The cruel certainties of 2020


The year 2020 started off in the typical fashion: champagne toasts and fireworks at midnight, together with untold numbers of resolutions to be different—and better, if at all possible—in the coming 12 months.

On New Year’s Day, which happened on a Wednesday and was therefore smack dab in the middle of the workweek, my family and I piled into our car and drove to the beach. I’m old enough to remember when a trip outside on January 1 in a Northern city was nothing short of lunacy, but that world doesn’t really seem to exist anymore.

There was some snow on the ground, but not much more than a dusting. More importantly, it was sunny and bright. It felt like a harbinger of good things to come in the weeks and months ahead.

We hadn’t gone too far away from our house when I mentioned, for no particular reason, that not everyone who had rung in the new year a few hours earlier would still be with us when the next year rolled around. It was simply an acknowledgement of Benjamin Franklin’s insight that nothing is certain but death and taxes, and over the course of 365 days—plus one extra for the Leap year—some people would inevitably pass over into whatever realm follows after this one.

My older daughter didn’t like the way that sounded, though. I can recall her asking me, rather pointedly, “Why would you say that?” I hadn’t expected any pushback, but I stated that it was simply the truth. An argument didn’t necessarily follow, but we had a few moments of back and forth about whether the sparkling new year deserved being tarnished by my pronouncements about mortality and the inevitability that attaches to it. But we arrived at the beach soon enough.

My two daughters got out of the car and immediately began walking ahead of the rest of us. We had brought our dog Dooney along, and needed to hook up his leash before starting out on our own walk. Never in a thousand years would I have believed my statement about mortality would apply to him in a few short months. Had I known it would be our last New Year’s together, it would have made our walk on the beach that day almost unbearable. But in matters of life and death, advance notice rarely happens this way.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. If what is now known as COVID-19 was on these shores on January 1, it was laying low. I had never heard of the virus, and I imagine that only a very few people had at that point. When the sun went down on February 29, for only the thirteenth time in my lifetime, I mused openly about whether I would be around to see the next one arrive. And the total number of deaths from COVID-19 in this country could be counted on one hand.

But it was only a passing moment before things started turning ugly. As I write this today, shortly over five months later, more than 160,000 Americans have died from the virus. In fact, the real number is probably even higher than that. We may never know what the actual death toll will end up being, but the end result is a horrible ocean of suffering caused by the loss of family members, friends, classmates, mentors, colleagues, benefactors, and people of all ages, races, and descriptions that we did not have the good fortune to meet. My New Year’s prophesy has been verified on a level which I scarcely could have imagined, and certainly did not want to see.

But it’s more than the COVID-19 deaths that have made this year so heartwrenching. Deaths from causes other than the virus—which I was intending to speak of during the New Year’s Day car ride—have themselves become a casualty of this massive death toll.

As I type this out, an elementary school classmate is grieving the death of her young son. As heartbroken as I’m sure she must be, the traditional rituals of grieving won’t be available for her, either. Those who would be otherwise inclined to attend a wake or a service won’t be able to, either by governmental orders about the number of people who are allowed to gather in one place, or through a reluctance on their part to either spread the virus or receive it from another mourner. Her devastating loss is further compounded by the absence of people who would otherwise join her, if it were legal or advisable to do so.

This stunning death toll brought about by COVID-19 seems to have taken over much of our society in the past five months. Hearing talk of  “getting back to normal” seems outrageously naive because, for so many people, there is no “normal” anymore. The virus has either claimed the life of an important or irreplaceable person, or it has robbed countless others of their ability to grieve in a way that helps them to cope with their non-COVID-related loss.

My heart goes out to many people right now, from my classmate and her family to people who are far away that I’ll never get to meet. Whether we know someone who has passed away in 2020 or not, we’ll all carry the effects of this terrible year for a very long time. The best thing we can do in this moment is look inside our hearts, and reach out our hands, in a spirit of love and kindness.

Mick Jagger once wrote a song lyric that says “A smile relieves a heart that grieves,” and there are many, many grieving hearts in this country and around the world right now. So let’s get to work.


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