By: Cathy Salter
For the past three months, America has been besieged by a deadly coronavirus pandemic that has changed our lives profoundly. We have sheltered at home, self-quarantined, and redefined how we interact with each other and the world. We shop from home, follow rules for social distancing when in public, cook and exercise at home, drive less and rarely if ever fly or plan vacations. Those who believe in science continue to push for more testing, support contact tracking, and race to create an effective vaccine.
Still some are impatient for summer and a return to normality. They shop without wearing masks and ignore the consequences of putting others who may have compromised immune systems, asthma, or diabetes at risk. Over the Memorial Day weekend, some chose to party with cavalier abandon, even while the Covid-19 death toll in America continued to rise an additional 2,000 deaths on its way to a monumental mark of 100,000 deaths.
However, on that weekend, the headline on the front page of the New York Times read “U.S. Deaths near 100,000, An Incalculable Loss.” To remind us of the gravity of the moment, the entire front page of the newspaper was columns of names—a presentation of obituaries and death notices from newspapers around the country. It was a partial list represented just one percent of the current US death toll from Covid-19. “They Were Not Simply Names on a List,” the subheading read, “They Were Us.” Each name, was followed by their age, where they lived, and a few words depicting the uniqueness of each life lost:
“Jorge F. Casals, 75, Manchester, Conn. Put himself through college…”
“Alan Lund, 81. Washington, conductor with ‘the most amazing ear’…”
“Theresa Elloie, 63, New Orleans, renowned for her business making detailed pins and corsages…”
“Florencio Almazo Moran, 65, New York City, one-man army…”
“Coby Adolph, 44, Chicago, entrepreneur and adventurer…”
On the solemn day set aside for Americans to remember those who sacrificed and those who died in wars dating back to the Civil War, the list of Covid-19 victims was a stark reminder of the serious nature of the enemy we are facing, and a sobering truth of a terrible loss of American’s whose friends and families are not able to mourn their loved ones.
In today’s Covid-19 reality, there are no traditional visitations, wakes, funerals, or potluck gatherings in church basements following services. In cities at the epicenter of the crisis, there are no burials in the traditional sense, and no chance for families and friends to say goodbye. A month ago, our son Hayden called from Spain with the sad news that his father-in-law Marcos Martin had suddenly died of Covid-19. He was a grand oak to his family and our grandchildren. Every day, after visiting his bread factories and stores they supplied, he would stop by with loaves of bread and to touch in. One day, he didn’t feel well, and 24-hours after being checked into a hospital in Madrid, he was gone. There was no chance to say goodbye and could be no formal funeral. The loss has been devastating and continues to haunt us.
Recently, I learned of the May 11, 2020 passing of Olive Graham here in Columbia. The last time I talked to Olive was before we began sheltering at home and prior to restaurants closing except for takeout service. Kit and I were at Park Restaurant where Olive’s family had taken her out for dinner. After spotting us, she got up, and made her way with a walker over to our table. We reminisced about her beloved husband Frank Graham who reminded me powerfully of my own father. I loved Frank’s bright eyes and broad, sunny face. After shaking his big, outstretched hand the first time we met, I knew he and my dad were kindred spirits.
Frank’s hands expressed his genuine joy at meeting and greeting each and every person he encountered in and around the county. Having been a baseball pitcher, Frank had a grip you didn’t soon forget. Over the years we worked together, I met his iron handshake with my own “farmer’s daughter” grip—one Dad would have been proud of.
On my final visit with Frank in 2013 while he was in the Neighbors wing at the Bluffs, I pulled up a chair alongside his bed. First, the smile beamed wide. Then, he swung that elbow out as always, and my hand was soon encased within my old friend’s strong grip. This time, his left hand moved over the one he still held tight, inviting me to stay put and visit awhile. So, I did, knowing this was perhaps my last chance to wander the angles and lines of the face and hands that were maps of Frank’s long and beautiful life.
When it was time to leave, I took out a sheet of blank white paper and traced Frank’s left hand, knowing that too soon I would miss those big old hands that touched so many of us over the years. I gave the tracing to Olive when Frank died. Sadly, when Olive passed, there was no way to collectively celebrate her life. Only an obituary in which family remembrances of her unique life are shared.
“Olive Jane Graham, 88, Columbia MO, turned a childhood love of animals into a passion for nursing.”
She was one of us.
Cathy Salter is a geographer and columnist who lives with her husband, Kit, in Southern Boone County at a place they call Boomerang Cree