Like everyone else I am having trouble thinking about anything other than the coronavirus pandemic and the shockwaves it has sent, and will continue to send, through the system. As it began to unfold I found myself thinking, talking, and posting about it fairly constantly. In an effort to try to keep it confined to a given time and place, both physically and psychologically, I am keeping a diary of it all.
March 31: My great uncle Harry — who, for all practical purposes, was my grandfather — was a big baseball fan. He lived in Detroit and he knew some people and because he knew some people he got good tickets to Tigers games. Because he got good tickets to Tigers games I got good tickets to Tigers games, and exposure to those in-person games caused me to seek out baseball on the radio as well. From about 1979-on I went to bed almost every spring and summer night listening to Ernie Harwell call Tigers games on WJR. It’s what turned me into a baseball fan.
Harry died on Tuesday April 10, 1984. I cried when my parents told me what happened, but after the initial shock I held it together pretty well for a ten-year-old kid. I was sad, but I don’t think I cried at the funeral, which was the first funeral I had ever attended. I don’t remember feeling shocked, dazed or confused or anything like that. My memory of the funeral is pretty vivid, but my feelings at the time were sort of detached. Intellectual observations instead of emotional reactions.
We stayed in Detroit with my aunt Ruth for a couple of days as my parents helped her sort out all of the business one has to sort out after someone dies. As my dad went through paperwork and my mom and Ruth went through Harry’s belongings, I went to my uncle Harry’s den, turned on the the NBC Game of the Week, and sat down in the very chair Harry would’ve been sitting in, watching baseball, if he hadn’t dropped dead of a heart attack four days earlier.
Before the game back then they played the highlight show This Week in Baseball. That day the top highlight was about Pete Rose, then playing for the Montreal Expos, who the day before had notched his 4,000th career hit. A video montage of Rose and his career highlights — and video of fans in Montreal, Philadelphia and Cincinnati celebrating — played as Mel Allen talked about Rose becoming only the second player to reach the 4,000 hit plateau.
As I watched it all, I became agitated. Not because of Rose specifically — in 1984 he was not yet infamous — but because people were celebrating anything at all. Didn’t they realize that my uncle Harry had just died? How could people be smiling and laughing and patting a ballplayer on the back when the dirt on Harry’s grave was still fresh?
I stopped myself within a couple of minutes, realizing even at ten years-old that it was a pretty absurd thing to think. These people didn’t know my uncle Harry. Even if they did, death doesn’t stop life from going on. My momentary failure to understand that, I know now, was part of a child’s refusal, on some level, to accept death. Something akin to bargaining, maybe. Or maybe it was reverse bargaining. Some scream, deep from within, demanding that, if one life ends, no one else has the right to act as if everything was normal because to do so somehow made their death something we had to simply accept. Made it commonplace. Made it unimportant, even.
Thing about it, though, is that even if I caught myself that day and even if I have long since learned better, I still feel that way, often, when presented with death.
It’s no longer the agitation I felt in 1984, but I frequently find myself stopping to think about how odd it feels that something or someone can proceed in normal fashion after a tragedy. “How did people go see the Jane Russell movie “The Outlaw” the day after the SS Dorchester sank?” I might ask myself while reading a timeline of 1943. Why didn’t the 5,000-person office close the day after a former employee died? How can life go on as normal for everyone else when everything the dead person ever had and everything they ever would have has now been taken away? Shouldn’t we be doing something more dramatic to honor them? Shouldn’t it disrupt our lives too? Shouldn’t it make us stop and do . . . something?
But like I said: I know better. I know that death is part of life and that it comes for us all and that if we stopped the world every time someone died, there’d be no time for actual living to happen. I may get that impulse now, but I fight against those odd feelings and I almost always win. But I’ve been having a harder time doing it since the pandemic began and the number of dead has risen.
No one I know has died, but I read the numbers every day and it’s getting harder to just nod at it as “part of life.” There are something like 4,000 dead in the United States from COVID-19 as I’m writing this with those numbers certain to multiply many times over. I watched a James Bond movie earlier tonight and people died in between the time it started and the time it ended. People have died since I began typing this. I’m planning to go for a hike tomorrow afternoon, I plan to make some steaks on Thursday, and I plan to do some projects around the house on Saturday and, as that all happens, people will be dying. People who weren’t even sick a week ago. People who had plans to do things next week that will now never happen.
It’s getting harder for me to simply joke and share memes about how annoying it is to shelter-in-place. It’s getting harder for me to look at the photos of the bread and pastries my friends are baking or to hear about the shows they’re binging. It’s getting harder to hear my friends talking about the 2020 election or other things we were all talking about a month ago, as if the world has not been upended by a pandemic. I do some of those things myself because I’m trying to live a normal life, but sometimes I catch myself thinking about normal things and that voice of ten-year-old me inside my head yells, “how can you think of anything except the fact that someone just looked upon someone they love for the last time?”
I know it’s not a reasonable way to live. I know you can’t get on with your own life and you can’t be present for the people who depend on you if you can’t put all of that to the side and do your best to carry on. I know that you can’t feel real feelings for thousands of dead people or else you’d simply crumble.
But I also think about how wrong it felt to me for the world to be starting again a couple of days after my uncle Harry died I and can’t shake that feeling now, when we’re losing so many people and will, without question, lose so many more.