Where We Can’t Follow

When I first discovered prolific novelist Cai Emmons’ work on Medium, I didn’t know that my hitting the “Follow” button would last less than two weeks. On January 2nd, 2023, Cai ended her life via Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, a little less than two years after receiving a terminal ALS diagnosis, at 71 years old.

What struck me most about her last essays and words was the clarity and nonchalance with which she wrote them. It was as if dying was just another to-do item on her list, and not even a dreaded one. She fully acknowledged that death would untimely interrupt her career that was just picking up, but she refused to let that interruption keep her from what she was here to do — sharing her thoughts and learnings from the previous week, just like any other.

“I have no idea what awaits me,” Cai wrote on her last day on earth, “my only regret is that I won’t be able to share it with you.” When I cleared out my “Following” list the other day, I realized as much — where Cai has gone, I can no longer follow.

Death seems pretty definitive, but if you think about it, life offers little difference to this follow/can’t-follow dynamic. We all do a finite number of things while we’re alive, and for all of them, we hope to bring a certain number of people along. Sometimes, everyone we ask to do so will follow, and sometimes, we have to venture out all on our own. Arguably, the latter times might be the most interesting — because once we return, we bring home a story. An anecdote. A souvenir. A weekly blog post, perhaps.

Don’t fret about the journeys on which no one can follow you. They’re a chance to be generous. To bring back a story. Share your gifts with us as long as you can, and if one day, you must take a trip you might not come back from — be it moving to another country, leaving a company you love, or, yes, dying with dignity — you’ll be able to do so without regrets. Lost is not gone, after all, and wherever you are leaving, your spirit might linger a lot longer there than you think.

And if you’re one of the bereft ones, remember that it pays to never stop paying attention: “I have a feeling that I’ll be returning to haunt a number of people,” Cai said. “In a good way.” She sure paid me a visit today — and so will you to whoever you’ll leave behind. I guess despite no longer following, I shall remember her last words a little while more, and perhaps so should anyone finding themselves forced to let go: “Be on the lookout for me!”