» Nonfiction

Still Lives



It was early March when the news from home first became worrying. “I’m nervous about leaving him when I go to London for a few days,” my mother said on the phone. This wasn’t itself unusual, but when she came back, he was very sick—bad, even for him. When she described the symptoms—fever, delirium, flushed cheeks—I could remember him in that same state when he’d had pneumonia nearly a year ago. Grim hospital wards, old machines, and dying men whose relatives were nowhere to be seen. It was always miserable, how lonely illness was. It always seemed chaotic as well, the edge of life, or death. Bed sheets falling off, nurses running around, people confused as to what they were doing there, why they felt this way.


He had nearly died then; not for the first time, the doctors said that it was incredible he survived, that they “were preparing for the worst.” When people tell you that so many times, and for so many years, it becomes hard to imagine that the worst can ever really happen. I began to feel idiotic for being scared of it, caught up in a strange emotional battle, where feeling scared seemed, in hindsight, like an overreaction, because the threat never fully appeared. The same prognosis was given and then withdrawn again and again and again.


I should have been happy he had lived through another scare, and yet I felt deflated and confused for having gone through so much grief only to be back at the default state of fear. Another few months became something taunting by the end, something weirdly unbearable. Time felt meaningless and tyrannical.


It was happening this time, though, even if it seemed unreal. While my mother was away, a family friend had gone to check on him. She had fed him dinner, looked after him, and made his last days comfortable and kind. Without that, he may have been dead when my mother returned. Instead, he was well enough to say that he didn’t need the hospital, although he did. He was taken in and the diagnoses given: pneumonia and stroke. Oncology did not explain the connection to his cancers. By this stage, he had over seventy tumors on his liver, in the bones of his spine and in his remaining kidney. They had worn him down, despite all his efforts, some seemingly endless reservoir of strength. I could not imagine this cycle of stoicism and resurrection ever failing.



The day before he died, I went to see an exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe at the Grand Palais in Paris with my boyfriend, an Irish writer, Darran. At that time, I was living in Paris, while he was still back home in Ireland, and he’d visit regularly. He had arrived in Paris a few days earlier, and we’d been spending our time in museums and cafes, stretching out our free tickets and expensive espressos, to fill the frozen, bright days.

We went to the Mapplethorpe exhibition in the morning. I was reviewing it for a magazine. I knew my dad was ill, but I didn’t know quite how badly he had deteriorated. I was waiting to find out whether I needed to book flights back, whether it could really be that bad. Death loomed, though; I saw it in everything, everywhere. I tried to concentrate on work—I wanted to get as much finished as I could in case I had to leave Paris—but even my work was all about death, it turned out.


We took the Metro from Montmartre to the Grand Palais, an imposing building surrounded by decorative gardens and busy roads and police marching around. It was eerie and dark inside, like a mausoleum. Women in veils and latex, dying flowers and bowed heads. Fur and lipstick and Irish hair, props and faces lit to seem as blank as sculptures from Ancient Greece. A large white, minimal cross on the wall, next to all the other crucifixes and dying roses. A figure in a blank hood.


There were Polaroids that Mapplethorpe had taken in the 1970s, and then formal black and white portraits of the artist and his friends. He had created a system of iconography that embraced S&M and Catholicism at once, in this pursuit of true beauty. There were classical, sculptural nudes and arrangements of flowers. “I am looking for perfection in form,” he had said. ‘“I do that with portraits. I do it with cocks. I do it with flowers.” He lined up Saints and rent-boys, celebrities and Michelangelo. Striving for transcendence, perfection, and immortality, he had developed an aesthetic, spiritual code in these figures, flowers, and icons. He had reappropriated religious iconography to show how art and sex, for him, were his own religion. He had written a letter to Patti Smith: “I stand naked when I draw. God holds my hand and we sing together.” There was Robert and a skull, Robert in drag. Robert with a cigarette. Robert living with and dying from AIDS.


But his photographs betrayed none of these horrific struggles. Instead, they were an altar to his idols and ideals, beyond good and evil, beauty and ugliness, success and failure. He had used art to transcend, to go beyond struggle, to assert his own ideals in spite of the doubt he must have felt or experienced from other people. By transforming images of death, sex, and himself so that he triumphed, transcendent, by turning what seemed pornographic into a form in the language of Michelangelo, he sought redemption not only from personal, spiritual dilemmas, but from life itself.


His work is about death, I wrote down, sitting on a bench in front of some of his portraits, and reconciling with death. Redemption through art was a way of making peace with death. This central concern explains the sublime atmosphere of the exhibition, even as it feels like a graveyard or shrine. The nudes are so still that they cannot be alive and, of course, frozen in time and a photograph, they are not. The flowers seem to be placed as carefully as funeral arrangements. The little altar, with images of Jesus’ crucifixion, together with the lines and lines of photographs of Mapplethorpe’s friends and idols, complete the reconstruction of a fantastical funeral. He has reconciled with doubt, pain and death; he has created his own meticulously executed send-off.



We walked out of the exhibition, out of the darkness. Outside, the pond shone turquoise and shallow, with statues and tourists in the distance, and a froth of fine algae at the bottom. I sat on a chair by the pond and smiled and smiled, and Darran took a picture of me. We were both wearing black; I had a scarf with little skulls on it. I had not picked out these things intentionally.


I was surprised by the brightness of the sun outside, the fresh green of the gardens and trees we walked through, after the soft tones of marble and spot-lit flesh and bone. We walked on to the Jardins des Luxembourg, where the pathways were covered in fine cream gravel. I heard a strange noise as we walked that I couldn’t quite place—a lone cry—and looked around to see what it was. I saw a single black crow, seemingly oblivious to the people straying around, standing still on a spot of the lawn, continuing to make its odd, eerie cry, beak open, toward the sky. “Isn’t that creepy?” I said to Darran, and he nodded and we kept walking. It had seemed so incongruous there, in the green and the sun, as tourists in neutral travel clothes wandered  by.


We had just come back from the exhibition when my mother phoned and told me how bad things were. “He’s not getting better,” she said. I had been so used to being told he was dying that it didn’t seem fully possible. But I booked flights to Scotland for the next day, anyway, in a daze. By the time we got home, he was gone.



In the week or so before the funeral, so many flowers were delivered that they took up every surface: lilies, their scent pervading over every other, white roses of various shapes and arrangements. They covered everything: a large dinner table, side tables, sideboards, a dresser, two desks. They arrived in cellophane and paper, with sad notes from friends. So much white, but occasionally some purple, from a thistle, the dark green stalks and long, winding leaves. When all the vases were used up, I found other things, jugs and glasses, to put them in. We bought a couple more vases. I took most of the leaves off the stems, cut them down, arranged them.


As they days went on, I plucked out the dead ones as they wilted, rearranged the bouquets with those flowers missing, merging them together. Cutting stalks, refilling water, bundling all of the cellophane and ribbons into rubbish bins. There was so much clearing up, cutting things away. I thought of Mapplethorpe, the flowers he had photographed. I imagined the actual process that had gone into them. How many flowers had he bought, for a photograph of one? What did all the waste look like, scattered around his studio? What did he do with the leftover flowers, and the flowers he’d finished photographing, when he was done with them? Or did he just discard them, decadently, or busily, efficiently, entirely focused on the art at the end? Why had he not photographed more dead flowers, decaying things, why this stark purity?


I thought of those flowers again—his entwined white tulips and his star-like orchids and his sensual, begging lilies. The dark and light, the harmony and the desire, pushing through. I thought of them over and over, as they flickered in my mind, and somehow, it was consoling.



A lot of the flowers had already started to wilt by the time of the funeral, which was later than usual because Easter had made the church’s schedule busy. The service itself was to be in the afternoon, but the cremation, which was to be more private, was in the morning. Most of the family did not go, but I went with my mother and aunt and uncle, in a black car, over the Tay to Dundee. The crematorium was in a part of the city I hadn’t been to before, in a well-kept garden, surrounded by gray stone tenements on the hill.


I went with my mother inside, and we sat near the aisle, on the left. I noticed the coffin placed on the altar, raised up. The priest gave a short service, the words of which passed over me, as I kept looking at the patterns of color on his robes, so I would not look at the coffin.


I held her hand as he sunk beneath the ground to be burned in a chamber. It seemed like some somber magic spell—a clunky disappearing act. So strange, I kept thinking, that there were only moments between his body being there, solid and still, and then gone to ashes. A lever pulled, it sounded like it, a steel door open and then shut, a measured fall, a letting down. A camera shutter, shut. A man, gone. A man down.



Over the next few days, the last of the cut flowers died off and were discarded, and the place felt emptier for it. I couldn’t take it all in at once, so I began just drawing. Robert Mapplethorpe took me by the hand, and perhaps my father did too—gave me lilies and roses, morbid confetti.


I tried to capture the flowers before they died, too. I drew each one, recording their gradual wilting, as they fell.



Christiana Spens

Christiana Spens is an essayist and artist based in London. Her writing and drawings have appeared in The Irish Times, Prospect, Aeon+Psyche, Art Quarterly, Studio International, Elephant, Five Dials, the NYRB Classics Series, and The New Criterion, among others. She is also the author of Shooting Hipsters (Repeater, 2016) and The Portrayal and Punishment of Terrorists in Western Media (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). Recent essays and autofiction appear in the anthologies We’ll Never Have Paris (Repeater, 2018), Trauma (Dodo Ink, 2020), and The Repeater Book of the Occult (Repeater, 2020), which she also illustrated. Christiana holds a degree in Philosophy from the University of Cambridge, and a Masters and PhD in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews.