Counting the lives lost to COVID-19, not by the numbers
I’ve never been much of a numbers person. When they get too big, they blur.
I’ve stopped relying on them to process our coronavirus losses. Each time I try to wrap my head around them, they grow.
Worldwide, we’re edging close to 2 million lives ended by COVID-19. In the United States, we are close to 350,000. In California, our deaths from the virus recently passed 25,000. In Los Angeles County, more than 10,000 people who started this pandemic with us are gone.
To me, those numbers seem at once impossibly large and incalculably small.
Too large to feel fully and too small to express how much each life that we lose subtracts.
My own calculus is not numbers-based. It includes countless alternate measurements of loss.
Tamales that didn’t get made this Christmas in the absence of a mother and her recipe.
Babies that came into the world un-greeted by grandparents who had been longing to meet them.
Love stories cut short while still in full bloom, without the chance for even one last long embrace.
Parents’ wise advice that used to be on tap for their children and now is needed more urgently than ever but is nowhere to be found.
Early on in the pandemic, it became clear to me that we were going to lose far too many people to know each of their names. But I felt a need to help mourn them, even as a stranger, even as a shut-in, confined to my own home.
COVID-19 stopped many people from saying goodbye to their loved ones in person. It stopped them from gathering in person to commemorate those taken from them and to experience that public release of grief.
I wanted to do my part in some small, silent way to join with them in remembering — and more than that, to give due to individual existences so easy to lose sight of in those ever-growing daily death totals.
So I started reading as many of their stories as I could, consciously collecting specific details I knew I would not be able to forget.
In Jewish tradition, you place a pebble or a stone on a grave when you visit. The origins of the ritual are unclear, I think — but it is at least on a basic level a way of saying, “You have not been forgotten.” To me the details I’ve absorbed about some of COVID’s victims are pebbles I now carry with me everywhere I go.
It’s my way of refusing to grow numb to the numbers, of daily acknowledging the depth of our diminishment that they represent.
In the New York Times, I’ve found some of the people whose lives I now think about often. I read about a 97-year-old New York City woman who wrote her last column for a neighborhood newspaper seven months before she died. She’d written the column, called “For a Gentle City,” for decades, and she railed against “traffic anarchy” and wielded a whistle to blow at cyclists she thought were going too fast.
I read about a 39-year-old in L.A. who, after she got the coronavirus, lost her appetite and said everything tasted like salt. It was a particularly cruel turn for a person who loved to cook and who hosted dinner parties for 10 to 15 people at least a couple of times a week.
I read about a 75-year-old Florida chef who used to carve butter and ice sculptures but ended his career cooking in a prison, about how his wife had no sense of smell and he would try to give it to her by describing the similarity of the way certain foods tasted.
“The sweetness of jasmine, he’d tell her, was like biting into a ripe honeydew melon,” said Penelope Green’s piece about him in the New York Times.
I’ve also spent time with each of the 222 obituaries written since mid-April in an ongoing Los Angeles Times project called The pandemic’s toll: Lives lost in California. At first, the hope was to write accounts of all the state’s COVID deaths, but not everyone who had lost someone wanted to participate, editor Mitchell Landsberg told me. Then it became clear that keeping up with the growing number would be impossible. Still, even though they represent just a fraction of the deaths in the state, let alone the nation and the world, I’ve found in them enough irreplaceable beauty and heartbreak to fill an ocean with tears.
I hope you’ll spend some time with those stories too and let them sink in. I hope you’ll do your utmost as you go forward to try to protect yourself and others — so that one day soon there’ll be no need to tell them.
COVID-19 has taken from us centenarians and people in their 20s, people who picked the vegetables in our fields and cleaned our schools and our malls and our homes. It has robbed us of dedicated teachers and professors, executives in our big companies. It has felled nuns and prisoners and so many front-line workers. It has proven unsurvivable even for some veteran survivors — of polio, World War II internment and concentration camps, multiple brain surgeries, wartime combat duty, flight from Vietnam in a fishing boat.
It has cost us so many people who worked so hard for our diverse communities — L.A.'s Historic Filipinotown, San Pedro, Santa Paula, people with disabilities, people discriminated against, people living with HIV.
It hasn’t been picky. It has scooped up the unknowns and the knowns alike.
I wept for days and days in early April when COVID-19 claimed John Prine, whose songs have played like a soundtrack to my life since I was young. I loved him. He felt like family to me. But I count myself incredibly lucky that the virus hasn’t yet taken any of my actual relatives or friends.
I am grateful for that. I try to express that gratefulness by thinking about others who have not been so lucky.
Each day now, I try to pause to think about the stories that have stuck with me. About a daughter who can no longer call her mother in Sacramento each day on the way home from work, about an Upland mother who at 81 still loved to tear up a dance floor but had the bad luck of doing so at a conference at a Utah ski resort in March that turned out to be a super-spreader event.
I stop to remember another dancer from Orange who cared so much about his smooth moves that he carried a film canister full of wax around to slick up the wood beneath his feet. I send good thoughts to the children of a 60-year-old single mother from San Diego who graduated from college at 50 and became a social worker and wouldn’t stop visiting those who needed her during the pandemic, even though she knew doing so would put her at great risk.
I think about a teenage boy in Camarillo who was one of four children his parents adopted out of 13 they fostered late in life, how he now walks around the house wearing his dead father’s shoes, how his bereaved mother tells him, “If you walk in your father’s footsteps, you’ll never go wrong because he was a very honorable man.”
I think about a former Pepperdine professor who trained many business leaders to aim for much more than profit. One of the exercises he made them do was to write their own obituaries — to think about if they wanted to be remembered for the money they made or for the good they did in the world.
I try to think about that. And I try to focus — not on the numbers but on our collective loss.
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