For the last few years I have heard and I have used the phrase, “THE NEW NORMAL.” Today I am more prone to use the phrase, “THE NEW ABNORMAL.”
On January 26, 2020, basketball legend Kobe Bryant, 41, and his 13-year old daughter Gigi and 7 others were killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. Tributes from around the world poured in including the current President as well as past Presidents.
On January 27th all Southern California radio stations went silent for one minute and 8 seconds at noon. The 8 seconds were a reference to Kobe’s original jersey number.
This tragedy and loss of life became the number one news story across our country for days. Almost every sporting event around the country observed a minute of silence for Kobe Bryant. The NFL observed a minute of silence for Bryant on February 2nd before Super Bowl LIV. Flowers from thousands of mourners were piled high along a mural for Kobe Bryant outside the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
This is how a country has mourned the death of loved ones. This is why we celebrated Memorial Day on Monday – to remember, pray for and celebrate those in the military who gave their lives for our country.
For the past three months I have been waiting and waiting and waiting as the number of people in our country who lost their lives to the COVID-19 virus surged to 100,000. Where were the minutes of silence for the 100,000 people who died, many of them who suffered and died all alone?
Where was there something more than a passing mention of those who had lost their lives to this horrific virus by our political and religious leaders? On Friday, May 22nd President Trump ordered flags to be flown at half-mast for 3 days to honor the coronavirus victims.
In my 51 years of serving as a priest in parishes, I have been a part of over 1,000 wakes and funerals. On average, 100 or more family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers would be present to give support and solace to those who were grieving the loss of a loved one.
Simple math reveals that if 100,000 people in our country have died a cruel death in the last 3 months, 10 million people in our country have been longing over the last 3 months for a time and a place to grieve. The 1-minute of silence has been very hard to find.
I found Sunday’s front page of the New York Times to be a step in the right direction. They listed 1,000 people who have died of the COVID-19 virus along with their age and a couple of words about each deceased person. This was 1% of the 100,000 who have died. We hear so much about the elderly being the primary victims of the virus. I found more than half the victims who were listed to be younger than my 76 years of age, many were much younger than myself.
But what I found most thought-provoking of all in the newspaper was the commentary that was provided in addition to the 1,000 names of the COVID-19 victims that were printed.
For 51 years, a good part of my life as a priest has been spent at wakes and funerals, in hospitals and nursing homes, and with countless sick people in their homes. For all these years I have observed and been a part of the traditions that human beings, Americans and religious people observe with death and dying.
But today I find myself in an Unknown Land. Ten million people all around me are grieving the loss of 100,000 of their dearly beloved. Where are at least a few minutes of remembrance for comfort on the big TV screens and little smart phone screens of my life?
Where are the meaningful words of tribute and words of solace from our political and religious leaders that my soul and other souls cry out for?
We are continually being told to wash our hands, wear a mask, and keep our social distance to preserve our bodily health. But our souls long to hear that there are firm hands reaching out to hold our shaking hands, that “worried masks” are coming off so that we might see a comforting face, and that only a soul-full distance is what can keep us truly safe and alive. — Medard Laz
The New York Times: Sunday, May 24, 2020 —
Toward the end of May in the year 2020, the number of people in the United States who have died from the coronavirus has reached 100,000 — almost all of them within a three-month span. An average of more than 1,100 deaths a day.
One hundred thousand.
A number is an imperfect measure when applied to the human condition. A number provides an answer to how many, but it can never convey the individual arcs of life, the 100,000 ways of greeting the morning and saying good night.
One hundred thousand.
The immensity of such a sudden toll taxes our ability to comprehend, to understand that each number adding up to 100,000 represents someone among us just yesterday. Who was the 1,233rd person to die? The 27,587th? The 98,431st?
She may have died in a jam-packed hospital, with no family member at her bedside to whisper a final thank you, Mom, I love you.
He may have died in a locked-down nursing home, his wife peering helplessly through a streaked window as a part of her slips away.
They may have died in subdivided city apartments, too sick or too scared to go to a hospital, their closest relatives a half-world away.
This highly contagious virus has forced us to suppress our nature as social creatures, for fear that we might infect or be infected. Among the many indignities, it has denied us the grace of being present for a loved one’s last moments. Age-old customs that lend meaning to existence have been upended, including the sacred rituals of how we mourn.
Before, we came together in halls and bars and places of worship to remember and honor the dead. We recited prayers or raised glasses or retold familiar stories so funny they left us nodding and crying through our laughter.
In these vital moments of communion, it could feel as though the departed were with us one last time, briefly resurrected by the sheer power of our collective love, to share that closing prayer, that parting glass, that final hug.
Even in the horrible times of wars and hurricanes and terrorist attacks that seemed to crumble the ground beneath our feet, we at least had time-tested ways of grieving that helped us take that first hesitant step forward.
Now, for most of those who died in the past few months, there were no large gatherings of consolation and recited prayers for peaceful rest. The obituaries that filled our local newspapers and Facebook pages sometimes read like an unending roll call of the coronavirus dead.
Every death notice, virus-related or not, seemed to close with: Due to health concerns and restrictions on gatherings, there will be no funeral services at this time. A celebration of life will be held at a time to be announced.
A virtual memorial service was held instead, perhaps, with mourners praying into laptop screens. Followed by a burial, perhaps, with masked mourners watching from their cars as another coffin was received by the earth.
In a larger sense, the suspension of our familiar rituals of burial or cremation reflected what life in a pandemic has been like. The absence of any clear end.
Even the dead have to wait.
Why has this happened in the United States of 2020? Why has the virus claimed a disproportionately large number of black and Latino victims? Why were nursing homes so devastated? These questions of why and how and whom will be asked for decades to come.
For now, all we can do is hold our collective breath, inch toward some approximation of how things were — and try to process a loss of life greater than what the country incurred in several decades of war, from Vietnam to Iraq.
One hundred thousand.
A threshold number. It is the number celebrated when the family car’s odometer ticks once more to reach six digits. It is the number of residents that can make a place feel fully like a city: San Angelo, Texas; Kenosha, Wisconsin; Vacaville, California.
So imagine a city of 100,000 residents that was here for New Year’s Day but has now been wiped from the American map.
One hundred thousand.
Den mother for Cub Scout Pack 9. Manager of the produce department. Tavern owner. Nurse to the end.
Loved baseball. Loved playing euchre. Loved seeing the full moon rise above the ocean.
Man, could she cook.
Always first on the dance floor. Always ready to party. Always gave back.
Preferred bolo ties and suspenders.
Awarded the Bronze Star. Served in the Women’s Army Corps. Survived the sinking of the Andrea Doria. Competed in the Special Olympics. Immigrated to achieve the American dream.
Could quote Tennyson from memory.
A number is an imperfect measure when applied to the human condition.
One. Hundred. Thousand.
Beyond washing your hands, wearing a mask and keeping your social distance, what kind of comfort and compassion are you looking to give and looking to receive from others during this time of the pandemic?