I sat down at my desk today to write a very different column. I’d woken up at 4 a.m. and had been feeling a bit anxious and restless all day and was hoping that writing about our beloved RBG would calm me down. And then I picked up my phone to check in with my writing group and a message popped up on my screen.
And I burst into tears.
Many phone calls later a picture emerged. Beloved Saundra, a prolific writer, was also a hospital administrator and had run the ER at Roosevelt Hospital for decades. She’d handled all sorts of crises in her life – including the death of John Lennon in her ER – and was a font of comfort and wisdom. Recently she’d moved to California to be closer to her grandkids and apparently the whole family had contracted Covid. She died in her sleep.
And she, of course, is not the only one. We hit 200,000 deaths earlier this week. So Saundra is only one of over 200,000 Americans who’ve died of this disease. But each one caused someone to burst into tears and feel like a big hole had just been torn in his or her chest.
The toll from this virus is incalculable.
And hits us on so many levels. Of late we’ve all been talking about the economic losses – the loss of livelihood, the loss of purpose, the loss of security, the loss of downtowns and uptowns and goods and services and community.
We’ve been talking about the impacts on schools with schedules upended, lack of funds to rebuild ventilation systems or adequately clean or compensate teachers properly for double and triple duty as they try to serve kids rotating in and out of classrooms and in and out of Zoom rooms.
We’ve been talking about the effects on families trying to balance homeschooling and working remotely – if they’re lucky enough to still have jobs and paychecks. Many too many people have no job and no prospects with the workplace shut down or at least slowed down by Covid.
And we’ve been talking about frustration and depression and relationships teetering and loneliness rising and how we’re not looking forward to staying indoors with the cold weather coming.
But we haven’t been talking about the loss of life.
The last time I encountered anything like this was in the 80s during the AIDs crisis. New York - and in particular the artistic community - was hit disproportionately and it seemed like every other day you’d hear that someone had disappeared or been spotted looking terrible or had died. The toll on the arts, on commerce, on community was enormous. And there is no calculating the impact on the survivors.
Because of course that is ultimately what we’re talking about when we talk about death – the survivors. The dead move on. Saundra had a daily spiritual practice – it shaped her life – and I know that she is at peace. But the impact on those who’ve survived her – her daughter and son-in-law, her grandchildren, her writing partner, her editor and agent, her readers, her friends – is immeasurable.
Because how do you measure a human being?
Alejandro Inarritu and Guillermo Arriaga, the filmmakers who brought us 21 Grams, tell us that a body weighed before and after passing loses 21 grams - a handful of feathers. And yet that handful of feathers is what counted. What’s left behind is useless and we dispose of it, either by burying it in the ground or entombing it or incinerating it or by dumping it in the sea. No matter what method we choose or how we gussy it up, the purpose is the same – to get rid of the remains.
Because what matters is gone. What animated the body and lit up the eyes and opened the mouth and reached out the hand is gone. All that’s left when the body has been disposed of is memories and gruesome logistics and need and grief.
And it all requires attention.
My friend Saundra had a wide circle of colleagues and readers and friends and family. Every one of us is reeling. Multiply that by 200,00 and you get a sense of the wound this country has suffered – and will continue to suffer. Children who have lost parents. Parents who have lost children. Partners of every stripe – romantic, artistic, scientific, business, scholarly – there is not a family or business or school or hospital or community that will escape.
What does a country do when it has lost so many people – more people, let us acknowledge, than were lost in the Korean war, the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, the Afghan War and the Persian Gulf War combined.
What it can’t do is pretend that these deaths are “acceptable losses.” There is nothing acceptable about any of this. And no human being should die gasping for breath knowing that her death doesn’t count – that it’s “acceptable.”
And no one left behind to mourn should have that grief denigrated as “acceptable.”
None of this is acceptable. And our rage at the mistakes made and the lack of leadership will have to be addressed. And we will have to learn from these mistakes and make smarter choices going forward.
Starting with public acknowledgement of the enormity of the loss of life facing this country. Because not only do these people deserve our acknowledgment but downplaying their loss is costing us.
Part of the reason that there is so much controversy about taking reasonable measures – masking, social distancing, hygiene, testing, contact tracing – is that the consequence of not taking these measures isn’t being acknowledged. We have broken the equation – the cause and effect of taking reasonable actions – by not looking at what happens when we don’t follow these guidelines. How can folks in regions that haven’t experienced outbreaks understand the necessity of taking these steps when the consequences of not taking them is constantly downplayed and disputed and even ignored?
We also have to do the emotional work of grief. We have to pause as a country and absorb the loss of all these lives. The failure to do so is causing more pain. I had another message yesterday from another friend. Granted she has a wide network. But she lost seven people to suicide in the last few weeks. Seven people who found it easier to die than to live.
The death of a loved one tops the list of stresses a human being can experience. And we are all under such enormous stress already. If we don’t pause to acknowledge these precious 200,000 and feel our way through this loss and the losses to come, we will never be able to grow through this crisis and find our way to a better future.
It won’t be easy. But we have models to draw from. The poets are a good source. Shakespeare tells us how it’s done:
“If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw they breath in pain,
To tell my story.”
(Thank you so much for all your emails. Reach me at WelcomeToThePandemic@gmail.com. And find me on Twitter at @epagenyc or on Facebook at ElizabethPage.)