When I was still nursing an infant and a toddler, while nurturing young dance students in my own ballet school, we lived on the top floor of a former hotel, across the street from a cafe frequented predominantly by Lucerne’s senior citizens. From our windows, we could observe the comings and goings of its geriatric visitors, their outmoded clothing, their struggles with the door, how those less mobile leaned on partners or care givers, while others supported themselves on wooden canes or high-tech, metal walking sticks. Sometimes, I’d go in to get treats for my family—flaky pastry, chocolate torte or a typical Swiss carrot cake—and, at the display counter, with its unimpeded view of the old-fashioned main space of the tearoom, receive a whiff of its vanilla-tinged, caffeine smell. Back at home, I’d speculate on the simple pleasure derived from a cup of tea or coffee and a selection of fine baked goods. The perfect last meal, I thought, whenever an ambulance pulled up in front of the cafe, and paramedics carried out another collapsed guest.
One night, while my family slumbered in our oversized co-sleeping bed, I got up to go to the bathroom, lost consciousness, and came to on my back, unable to move. My first thought was: I’m dead. A sense of calm flooded over me, displaced immediately by panic and a second evaluation: Fuck, I’m paralyzed. Neither assessment was correct—I’d merely fainted from exhaustion, and was soon able to regain control of my body and return to bed, where I fell into a deep sleep until the baby woke up, demanding access to my breasts.
We moved into a larger flat, near Lucerne’s twin-spired Church of St. Leodegar. One day, I fainted in the middle of the afternoon, and the children thought I’d died. The older one remained calm enough to phone their father, who dashed home on his bicycle with admirable speed; when he arrived, he found me conscious and still resting on the hallway’s cool linoleum floor, with our son and daughter snuggled up to me like puppies. I took the incident as a portent of what might happen if I didn’t limit my workload and, in the following weeks, made decisions to spend fewer hours in the ballet school, give my employees more autonomy; and to sleep longer, eat more, and stay hydrated at all times.
I took long walks with the children, on the quay along the lake or through the nearby churchyard, where they’d skip over gray stone slabs, graves where the bones of Lucerne’s former ruling families lie. At the front of the church, from the bottom of its wide stairs, we’d look into the distance at the city’s iconic water tower, rising from the wooden Kapellbrücke—Chapel Bridge—one of two surviving covered footbridges, each with a long row of triangular paintings hung beneath its roof. The Spreuerbrücke—Chaff Bridge, named after the chaff once dumped into the Reuss River—is farther downstream, closer to where we live now. Unlike the historical scenes of its sister bridge, the age-darkened panels of the Spreuerbrücke are populated by skeletons, the dead, and the dying. One portrays a venerable cardinal lying on a sumptuous, scarlet-canopied bed, suffering the agony of his final hours, while in the shadows behind him, the Grim Reaper waits. In each black-framed tableau, Death claims victims without distinction: the rich, the poor, an aristocratic bride, a humble fisherman—no one escapes. This is the Danse Macabre—the Dance of Death—and its morbid depictions commemorate a bacterial pestilence that swept across Eurasia, North Africa, and Europe in the Middle Ages, history’s most fatal pandemic: The Black Death.
The first Death Cafe was held in London in 2011 by Jon Underwood, inspired by the café mortels of Bernard Crettaz, a Swiss sociologist whose mission was to liberate death from a “tyrannical secrecy.” It evolved into a movement in which people across the world can gather—in intimate groups or, more recently, online—to discuss mortality while sharing in food and drink.
Years ago, I survived a massive overdose. My near-death experience left me grateful for the second chance at life, and removed all anxiety about a future demise. When I became a mother, a new fear emerged: that Death would choose our babies, take the children before me—a burden no prayer or counseling can alleviate, no Death Cafe with cakes and tea.
The razor and a bath of darkening red, bitter poison from your secret hoard, a noose, a gun, the drop from a bridge—the end result is not your call. Friends left by spoon and needle, AIDS, aneurysm, cancer, a highway crash in their father’s car. A neighbor’s son was taken by an avalanche that filled his mouth and nose with snow, a former student’s husband drank until his liver failed, a knife pierced your theater buddy’s heart when he was cruising a Viennese park, and the Boxing Day tsunami swept away that sweet company manager you and all the other dancers had once crushed on. You almost drowned in an Alpine lake—but the ocean swallows entire families on their way to a land of hope, and the salty waves wash their lifeless children ashore. Your mother carried her baby when she fled the war, and Death followed and plucked your brother from her arms; but your own family is safe: no fever, no gasps, no ambulance, no ventilator lament of whirr, click, thump.
Genia Blum is a Swiss Ukrainian Canadian dancer, writer and translator. Her literary work has received a Best of the Net and several Pushcart Prize nominations, and her essay “Slaves of Dance,” based on excerpts from her memoir in progress, Escape Artists, was named a “Notable” in The Best American Essays 2019. When not writing, she tweaks fonts and photos on her website www.geniablum.com and haunts Twitter and Instagram as @geniablum.
"Let Me Clarify: Unsolicited Advice by Genia Blum" a series of short pieces, based on Blum's personal opinion and experience.