A chance to remake America

A chance to remake America
Image via Shutterstock.

In New York City, where I live, we appear to be past the brutal "peak" of the pandemic's bell curve, as the news headlines and our irascible governor inform us. This means that only 500 people or so are dying in our city every single day — a few days ago it was more than 900 — and the number of hospitalized patients is beginning, very slowly, to decline. I don't know whether I hear fewer ambulance sirens or not; as anyone living through this dreamlike period can testify, time is elastic and perceptions are unreliable. Anecdotally, sirens are not always necessary because the streets are so clear.

Not everyone who dies of COVID-19 illness is elderly, of course, but I already know three or four adults who have lost aging parents to this virus, and their stories can be multiplied by the thousands. In most cases these people are dying in intensive-care units or nursing homes, alone except for the health care workers who tried to save their lives at risk to their own. For those tempted to tiptoe around those losses with "Fox & Friends" weasel words — well, those people were old and likely to die soon anyway — I can only assume those thoughts are driven by fear and shame, and that they will haunt you. I have been lucky: My mother will celebrate her 98th birthday next month, God willing, and her locked-down but relatively luxurious senior residence has seen no signs of infection. Still, I wake up nights wondering if I will ever see her again.

There is so much more loss ahead — large and small, momentous and trivial — and it is only natural to grieve. Inexorably, we are losing the summer that isn't even here yet: Graduation and sleepaway camp and family vacations and music festivals and the baseball season. San Diego Comic-Con and the Cannes Film Festival and Shakespeare in the Park were all canceled this week. On my wall I have a picture of my kids, taken last Fourth of July on the FDR Drive in lower Manhattan as we waited amid thousands of other people for the Macy's fireworks show to begin. It already looks like a snapshot of another era, the time before.

f loss is the fundamental experience of human life, we have all experienced enough of it lately to last a lifetime. We have lost friends, loved ones and family members. We have lost jobs and schools and the rhythms of ordinary life. We have lost our favorite restaurants and that cute little coffee shop and the neighborhood bar — and not all those places will be coming back. We have lost picnics under the cherry blossoms and overnight delivery of absolutely everything and the NBA finals.

In the midst of life we are in death, as the Book of Common Prayer informs us. That passage comes from a Gregorian chant that goes back at least as far as the late Middle Ages, when plagues came and went like the weather, mysterious judgments of a capricious God. If its point was to suggest that even the most painful losses contain the seeds of renewal and redemption, that's a lesson we're all struggling to grab hold of now.


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