Brian Rea is a visual storyteller with a knack for whimsy. His relatable drawings accompany the NYT’s Modern Love series and regularly appear in media around the globe. His new book, Death Wins A Goldfish…reflections from a grim reaper’s yearlong sabbatical, is a brilliantly conceived narrative for our times as well as a shout out for death literacy.
DM: What brought you to the world of aging and end of life?
I’m a closet obituary reader. When I worked for a newspaper, I read the obituary page everyday and clipped out the ones I thought were really, really fascinating. It wasn't so much who, but how the obituary writer was able to capture the spirit of someone’s life in 200-300 words or less. I would carry them around in my pocket, which, looking back, is the craziest thing. I still carry a few with me because they’re beautiful and poignant and touching and in a way that’s just special. I once had an opportunity to meet the obit editor. He checked my pulse and said, “Oh I don't have to worry about you for a little while.”
DM: What is the one lesson you wish everyone could get in life?
I think the life part is easy, I have always prescribed to the theory that smiles count and people keep score. I’m a real believer that you will come across everyone twice in your life and therefore you just want to make sure that the first experience was a good one.
DM: What’s your idea of perfect happiness?
Surfing first thing in the morning, followed by a few hours in the studio, break for lunch with my wife and son, then maybe work a little bit more before ending the day watching the sun go down over the ocean.
DM: What are you reading, what’s on your bedside table?
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. It’s a story about a guy who spends six months working as a park ranger in the desert, immersed in nature. In his isolation from civilization, his perceptions begin to change.
DM: What is one practical step you would like our readers to take regarding their remains/end of life plan?
So hard to say as I feel like I'm just beginning to think about these things. Having a child kind of rewired my mind to be thinking more and more about end of life. Being aware of it now, in a way I never was before, certainly helps me to enjoy and be respectful of the moments that I do have. When I’m with my wife and my son, there is no social media, there is no computer, there is no cell phone. If my son says “Hey, I want to dance,” we go dance, if he wants to go outside and look at the stars we go do that, because if I lose that moment, you know, that’s heart-breaking. Those are just little moments, but all those little moments add up.
DM: What is your current state of mind?
Nervous excitement. But that’s my constant- as a creative person, the lights never turn off. Just coming into the studio each day is exciting. Everyday is a new beginning.
DM: Who are your favorite writers?
I'm drawn to authors who are able to convey what the scene looks like. Being an illustrator, spending my life doing drawings to convey stories, is rooted in my childhood. I grew up in a family of storytellers. I remember hearing stories- beautiful, simple stories that would put you to sleep, but at the same time, these stories really made an imprint on me. I do it now with my son because it opens up this little part of your mind that’s your imagination. You learn to see things in your head based on what someone else is saying— that’s a gift, it’s magical. I think the more you are exposed to storytelling, the more you are able to channel the creative part of your mind.
DM: What is one thing people would never imagine about you?
Listening to animal documentaries narrated by David Attenborough is the only way I can fall asleep. I would love to meet him someday to thank him for helping me shut off at night.
DM: What book would you like to be buried with?
Hmm. Great question. Just one? That’s really tough. I love Where the Wild Things Are. It’s an amazing book, beautifully illustrated, but also a really beautiful story. But that’s too obvious! The one I would take above and beyond everything else is this book that someone gave me recently called Living On The Earth by Alicia Bay Laurel. Written in the 70’s, the spirit of the book is so beautiful. It’s drawn and written in pen, all black and white.
DM: What is your exit plan? How would you like to die?
I remember seeing a sign in a cobbler’s window that said: I wish I could do it all over again, but in much better shoes. And I thought that’s amazing! You know, if I have family still alive and caring for me at the end, they will spread my ashes somewhere in the ocean on a really good wave. And of course, I’d get an obituary write-up in the New York Times!
DM: If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
I would say either a hawk or a coyote.
DM: If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
I’m not sure there’s a heaven. For me, heaven is more about the energy you put out is the energy you're going to get back. So heaven and earth and all these things are less about places and more about states of being, about the energy of things, how you are as a person while you are alive. Because when you pass away where does that good or bad energy go? So whether there is a heaven or not, we absolutely have to be mindful of our energy, everyday.