Everyday, almost the first thing in the morning, I read the local newspaper to find out the most recent number of cases and deaths from Covid-19 in my county. The daily tabulation belies the pain and tragedies of this pandemic: 145 new cases, no deaths on Monday; 180 new cases, one death on Tuesday; 110 cases, two deaths on Wednesday. Although no names are given for the pandemic’s latest victims, the news reports give their ages and whether they were residents of a senior group home: one in their 70s; one in their 60s; two in their 80s; two of the deceased in a long-term facility.
Almost all the deaths are people over 60, with many in their 80s. Because I’m 71, it feels like death is knocking on doors all around me, that it comes blowing down the streets and paths of my town, skirting the edges of my house. I shut myself in, close the windows, lock the doors and try to turn away. But it’s out there.
“Never send to know for whom the bell tolls,” John Donne famously wrote. “It tolls for thee.” The British writer wanted to remind us that we are all affected by another’s death because we’re intertwined. That’s never been more true because the coronavirus spreads so fast and seemingly so randomly: did that oncoming bicyclist breathe in my face? Did the shopper at my local grocery store cough as we both grabbed for yogurt? Did I unknowingly infect my older neighbor when I didn’t put my mask on quickly enough? We’re all made vulnerable by this invisible enemy.
But the pandemic also serves as a cautionary tale that one day the bells will toll for me. Most of us try to avoid thinking about death, but this fast-spreading flu has forced us to confront it. Every day we read about the progress of the vaccines, which states are experiencing surges, and how businesses and workers are being affected. We hear personal stories: a friend is in the hospital; a brother of a neighbor died from Covid-19; a sibling who had the virus several months ago is still suffering.
We can’t avoid it, unless we turn off our computers and TV and don’t talk to friends. But even before the pandemic and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve made it a practice to read the obituaries in our local paper. Because I’ve lived in this town for more than 50 years, there’s a good chance that I’ll either know the person or their reputation. Reading the obits has become a practice of adjusting to the idea of death, especially when the birth year of someone who died is the same as mine. It feels like a wake-up call, like having cold water splashed in your face.
As many spiritual traditions have taught, acknowledging death can make us appreciate life more. Maybe that’s the message we can take from this pandemic: that every day is a gift—full of expected joys, like seeing the sun come up; and unexpected, like running into an old friend on a nearby trail. Even the sorrows, like becoming aware of a friend’s loneliness or a stranger’s hardship in not having enough to eat, can bring a bittersweet appreciation of life, one that can wrench your heart every day.