WE have been counting losses online. Deaths by Covid-19.
The technologies have given us symbols with which to express grief: lighted candles; the desperate blueness of a sky bereft of clouds; interminable sunsets; and, flowers.
Flowers are problematic signs. They could be blooms for the lovely transitions in human events—weddings, birthdays, or graduations. The lockdown counts out graduations. And we are left with marriages contracted or people marking milestones. But when the blooms stay solitary within a frame, we feel there is something else to the floral display. We skip the images and scroll quickly and find below memories extolling the virtues of a person and thanking that person for what she or he has done to us.
We always know death. If I may correct that: we sense death. The empirical moments of the slowness of notification are still there in the blunt news that one is gone. Or, that, right now, “we cannot understand all this but soon we will find the reason why this person had to go.” Or, how “the pains are gone and where our beloved is now is a place where all the tribulations are unheard of.”
We are animals. For all the neutral candor of mobile phone or a laptop, our response to the screen and the words they bear prompt us how we are of bodies, first, than of soul. We smell the vanishing; we consume the departure by our troublingly quiet search for footprints, for tracks, for memories.
The thread of prayers follow the exordium to a biography and we are on our way to reading again about death. The prayers are similar; the farewells are products of ancient templates that gloried the pages of books and filled with assuring predictability greeting cards of various persuasions, publishing origins, and functions. It has been a year now, and one month more. The lockdown did not prepare us for a shift in living. A month after we were ordered to stay home or move only within circumscribed areas, we somehow had gotten used to the new order of life.
We wore masks. We stayed far from each other. Overnight, we buried in our subconscious the newly developed gesture of hugging or kissing to acknowledge mutual presences. In a day, we conjured gestures and enacted them in real-life setting—the bumping of fist, the awkward and less brutal touching of arms curved at the elbows. Online, the creators of emoticons caught up with the alternative sociality—hands in prayer are now as popular as the faces in varied expressions of amiability.
Covid-19 has prepared us for this life; it has not prepared us for deaths.
There are no icons or online gestures, certainly no words that could resuscitate us from silence into the most endearing of condolences.
This is what happens during deaths, any kind of death, under the present condition. The patient or the victim dies and no one is there beside the person. Even the most loving kin shall not be there. For the Catholics, no one is assured of the last sacrament unless. No wake follows. No one has the final look of the beloved departed. Somehow, a funeral is done. Or inurnment, if the body has been cremated.
The more technology-oriented family puts up an online meeting. Shall this be called a virtual grieving?
A friend has told me he was trying to find it in himself to feel the loss of an aunt but, somehow, it was not there. It was when they gathered online that the sadness set in. “Covid is real,” was how he put it. This is the response of many—when deaths come close to home, an urgency or panic about this dark period in our history ultimately turns physical. That unmentionable scent of decay composes a sensation in our mind. We breathe fast; we try to control the convulsion that starts from our shoulders. Then we cry. Or weep. Or sob.
In my case, a cousin passed on a few days ago. His demise was announced by way of his photograph and beside it that lighted candle. I remember him as a young boy, frisky and friendly. He was one of the younger cousins because his father happened to be one of our younger uncles. He was a director in a government bureau.
In another time, the duty to be with the grieving family could have been uppermost in one’s schedule. It would have been a grand reunion as well and a time to share the sorrows that naturally accompany death. It would have been a reminiscing in the language of the small island of our birth. That death would have been life in a form that only humans in their capacity for transcendence can ritualize.
There are 14,000 plus deaths by Covid reported as of this writing. In a country where the number of active cases is not properly reported, who would believe these figures? There could be more. But the old poet is right, any man’s death diminishes us. Let us wait for some techie to provide us the tolling of the bells online, admonishing us to summon the words of John Donne, “and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee.”
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