I wanted to call Mike the other night, but my premise was flawed so I didn’t make that call. I wanted to ask a simple question, but with a lot of expletives and modifiers. The basic question–minus the expletives and modifiers: “Why did you die?”
Mike has been dead nearly two years. His death was one of more than a dozen family and friends who died in the second half of 2018 and the first half of 2019. I’ve asked that question whenever I see these different names in my phone list and among the text messages still on my system.
For me, the grief of the COVID-19 pandemic stirs up older griefs and concerns. They seem to nurture one another, even those ancient griefs that seemed long ago to have had resolution. The grief demands and steals the energy and passion we normally have for other pursuits.
I remember a short story by Henry James titled “The Altar of the Dead.” The story, published in 1916, concerns a man who tries to keep alive the memories of deceased friends. It is a typical Jamesian multilayered story that deals with mortality and grief, conflict and love. I do the story no justice when I note that the protagonist establishes a memorial altar in a church at which he places candles in remembrance of friends. James wrote:
By this time he had survived all his friends; the last straight flame was three years old, there was no one to add to the list. Over and over he called his roll, and it appeared to him compact and complete. Where should he put in another, where, if there were no other objection, would it stand in its place in the rank?
While I have not outlived my friends, I do keep my own inner altar for the dead. The altar seems larger than normal these days. The world is in grief because of the pandemic. The earth groans with this grief. The world senses an archetypal exhaustion.
Despite and because of the grief, we struggle still to use our abilities and gifts to establish a new and humane normalcy that cares for all the earth in love and grace.