a traveler who comes across a corpse who has been denied a proper burial due to some kind of outstanding debt that he has to society. So the traveler gives him his last penny and goes on his way. But as the hero persists in his journey, he is joined by a companion who aids him. In some versions of the tale, he saves his life. In others, he helps him win a prize. After having done his good deed though, whatever it is, the companion reveals himself as the grateful spirit of the corpse whom the hero had helped lay to rest.
“The stories are about karma,” continues McNally, “how you live your life and how you relate to other people. By confronting death, you learn how to live.”
If The Dead, specifically Jerry Garcia, is (in my version of this tale) the corpse who had some kind of outstanding debt to society, I am not the traveler who paid it off with my last penny. Legions of others already did that after his death, and thus the death of the band, in ’95. But Garcia, for me, is without a doubt the corpse who came to aid me in some impossible task. One that I, the traveler, was in the merciless clutches of for nearly twenty years. And it got me thinking: How long had the The Dead been following me around for anyway? Maybe they’d always been there and only decided to reveal themselves to me when I was ready to receive. Ready, in a sense, to live.
Or maybe it was simply the luck of the cosmic draw when my ears fell upon “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” and cracked open a corner of my mind I was virtually certain did not exist.
The first few years were quite possibly the worst. Not because of the intensity of the attacks, but because of my inability to comprehend them. Often, I would rouse Mom out of bed in the middle of the night, my face slack, the rosy hue of youth drained from it, and I would curl beside her for warmth. She was terrified of the withered, wan little girl who took the place of her child and would try to soothe me as much for her sake as my own, but I had left my body, untethered and unmoored in the vacuum of space, the searing lucidity of it all inside of me and yet entirely unable to communicate it.
You are not my Mom, I would say, already somehow understanding that one day she wouldn’t be—that one day no one would be anything. She suffered immensely because of it and there was little Dad could do to fix it. He watched on helplessly as his daughter slipped into an alternate dimension, somehow certain that the sheer force of life and growing up would smooth me out. And because I thought Dad was omniscient, I believed him.
As I grew older and my vocabulary expanded, I was able to better communicate my fear, but the fear itself did not abate. It grew into a monstrous thing, too large and amorphous to tame. Too lithe and quick to catch. In the car, it sat in my passenger’s seat, the twain of us in that metal heap like Emily Dickinson and Death in their carriage, my hands rattling against the steering wheel with cataleptic fright. In the lecture halls, it stood at the podium, implicitly telling me that time and tide wait for no man, and I imagined myself as a fleshless mound of bones, my parents beside me, eyeless and lily white.
You are not my Mom,I would say, already somehow understanding that one day she wouldn’t be—that one day no one would be anything.
When does it end, I asked Dad, my body slick with cold sweat, my nails frayed and jagged. He perched himself at the foot of my bed with a sympathetic grin. Though Dad was the one who was more capable of leveling me out with his logic, I was more hesitant to wake him than Mom those nights. Instead, I would stare at the sliver of space underneath my door until a strip of light would appear: the domestic beacon of Dad. That light told me that he was awake and alive. That he was stretched out on his chipped beige reclining chair reading Bertrand Russell or watching Twilight Zone, setting the world to rights by learning everything there was to know about it. Still, in adulthood, I look for that strip of light underneath my door when that old, familiar panic blossoms. In my hypnagogic state, I almost believe I am still small. And Dad is still there, just in the next room, waiting for me.
It ended when I had you, he said, back hunched, eyes stung with remembering. For the first time I realized that he too had suffered from this thing I could not name. That maybe I had, in fact, come from a long line of sufferers of this nameless thing and it was like some kind of specter that had not only haunted me and my forefathers, but would haunt my children. And their children. And theirs after that. Maybe there was no way to shake it. Maybe—and this was the most distressing possibility of them all—it lived inside of us. Belonged to us.
“When we were children we were preoccupied with death,” writes Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry Irvin D. Yalom, “and one of our major developmental tasks has been to cope with the fear of obliteration.” This explains a great deal about my adolescence,but no one I knew was preoccupied with such a thing, wringing their hands together in the middle of the night to wrest it from their depths. Sinking their head between their knees to heave it loose and fluttering into the bowels of the earth. Perhaps, though, they did not want to tell me when I asked, desperate as I was in my search for someone like me. Someone whose very existence, I hoped, would instill in me a sense of belonging. Of groundedness. There is no doubt, though, that I tried to grapple with this fear on my own. But I did not wish to cope with it. For what child would wish to make concessions for the thing that strove to destroy them and everyone they loved? What I wished to do was smother it, this animal I could not see or name.
Now, I know its name. And I know what it looks like when it’s near. It is Mexico’s La Calavera Catrina, a mirthful clatter of bones in an extravagant hat. It is the Grim Reaper, Death of the West, fitted with menacing shroud and scythe. It is Yama, Hindu Lord of Death, astride a black buffalo, rope lasso trailing behind him to capture the souls of the dead. It is Pesta, the plague hag, with a black hood and a broom, sweeping an ill-fated town. But the avatar of Death I’m most familiar with wears no cloak and brandishes no weapon. It is a feeling, it is contourless, and it permeates everything.
Maybe—and this was the most distressing possibility of them all—it lived inside of us. Belonged to us.
“Philosophers often speak of ‘boundary experiences,’ writes Yalom. These are “urgent experiences that jolt us out of ‘everydayness’ and rivet our attention upon ‘being’ itself. The most powerful boundary experience is confrontation with one’s own death.”
I recall a most fearsome cosmic boundary: the event horizon of a black hole. A rotating disk of glowing plasma moves furiously around it. Jets of radiation and particles burst from its blackness. The celestial body it belongs to so massive that nothing proximous to it can escape its gravitational force. And within its boundary, objects remain forever trapped. Forever irretrievable. Considering this, I marvel that there are things in this universe so large that not even light can escape from inside them. And fear, so immense, that man renders himself powerless to its pull, struck senseless and dazed by the clarity that its awesomeness ignites.
The first time I encountered The Dead was in my freshman English classroom, which still in memoriam, is a place of infinite wonders. A 10 x 10 cabinet of psychedelic curiosities. Looking back, I see our teacher, a blur of glasses, tendrils, and enthusiasm, stalk its purple and white checkered linoleum floors with the tenacity of someone who has something to say. And me, eagerly waiting for him to say it.
It was no doubt a room bursting with strangeness, but what hammered most demandingly at my archetypal center was the poster of a skull bifurcated by a lightning bolt. The shrine of patches on the bulletin board of dancing bears and skeletons and roses. The many photos of a mysterious bearded man sporting the impish smile of a sage. Of someone who knew something I had yet to.
“He’s a Deadhead,” said a classmate in a tone that suggested both knowingness and respect. A Deadhead, I repeated under my breath, realizing then that he belonged to some fringe club of subterranean otherness, but not yet aware of its implications. Not yet understanding that The Grateful Dead were not just a band; they were a universe.
I stared at the bearded man in the photographs and imagined him on the side of a highway with a guitar slung round his back and a piece of cardboard held aloft with one four-fingered hand in the big, blue American sky. He was beckoning to me, but I did not stop.
That year, I learned that there was a cosmic koan to crack. That literature and music and art would assist me in my efforts. That if I looked hard enough, listened long enough, read carefully enough, I would come to peace with my fear. Death would stop stalking me. Cogitations on the end of the world would cease. And I would finally be cured.
But I was not ready. Not then. I had ten more years of it to endure.
Like the Abstract Expressionists of the mid-twentieth century, The Dead were as much their ethos as their art. And it was the former, as much as the latter, that provoked in me a profound shift in perspective. Committed to formlessness and at peace with future events having an increasingly less predictable nature, The Dead, specifically Garcia, would have perplexed me deeply in my youth. Formlessness and chaos and change were not words in my vocabulary that I regarded with reverence. That, though, was the whole Dead trip, sonically and philosophically.
“There was a conscious decision in my life to be involved in something that was living,” said Garcia. “To me, being alive means to continue to change . . . to be involved in something not so solid that you can’t tear it down.”
Maybe this was the very sentiment that turned all those creatures in tie-dye gossamer into rapturous whirling dervishes. The lack of solidity, the forsaking of linearity, the total disavowal of the artifice of set lists and studio work gave people hope in a world that was otherwise teeming with sameness and sterility. So too could such attributes engender the kind of excitement that arises from having finally found the trapdoor to another life. Another, so to say, dimension.
“I think of The Grateful Dead as being a crossroads or a pointer sign,” said Garcia in his seminal first interview with Rolling Stone magazine. “And what we’re pointing to is that there’s a whole lot of universe available . . . a whole lot of experience.”
Though many would find such a discovery thrilling, I remember finding it frightening. The sound of it, both as an abstract notion and as an aural manifestation, alarmed me. All that available universe I heard threw my smallness into relief and plunged it into nothingness, just like with those boundary experiences of my youth. But something had shifted because as soon as the fright began to materialize when listening to their canonical album Live/Dead, it morphed into euphoria. Suddenly, miraculously, it was no longer dismay that I felt. It was freedom. It was Death doffing its blackness and revealing itself to me as life.
This dichotomy of life and death, I would learn, was pervasive with The Dead, but it was symbiotic rather than diametric. They worked in tandem, each one oxygenating the other with equal force and generosity of spirit. And it was Garcia, primarily, who made sure that both held equal footing in The Grateful Dead microverse. Having lost his father at a young age and obsessed with the film Frankenstein, the seeds of fear and learning how best to quash it, germinated long before he found music.
“It deals with life and death. The two great mysteries of creation,” said Garcia when asked about the film. “I think there was some desire on my part to embrace that. To not let that control me in that way.”
I consider my own fear, so large and incorrigible throughout my adolescence, and how it held dominion over me. How I was so terrified of the end that change, however minute, was catastrophic. Not necessary or liberating like The Dead said it was. And I consider how swiftly I laid this fear to rest. How the desire to not let it control me finally superseded the desire to control it. I would not vanquish death by obliterating it. Nor would I do so by banishing it from my mind. Death, I finally understood, after 20 years of trying to evade its reach, was not something that could be vanquished.
I recall the character of Swedish knight Antonius Block in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. “Have you come to fetch me?” he asks Death, who wears the proverbial black cloak, the pallor of late nights spent pilfering lives on his face. He responds matter-of-factly: “I have long walked by your side.”
In German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, he coins a phrase that captures the conclusion I came to: “being-towards-death.” In other words, if we want to understand the meaning of the human condition, the meaning of being alive, we must consider our inevitable demise. Death, it turns out, is enmeshed in the fabric of who we are. And it wasn’t until I listened to The Dead that I accepted this. Death, that is, not as an evil counterpart to life, but as it’s progenitor.
I remember small me rigid with terror in her dark bedroom and how she learned to anticipate the arrival of an attack. How, like a car weaving its way through the vast and still desert night, it approached slowly and inexorably toward her. She holds her breath and closes her eyes in an attempt to will it back toward whence it came, but it does not stop. It does not falter. The distant roar of the engine becomes audible. She sucks in the air, the stars, and waits.
One day the universe will expand in front of her, inside of her, and she will tumble gladly into its fathomless, shifting depths.
Angela Brussel is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York whose non-fiction and fiction have appeared in The Awl, New Statesman, Nylon Magazine, Electric Literature, The Wrong Quarterly, and Brooklyn Magazine, to name a few. Her current interests range from nihilism and the neuroscience of addiction to the psychology behind conspiracy theories and persecution. Her latest work can be found at angelabrussel.com