Tag Archives: COVID

The Road

A Tuesday, September 22, 2020. It arrived as a newspaper headline. 200,000 Americans had died of a preventable disease. We take note of large round numbers like these. They have impact. They are the notches on rulers and the lines on thermometers. I never really trust the psychology of numbers. They are treacherous, manipulative things, numbers. Why is 200,000 more significant than 198,534 or 203,568? Why does $5.99 feel like 5 dollars and not 6? Numbers are good at deceit because of their specificity.
There is something of seeming importance about thresholds. They represent a major change, when in fact that change is often minute or marginal. It’s a perception of change. I learned this a long time ago, standing with one foot in New Mexico and one foot in Arizona. They were the same, indistinguishable. Same earth, same view, same place. I had attached a definition to 2 virtually identical patches of land based on some arbitrary definition.
All it takes to cross into the realm of 200,000 deaths is for one more person to die. Who was it? Did they ever wonder if they would be the one that ushered in 200,000? It’s a small change but a numerical threshold. Dissimilar to May when we had reached 100,000 dead. That threshold seemed, in some ways more heartbreaking and certainly more shocking. In the 4 months since, I had changed. I had acclimated to this magnitude of death. While 100,000 deaths seemed unthinkable last Spring, 200,000 seems not surprising this Fall. Perhaps it even feels expected. I had gotten used to it, it had become normal.
Six months ago the idea of 1200 or 800 or 2000 fellow citizens dying daily seemed like domain of science fiction or war. This was neither. These tragic and horrific images appeared to belong to a bygone era. I had begun to believe in our false invulnerability. In a post modern world, in America, it was hard to imagine that kind of loss. We don’t have to imagine it anymore.
I wake up everyday, I look at the news and count the dead. I stopped reacting months ago. This disturbs me, because it makes me call into question who I think I am. Am I someone who counts the dead every morning while drinking coffee, disaffected? I wouldn’t have thought so. Perhaps I was wrong about me.
Those numbers though, they can play tricks on you. When 84 people had died in Wuhan, in many ways that seemed more real. I can visualize 84 people, I actually know 84 people. There is a equivalent substitution where I can relate the 84 people to a personal experience. I can remember being in a bar with around 84 people or a restaurant. I can remember faces and groups. When I can reference an experience, I can feel it.
200,000 people…what does that even mean? What does that look like? I have nothing to compare it to. It is an abstract number. One of the treacheries of numbers is that they can steal your humanity- perhaps not intentionally, but merely as a consequence. There is something vulgar about counting people, alive or dead. This has always bothered me. Counting is such a deficient way of marking existence that it is offensive. Large numbers become quite literally unimaginable. What does a million dollars look like? What do 330 million people look like? I don’t like things I can’t create a visual of in my mind.
I often do exercises to explain things to myself, to create a language I can understand. I once tried to calculate how many people were sitting in one mile of traffic on a 3 lane highway, because “traffic” seems like a vague notion. When I could reference it by the number of people idly sitting in their cars, wasting a certain amount of time, and relate that to thousands of people losing some piece from the bigger story of their lives, then, I can in some way understand it’s gravity.
I needed to explain these 200,000 people to myself.
So I created “The Road”. The Road is an imaginary place where I might approach feeling the impact of the past 6 months. I’ve measured it, done the math, and walked it in my mind over and over again. It’s an exercise in reversing the anesthetic effects of a pandemic.
At the start of the road there is a body, a victim of COVID-19. Next to that body is the next victim, side by side, and this goes on for 200,000 people. That’s the road. On average, every 22 inches there’s another body marking the absence of another life. It goes on like that for 69.4 miles. I close my eyes and try to walk it, carefully, considerately taking note of each face and each life. I never finish. I imagine finishing, but I never actually make it. I can’t. By my best estimate it would take me about 23 hours to walk that 69.4 mile road. With each step appears another face, another body, another set of ideas and plans and desires that abruptly ended. No explanation, no consolation- a life that simply ceased to be. That’s a long road to walk, even in my imagination. Every step of that 69.4 mile walk, presents a life, and memories that disappeared like smoke in a breeze. Every face unique, every story unique. Never to be repeated in quite the same way.
There’s this stone that sits on my chest when I imagine the road. A weight that swells into a panic, and a crescendo of helpless remorse and ineffectuality. For all we have lost, of each other and of ourselves, the finality of it is insurmountable. Yet, life goes on, often ridiculously.
This same Tuesday, the world was abuzz about the future of Tik Tok. The president spit blame across his podium, Jeff Bezos increased or decreased his net worth by some percentage. Those were headlines. Of course there were numbers also. 800 and some odd people. They were alone, tended by strangers, healthcare workers, cloaked in masks and shields and hazmat suites. Almost unrecognizable as fellow humans. I’d like to believe they could see each other’s eyes. I’d like to believe they could recognize each other’s humanity, if only for that fleeting moment. I’d like to believe 800 something people didn’t simply leave this world, completely alone, separated as pariahs. I’d like to believe that.
You might be considering, at this point, why I even do this seemingly morbid exercise. Why I even attempt to walk the road. I don’t have a specific answer. I confess, it feels futile and I feel utterly helpless in all this. It’s not something I am proud of, but it’s honest. I simply don’t know what to do. I walk the road as best I can, in honor, and at the very least, in recognition of this immeasurable loss. They say you truly die when the last person who holds a thought of you dies…
Perhaps, I walked the road to remember the life of someone I never met, in the hope that one day someone will walk the road for me.