What We Owe the Dead

 

I’ve heard a lot of people saying that they’ve stopped listening to
or reading the news, that they don’t need to know how many fell ill or died from COVID-19 in the last day or the last hour. Sometimes one of the people I hear saying that is me. And that’s all right. We all have to to do what we can to take care of ourselves — though there are so many many many people now whose circumstances will prevent them from getting what they need.

So I do step back from the television and ignore the headlines that flash across the screen of my phone. I put down the New Yorker and pick up Lord Peter Wimsey. I owe it to myself and to my family, to the nurses and doctors at the hospitals, to society in general, to stay as sane and healthy as I can.

 

But then I start thinking about what we owe the dead.

 

I don’t know any of them — yet. I can’t imagine that I’ll get through this time of coronavirus and sorrow and incomprehensible loss and criminal stupidity without knowing someone who gets ill from the virus, someone who dies — without, perhaps, falling ill or dying myself.

But whether I ever know anyone who contracts COVID-19 doesn’t matter.

 

 

 

While this pandemic rages, while it takes lives and destroys the health, happiness, and fortunes of thousands, of millions, of (for a while) most of us, let us witness all we can stand to witness. Let’s those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to do so, take our breaks and catch our breaths, and then, if we can, let us witness as much as we can take in. Let us learn and remember names of strangers who have died without the solace of their loved ones, of the families left to gasp and mourn. Let us remember the dead in the aggregate, the inevitable deaths and the ones that could have been prevented if more people in our government had given a damn. Let’s write letters and journals and blogs to record the losses, the emotions, the unforgivable neglect by government officials, the kindnesses of neighbours, the teachers driving through neighbourhoods to cheer the students who can’t see them at school, the sacrifices of first responders, of doctors, nurses, postal carriers, store clerks, delivery folks, volunteers — of anyone who gave more than could be expected or should have been asked.

Let’s make it personal.

Let us note too, the almost eerie benefits, the way the earth has
seized this interminable moment to clear the air, to calm the crust. Let us remember the resurgence of birds and the quieter days that didn’t grate along our nerves. Let’s give thanks for the cessation of robo-calls and phone solicitations.

 

And when we figure out how to live with this virus, when we have a vaccine and cure, we should remember all we can and share what we remember, for no one of us will remember it all.

We are bound to hear. And that, my friends, is what I think we owe the dead.

Six Months

It’s been six months, as of today, since my mother died. I feel like I’m in a Greek myth-Freaky Friday mash-up: I’m Persephone waiting for Ceres to come back after her half-year in the Underworld. It ain’t gonna happen, but I still rather expect Mom to show up and want to know why we haven’t finished fixing up the house.

Oh well.

To mark the day, here’s one of my mother’s favourite poems, “One Perfect Rose,” by one of her favourite authors, Dorothy Parker:

 

 

A single flow’r he sent me, since we met.
All tenderly his messenger he chose;
Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet –
One perfect rose.

I knew the language of the floweret;
‘My fragile leaves,’ it said, ‘his heart enclose.’
Love long has taken for his amulet
One perfect rose.

Why is it no one ever sent me yet
One perfect limousine, do you suppose?
Ah no, it’s always just my luck to get
One perfect rose.

(https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/one-perfect-rose/)

Occupatio,* or All That’s Missing

12 July, 2019

I am back. I have been away because, for several months, I was living someone else’s story. And the story was not mine to tell.1 

When I left, it was Winter. In the cold days of February, I thought about other topics about which I might write. There were the cardinals that came close to the houses to glean some of the ambient heat, the reds of the males flashing against the greys of the sky and the clouds, the orange beaks of the females, warmer and more welcome than the sparking males. The flock’s calls and clicks that sounded like notes from a wooden xylophone were equally bright — glowing coals of sound, equally cacophony and symphony. I could have written about the way they came close, but not too close, never venturing onto the patio, never coming under the shelter of the roof, but rather perching on the branches of the pink-bud tree that almost — almost — stretches its limbs under the overhang that shelters the patio.

I thought about telling how, years ago, the pink-bud tree on the patio became diseased and had to be cut down. There was debate about whether the unobstructed view or the shade of a tree was preferable. While we waited for the stump to decompose, new saplings twined up from the base of the old tree and flourished. After some years, it was decided that the new trees weren’t growing right, and the trio of trees were cut down. This time, stump killer was applied to prevent new growth. It didn’t work. The new shoots became a proper tree. And now that tree shelters cardinals in the cold and spills out pink and purple buds in Spring. 

  

Copyright Ruth FeiertagI thought about writing about the rain. The grey skies cast down unusually generous rains and soon there were thunderstorms with their rumbles and explosions and lightning shows. I stood Copyright Ruth Feiertag 2019on the patio, under the overhang, watching the wildness, catching pieces of lightning with the camera on my phone.

 

And I thought about trying to articulate the strangeness of watching the heart of one season slide into the respiration of the next in a place that was not home, in a span of time that unspooled yet held still, of seeing Winter’s snows become Spring rains that greened the grass and persuaded the trees to cast on shawls of light green,CCopyright Ruth Feiertag 2019 then coats of darker verdancy. The mock pears shone white with their blossoms;Copyright Ruth Feiertag 2019

 

 

 

Copyright Ruth Feiertag 2019the cardinals paired off and set up housekeeping in the hedge by the patio and the tall bushes by the back bedrooms. The cardinals and wood doves came for the bird seed I put out; I began feuding with squirrels and keeping an eye out for rats.

 

 


I considered describing how I went to the tree nursery and brought home blooming plants in vivid hues and stuffed them into pots along the patio. Copyright Ruth Feiertag 2019
Copyright Ruth Feiertag 2019     Copyright Ruth Feiertag 2019

 

 

I cast seeds wantonly into the pots and planters, along the back fence, in front of the house. The continuing rains washed the seeds into the soil and set the seeds to growing.

Copyright Ruth Feiertag 2019Copyright Ruth Feiertag 2019 Copyright Ruth Feiertag 2019

 

 

 

 

I thought about writing about how time morphed into strange shapes and lost meaning and days were the same day and different days and it stopped mattering and time escaped altogether.

I “wrote” in my head, but got nothing on paper, nothing entered onto the computer nor on line. I was too enfolded in other matters, in another’s life, to write anything down.

And then, on 12 May, 2019, my mother died.

And her story become mine.

Sarah Feiertag, 1934-2019

 

1. Jenny Lawson blogged about this dilemma too, telling readers of her blog back in January, “I’ve struggled with what to say because I don’t know what to say. I am an open book and I write everything, but this isn’t just my story and I want to respect that,“ and “Turns out it’s really hard to write about emotional things and even harder when they involve someone you love whose privacy you want to protect.” 

See https://thebloggess.com/2019/01/17/im-struggling/and https://thebloggess.com/2019/01/23/im-back/.