The Frontier Couple Who Chose Death Over Life Apart
Artist Eric Bealer was living the remote, rugged good life in coastal Alaska with his wife, Pam, an MS sufferer, when they made a dramatic decision: to exit this world together, leaving behind precise instructions for whoever entered their cabin first. Eva Holland investigates the mysteries and meaning of an adventurous couple who charted their own way out.
Eric Bealer arrived in Sitka for the last time in a boat weighed down with his art.
It was late March 2018. Bealer, an Alaskan artist who specialized in intricately detailed wood engravings, had just traveled for two days from his homestead on Lisianski Inlet, through the rough winter waters off the western edges of Chichagof and Baranof Islands, to the relative shelter of Sitka Sound. His skiff, built by hand using materials harvested and salvaged from Alaska’s coast, was jam-packed with his work: old prints, new prints, even the ink-stained, delicately carved wooden blocks used to make the prints themselves. There was so much art filling the little boat that, during his overnight layover en route to Sitka, Bealer had no room to lie down. He slept onshore, on the ground.
Eugene Solovyov met him on the dock in Sitka’s Crescent Harbor. Solovyov, owner of the Sitka Rose Gallery, had known Bealer for more than two decades, ever since the artist walked in one day in the mid-1990s, looking to place his work. Solovyov was immediately impressed with Bealer’s depictions of Alaska’s landscapes, the state’s flora and fauna. It wasn’t just the technical proficiency, the fine detail. Bealer’s images, wild and moody, made you feel something. And they were the kind of art almost anyone could afford: prints sold for $25, or $40, or $45. Bealer went on to become the gallery’s most popular artist with both visitors and locals.
In their twenty-plus years of acquaintance, the pair had became much more than gallery owner and artist, vendor and producer. They were close friends. Every couple of years, Bealer would travel to Sitka by plane or boat for a gallery show. He stayed in Solovyov’s apartment, and they’d catch up over a few beers. Sometimes, Bealer’s wife, Pam, came along, too, although her visits were less frequent after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that attacks the nerves in the brain and spinal cord, with effects ranging from manageable problems like pain and numbness to serious physical disabilities. As the years passed and Pam’s symptoms worsened, she and Solovyov kept in touch by e-mail, trading photos and stories.
Solovyov later told me that, when he saw the little boat crammed with art that March day, he should have known. For years, the couple had talked with close friends about their intention to die together when Pam’s time came. She did not wish to see her disease through; Eric did not plan to live without his wife. But it was one thing to talk about this in the abstract. It was another for Solovyov to stand in the harbor and realize that his friend had prepared his last exhibition. “He brought everything with him,” he said.
The show went well. Bealer’s work sold briskly, as it always does, and when he motored out of the harbor and headed home, his boat was a great deal lighter.
Throughout that summer, the Bealers traveled back and forth between their main homestead, a few miles outside the small village of Pelican, and their more remote cabin nearby, on the west coast of Yakobi Island. They planted their vegetable garden and cared for their chickens. They worked on their art. In early September, they headed to the cabin again.
Isolated as the cabin was, they had a neighbor there, and his place had Wi-Fi, which they were able to use even when he was away. So they were generally in touch with people by e-mail. When that communication stopped, in mid-September, their friends took notice. They put the word out to folks in Pelican: If anyone was heading for Yakobi Island, could they look in on the Bealers?
On October 5, a pair of Pelican-area residents, a married couple, made the trip to the island. Leaving his wife in their boat, the husband hiked up a trail to the Bealers’ cabin. The screen door to the covered porch was open. He went in and found a plastic bin filled with packages and letters, and a note taped to the glass window of the main door, which was locked. On one side the note read: “Hello, if you are looking for the Bealers… Please read this. If you found this, please mail the attached packages. It will go to the people who will know what to do next and take care of things. Please accept the cash as a gift to pay you for your trouble, and postage for these packages and envelopes.”
On the back side it said, “To the world and all concerned: This is to officially notify you that Eric and Pam Bealer, by their own choice and free will, have committed suicide. We are dead, gone, and free from this physical world. Free. We have gone to some effort to hide our bodies, as we do not want them found. Please do not waste time and money looking. It would serve no purpose. We are gone, leave us to our peace.”
Below their declaration was a passage attributed to Richard Bach, which said: “Why, instead of suffering and fighting it, don’t people reach a time when they decide, ‘Done! We’ve finished everything we came to do. There are no mountains we haven’t pretty well climbed, nothing unlearned we wanted to learn, we’ve lived a nice life.’ And then they just sit themselves down under a tree or a star, lift themselves out of their bodies, and never come back?”
Underneath the poem was one more note from the Bealers: “Why indeed?”