On March 4, 2020, my mom died. I found out only minutes after it happened, when I took a call from her husband. It was expected, and it wasn’t. It was a sad finality to a life that was riddled with unhappiness, mental illness, and substance abuse. And all that was left was to say goodbye.
On March 12, 2020, I boarded a Southwest Airlines flight for St. Louis in order to follow through. It was still spring break, and the Denver airport was quiet for a Thursday. My flight was only half full. I was grateful for that, but not because of COVID-19. I just don’t enjoy air travel.
I should have been more aware. A friend had only just told me he was moving to Italy, and our last talk had been while he was at JFK, flying out. I never gave any thought to pandemic circumstances during that conversation. I never gave any thought to the reports from China crossing my Facebook feed, except to hope that the suffering would end and the fear would subside.
And now, as I journeyed to the middle of the country to hold my sister’s hand while we tried to peacefully face our mother’s mortality, I wasn’t thinking about a virus at all.
By the time I was standing in the St. Louis Art Museum with my stepmom, staring at a Millet next to a Van Gogh and trying to assess my own creative value in this world, 31 people had died in Seattle. I didn’t really know. Maybe it was my grief, or even my absolute refusal to be distracted by another catastrophe.
On March 14, the day of my mom’s memorial service, the death toll in Seattle had risen to 40. A gaping hole of apathy and loss was growing inside of me, and this was based solely on my own private mourning. The grief had not yet shifted to its current global state.
I moved through that memorial service in slow motion 13 days ago. There were so many people there that I didn’t know, but it made me happy that they all loved my mom. It feels like 6 months ago, though, not 2 weeks ago. It feels like forever ago that I got into my dad’s car and instead of flying home from that tragic errand, we drove from Missouri to Colorado together in 12 hours.
And that was on Sunday, March 15, 2020. And on that day the death toll in Seattle rose to 42.
I’ve been at my apartment since then, with my friend Hannah and her elderly Labrador retriever. I am grateful for the companionship as we try not to stare too frightfully at what is happening in the world. We share an employer and have been working remotely. Her, from my dining room, me from my bedroom.
We limit our trips to the grocery store and pharmacy. We don’t interact with others.
She misses her boyfriend, who lives 30 miles away. She is worried that the world is ending and that she is spending her time unwisely, working for the man. I completely understand. Part of me wonders that, too. As occupants of this world who just happen to be American, will the humanity be lost in an effort to maintain our capitalist state?
Setting that aside, which is hard enough as it is, I am focused on the numbing effects of loss. And now, it has nothing to do with my own mother, who I consider lucky to have her number called during this time. It has to do with a death toll that rages far beyond Seattle, and beyond the borders of this country.
You wonder if you will contract it, and if others in your family will. You wonder how many friends you will lose, and how many of those friends will see loss. It is a terrifying precipice.
I catch myself thinking of my mother in terms of her still being alive. I wondered how she was doing the other day, and suddenly realized I knew the answer and that it would never change. This makes me cry, and I cannot stop. Not from all of the journaling I am doing, the cooking and reading, and singing. The tears will still come, even if there are hobbies in my way, or even writing assignments, which usually foster joy.
The grief has shifted. It’s about all of us, and what brings us together. I am sad that it has to be tragedy that might make us notice our shared humanity more. We do not live in disparate worlds. Pain is universal. Suffering is an everyday occurrence for all of us, even under the best of circumstances.
One of the answers has to do with a vaccine, but the broader answer must be love. To put into practice daily that we must protect others by not coming into contact with them is an act of love. To understand that one careless trip to the grocery store, done so without any precautions, could create a fatality. This understanding only comes from love.
When I let the tears come, I hold onto hope. I grab onto the universal love that I feel in meditation, and then I cast it out to the unknown. I want to believe in our greater good, and that during this and on the other side of it, we discover a common truth in one another and ourselves.
The death toll in Seattle today is 150.
In New York City, it’s almost 500.
Globally, it is over 23,000.
Our collective grief will do well to define our truth, as will what we do with our survival.