The second week in March marks two devastating anniversaries.
On March 11, 2020 Eileen, my beloved wife of 51 years, passed away. She had a stroke in November 2019 and after a long period of recovery and rehabilitation, she was scheduled to come home on March 13. On March 10, she had a second stroke and died the next day.
The funeral we planned for the following week had to be postponed because a few days after Eileen’s death, on March 13, the District of Columbia went into its first partial Covid-19 lockdown, severely limiting gatherings.
It’s strange to try to recall our state of mind back then. We were still in the early stages of the pandemic and there were mixed signals coming from the White House. My family and friends were together in the hospital with Eileen. We were joined by doctors who had attended her and the nurses and staff who had been with her during rehab. No one was wearing masks. Neither were the medical staff in the ICU.
Back then, we thought naively that we would have the funeral in a few weeks. The virus was in China, Italy, and then New York. But not here, not everywhere. We had no idea what the year was to bring.
In the months that followed, I learned that some of the staff who had been caring for Eileen had, themselves, become ill with the virus.
The stroke rehab units in the two hospitals where she was a patient had been converted into Covid units to treat the neurological effects of the disease. They told me harrowing stories of their patients, all of whom were forced into isolation, spending weeks and months alone, and some dying without being able to see members of their families except via FaceTime. The human toll has been enormous. All this time, I could only be thankful that we had been able to be with Eileen every single day until the end.
One year later, the tally of the pandemic has been enormous. Worldwide, more than 2,500,000 have died – 500,000 in the US; and 120 million have become ill with this virus – almost 30m in the US. This virus has consumed us and, quite literally, been killing us. And all of this happened in just the past year.
We’ve learned that despite Donald Trump’s denial of science, this pandemic is deadly real. And despite the efforts to denounce and politicise the lockdowns and wearing of masks, these precautionary measures were, and are, important. If only we had listened to the science and not been victims of neglect and crass politics. If we had acted early and decisively to confront this challenge, how many lives could we have saved? How much suffering could we have avoided?
As troubling as it is to look back at how innocent and unaware we were a year ago, it is difficult to look forward and try to imagine where we’ll be a year from now. We now have vaccines (I have received my two doses). But while the rates of infection and deaths are in decline, they are still unacceptably high – higher than they were during the earlier peaks in April and August last year. And we still have those whose foolish behaviour may only prolong the crisis.
Last weekend, a conservative group held their annual gathering. Many were maskless as they listened to speakers, including Trump, denounce the lockdowns and scoff at the mask mandates as unnecessary and a denial of personal freedom. And this week, two Republican governors ordered an end to masks and other restrictions in their states.
The professionals are now telling us that if enough of us are vaccinated, we may be able to return to some degree of normalcy by autumn. But questions remain. Will people go back to their offices? Will we feel comfortable in large gatherings? What will become of those children who lost a year of schooling and needed socialisation and those who have developed depression and fear of interaction? How will we adapt to whatever this “new normal” looks like?
There is another haunting question that confronts me and my family and the families of so many others who died during this past year – both the one-half million who perished from the pandemic and those, like Eileen, whose deaths were the result of other causes. Because grieving in isolation provides little relief, we are left to ask when will we be able to have the funerals which we so desperately need – so that we can collectively mourn, as we humans need to, with our community gathered around us to remember those whom we’ve lost and to console one another? For me, and I feel certain for so many others who’ve lost a loved one this past year, Eileen’s death remains a haunting open wound. The collective mourning provided by a funeral wouldn’t have closed it, but it might have provided some salve to help the healing.