Death is Forever — How Can I Make You Understand?

Face reality even though it sucks.

Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

In his post-Thanksgiving piece titled, “The Long Darkness Before Dawn,” New York Times’ Health and Science reporter Donald McNeil writes, “Our failure to protect ourselves has caught up with us. Some epidemiologists predict that the death toll by March could be close to twice the 250,000 figure that the nation surpassed only last week.”

The piece, a response to the fact that over 6 million Americans traveled for Thanksgiving last week, is meant as a warning. But what do phrases like “death toll” mean to a bunch of people in complete denial — not only about the virus, but about the realities of death?

I find this blatant disregard for the power of disease and the frailty of our own bodies baffling. Or is it fear? Are you afraid to admit the virus is real because then you’d have to face it?

In her brilliant, wrathful piece naming those in the NFL who have been mindlessly, if not deliberately, infecting as many people as possible within the organization, sports columnist Sally Jenkins is clearly fed up. She calls virus deniers “husks” and “zombies” — the people that continue to act as if there isn’t a pandemic, as if it isn’t killing 1000 Americans each day. That’s the average number of COVID-19 deaths per day in the U.S. since the first death back in March. The daily number over the last few days is much higher.

Jenkins writes, “They’re easy to spot, zombies: They’re the un-sentient, disconnected husks who walk around breathing potential hell on their colleagues and neighbors. They lurch clumsily into the midst of crowded rooms with their masks either missing or dragging around their chins, spreading their odorless danger mercilessly.”

A willful misunderstanding.

“Whole swaths of the country are simply tuning out the warnings from officials and experts,” write Washington Post reporters William Wan and Brittany Shammas in a bleak piece titled, “Why health officials are terrified of a pandemic Christmas.”

A pandemic Christmas doesn’t sound like much fun. I wonder what kind of charmed life you lead to be able to tune out the very real threat of death so you can share a meal and some COVID with your family. It must be a tremendous relief to ignore a virus that’s killed so many and sickened even more.

Are there that many lucky zombies out there who haven’t lost someone dear to them, someone they love more than themselves, someone for whom they would give anything — literally anything — to hug one more time?

Perhaps I’m overcomplicating things. Maybe this is just a game of follow the leader.

In his New York Times piece, McNeil dubbed Trump’s response to the coronavirus “a fatal inaction,” and featured a shadowy photo of five refrigerated trucks that I can only assume are filled with bodies. The trucks are parked outside of the Albuquerque Medical Investigator’s office.

“The regions of the country now among those hit hardest by the virus — Midwestern and Mountain States and rural counties, including in the Dakotas, Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming — are the ones that voted heavily for Mr. Trump in the recent election.”

Trump’s fatal inaction has spread (like a virus) to the Thanksgiving celebrants who crowded into airports and bus stations, then poured into the living rooms of their elderly parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents throughout a country already buckling under the strain of this “damn zombie movie” as Jenkins, the sports journalist, calls it.

How many articles do we have to write? How many Twitter threads from traumatized doctors and nurses do we need before we admit there’s a problem here? How many essays on grief and loss and agony do I, personally, have to pen to get through to you, the oblivious merriment seeker?

Who can you bear to lose?

I want you to wear a mask. Stay out of the airport. Stay out of your mother’s kitchen. Stay out of bars, restaurants, churches, and bowling alleys. It’s not hard.

You know what’s hard? Driving past the funeral home where they brought my daughter’s body the night she died. You know what else is hard? Being an attending physician in an ICU full of COVID-19 patients, not knowing why some people get to go home and some are granted a last glimpse of their family on a shaky Zoom call right before they die.

Weary doctors are trying to put you in their shoes, tweeting long, heartbreaking threads of what it’s like to exist in the hellscape that is a COVID-19 ward during the nowpocalypse.

Dr. Mark Shapiro, a hospitalist in California, tweeted this yesterday:

That is what a person who can’t breathe looks like.

The pallor, the sweat, the agitation, the heaving chest.

The wide eyes.

He’s come to that place. We discussed it yesterday. His family is aware.

Intubation. A ventilator.

As the ICU team makes ready, there’s a key step we mustn’t forget.

At first he says “No” but we encourage him.

The nurse brings in the iPad.

With the last air in his shattered lungs, he says goodbye to his family.

Over an internet connection.

What Dr. Shapiro and his colleagues must face each and every day, each and every shift is hard.

What I’m asking you to do is easy. Stay home. Wait it out. Wear a mask. Face reality even though it sucks. I never said it didn’t suck, but you could save a life if you do these things. You could save so many. One study estimates that 130,000 lives could be saved in the next two months if everyone in the U.S. just wears a damn mask.

Big numbers are hard to grasp.

So are small ones. Each year, roughly 16,000 children in the U.S. are diagnosed with cancer and 1,800 die. That sounds like relatively small number (compared with the entire U.S. population) until you find yourself picking out the dress your oldest child will be cremated in.

You want hard? Hand the mortician your daughter’s favorite stuffed toy before kissing her cold forehead one last time.

COVID, like cancer, seems like someone else’s problem if we only quote statistics — a 2% mortality rate in the U.S. and 273,000 dead or about .07% of America’s population (so far). Those numbers sound great. A .07% percentage rate means one must live one’s life, no?

No. Because California, Nevada, and South Dakota are already running out of ICU beds and we haven’t even hit the post-Thanksgiving super surge yet. One hospital in Reno is caring for patients in a parking garage.

No. Because nearly 300,000 healthcare workers have confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 858 have died from the virus since March (according to the CDC). The actual number is likely much higher than this.

No. Because ambulance companies are at a breaking point which means no one will come when you call 911 even if you don’t have the virus.

Am I throwing too many numbers at you? I’m sorry. Let’s make a deal. I’ll stop using statistics to prove why this virus is so damn terrifying if you stop using statistics as the narrative around why you think it’s okay to be fatally selfish.

There are no do overs.

Death is forever. If you lose your person you will not get them back. “My person” is a term we use often in the forever-grieving community as someone so integral to our existence that to lose them is to lose all meaning in life as we once knew it. I lost my child, my person, my raison d’être from cancer.

You could lose yours from your own carelessness.

Do you remember the last thing you said to your wife or your husband, your mother or your father, you dear, sweet, elderly aunt?

Do you remember what November’s full moon looked like? No? Please try. After all, it could be the last full moon you see.

My daughter’s last season was winter. She died two days before our tiny magnolia tree bloomed for the very first time, a tree she’d planted herself as a a Mother’s Day gift to me. Each year it grows bigger. Its blossoms blaze pink during that gray week in March when she died, and I am reminded again that she will never see it bloom.

What will remind you of the person you love after they die? You know what I mean — the thing that encapsulates them. Maybe it’s a song or a favorite food or the smell of rain in spring. What will it be like to cook and clean and do laundry for one less person next year? Try to imagine the empty spot at the table, their quiet phone, their abandoned desk.

Do you want the last person you touch to be a masked, gloved stranger holding an iPad up to your face so you can say goodbye to your family with the last remaining air in your lungs? Do you want that for your mother? Your daughter? Your best friend?

Why, when there are vaccines on the horizon, would you risk this terrible fate for someone you love (or for yourself) if you can simply wait a little longer and spend one single holiday season at home?

It’s hard to think about death in such a tangible way. We’re not a society that likes to deal with death’s messiness, its unpredictability, and its terrible finality. Death is so much easier to delegate—to doctors, funeral directors, clergy, and those rare palliative care professionals who embrace the dying. I’m pretty sure that’s part of the problem here.

But there is still time, right now, to save people. This doesn’t have to be their last December. They won’t have to die alone. Believe it or not, this year will eventually be over. Some of us will go back to normal, but many of us won’t. Don’t you want all your loved ones to be here to see normal again? I sure do. I can’t bear to lose anyone else. Stay home, wait it out, and help 130,000 people live to see another full moon.

Occasional poet. Writer of sad essays. Novelist. Birder and amateur photographer. I enjoy trees.

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