Writer Eva Saulitis composed her progress toward death as gracefully as one of her poems, right up to her last breath, which she breathed with her family at home in Homer on Saturday afternoon.
Saulitis, 52, wrote in ADN's We Alaskans about her approaching death from breast cancer in September and in a book she finished on the subject, titled "Becoming Earth," to be published by Boreal Books.
She even wrote about helping create her own coffin, a basket woven by family and friends from tree branches and other materials they contributed.
"What at first felt strange became natural, to be doing this weaving together of a casket," she wrote. "It's what's been asked of us, of my family, it's what I've asked of them, and they've said yes. They've said yes to living my dying with me, until I turn off the trail for the last part of the journey, which can only be taken alone."
I met Saulitis in 2005 while I was working on a book about Prince William Sound. Her husband, Craig Matkin, an orca whale biologist, took me along on a research cruise to meet up with whales congregating there. The crew turned out to be just the three of us, and I ended up writing more about Saulitis than about the whales.
Her openly expressed spiritual connection with the place demonstrated what I wanted to say. I was looking for a way to show how these places matter to us. Saulitis was brave enough to declare, in poetry, essays and her scientific work, that the mountains, the depths and the whales swimming among them had deep, mysterious meaning, importance beyond their physical value.
She touched many other people even more profoundly. She helped inspire the creation of the Kachemak Bay Writers' Conference and supported its work for 15 years. Over that same time, she taught writing, both in the University of Alaska Anchorage's Web-based creative writing program and at its Kachemak Bay campus. Saulitis was known for helping new writers find their voices and their stories, assets she believed every person holds.
Saulitis began her own final story in the summer of 2013, when she learned the breast cancer that had been in remission since 2010 was back and had metastasized. In her blog on a patient support website called CaringBridge.org, she chronicled the tortuous emotional and physical path of the disease, a story painfully familiar to many of us, but which is different in each case.
Those writings told of transition from anger to peace. And also of her frustration with the medical system as it resisted her decision last year to forgo further treatment. And then, last fall, a struggle to leave a hospital in Seattle where surgeons continued providing treatment she didn't want after recovery was obviously impossible.
In November, believing she might never escape the hospital, Saulitis and her family simply left, over the objections of doctors. Advised against flying because of an air sac in her lung, they hastily began a voyage home by ferry, barely catching the boat in Bellingham after a traffic jam in Seattle.
The trip home to die became the last great adventure for Saulitis. Her former students were waiting on each town's dock going up the Inside Passage.
"At every place we stopped there would be a sign up: 'Eva,'" Matkin said. "They'd give us things. Smoked salmon, berries, jam, incredible stuff, beautiful clothing, all handmade, knitted, and the Native people gave us Native things. It was simple stuff, but, my God, beautiful. It was just phenomenal. Eva was going, 'Yeah, this is where I live, where my heart is, and where am I going to die.'"
At home, the gifts continued. Saulitis continued teaching her students into December, said Carol Schwartz, director of the campus in Homer. She continued writing on the CaringBridge site until 10 days before her death.
Family and friends gathered. They wove the basket coffin, including in it gifts as tributes to Saulitis. They wrote music for her. And as she grew weaker, she also gave what she had to them.
"She gave away all her stuff before she was dead," Matkin said. "She took great joy in that. She didn't have a stitch of clothes left by the time she died."
She kept writing, and when a few advance copies of her new book arrived, she inscribed them in her weak hand for friends. Tom Kizzia, whose wife, Sally Kabisch, died of ovarian cancer in 2004, received one of the copies.
He said watching Saulitis brought back the grief of his wife's death, but the writing transformed it.
"It comes up again at times like this, but it's not all bad," he said. "And I think that's one of the lessons that comes to me in this writing. The intensity of living that you experience in those times of passage. It's that, too, as well as the anguish. And it's nice to have that intensity come back from time to time, even if it has anguish attached to it."
As a writer, he admires how Saulitis wrote her death.
"Why not?" he asked. "Why don't we all do that? To look at that kind of consciousness is something we can all aspire to."
By early Saturday, Saulitis had lost her ability to speak or drink. But as family talked and played music, Matkin said she managed to turn her head and give him a warm and contented smile. And then she died. He holds that smile as a sign of her continuing presence with him.
He said, "She taught everybody what grace is in the midst of the most unspeakable assault on your body and your spirit."
The women of the family washed Saulitis' body, dressed it in clothes and a blanket she had chosen and then placed it in the basket coffin to drive to a mortuary in Kenai. Matkin said the funeral director was quite surprised.
Saulitis' ashes will be spread in Prince William Sound, but some will be saved to be burned in the basket coffin on a beach in Kachemak Bay in the spring, where remembrances will be added to the flames.
Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly. He is the author of more than 10 books, including "The Fate of Nature," which includes a chapter on Eva Saulitis. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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