A few weeks ago, my good friend Alex died. It was not due to coronavirus, rather, some other illness took his life in what was a complete shock to everyone who knew him, from friends to colleagues to acquaintances. At the same time, the all-encompassing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic kept encroaching slowly upon everyday consciousness, like the incoming tide that so relentlessly, subtly creeps up to lap at your feet.
When there is such an unprecedented tragedy of epic proportions occurring, it is hard to contextualize something as final and personal as a friend’s death. It is difficult to, at times, walk or run past a bar in your friend’s old neighborhood and think, “Oh, that was his favorite spot, and five weeks ago we played pool together there for a few hours,” while thousands of people around you are facing a future rife with uncertainty. It’s as if a palpable tension lies in the air, like the slight smoky moisture in the air before a summer storm. And through that atmosphere you just happen to be strolling, with a much more immediate concern dwelling on your mind, even as the air imperceptibly clings to you.
Just before travel restrictions began shutting down airports, and on the same day bars and restaurants were closed, and a week or so before we were all ordered to stay home if at all possible, a group of friends and family were able to convene briefly at a beer hall. There is no agenda for such a thing, really; Alex’s sister just wished to meet all of the friends she’d heard much about over the past few years. (By the way, I have to come clean – I was a good friend of Alex’s, but I was in no way as close to him as some of my other good friends were, so I was affected far less than they. In addition, I am well acquainted with death, unfortunately.) And it was a remarkably cathartic experience, even if no overt emotion was expressed. People milled about and discussed this and that, calmly relaying plans to hold an honorary brewery crawl in Arizona where Alex had gone to undergrad, or learning about what his sister and her husband were doing in London.
It was one of those seemingly ordinary things, but performed as a ceremony of sorts, that we all cling to so fervently when the fabric of the everyday is rent and the shocking or the cataclysmic occurs. The mysterious comfort in a sadly customary ritual – a group of those who wished to pay respects, those who knew someone who is suddenly gone, gathering together even if their only tenuous bond is that one, absent individual – is easily taken for granted. Now, in the age of the first global pandemic in a century, it is even more apparent how even the most minor of liberties, taking a stroll outside, is suddenly that much more precious when it is lost. We are confronted with losses of all kinds in all walks of life; in response, we grasp for the familiar to rebuild our rituals, being a resilient species. Love, primarily, is what we’ll return to in unconscious instinct, whether it be eating out more than we care to, in order to keep local small businesses afloat, or checking in on friends we don’t speak to that often, or donating to healthcare-focused charities. It’s unfortunate it takes the worst to bring out the best in us, but that’s the way it goes.
There are thousands if not millions of words being written to express that precise sentiment, but probably only hundreds will acknowledge the inevitable: Upon the end of the extraordinary measures taken to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, we will also revert to old habits. Nearly all of us…will eventually cease to grasp the exhilaration of freedom of movement; will forget to truly appreciate an in-person conversation over a fine meal at a restaurant; may chafe at the economic, fiscal, monetary and social debts incurred to defeat the pandemic, forgetting how critical they may have been; ultimately return to much of what we were like before this truly global catastrophe. Much will have changed in, say, remote working, government powers, public health approaches, etc. But people won’t really have changed all that much. (Including myself, frankly, I am already a tad wistful for a return to normalcy.) Maybe a little. People don’t change much; and if they do, it usually takes time, as well as often a tragedy or triumph…so just perhaps the pandemic may qualify…among other things.
Perhaps there is another thing, as of late, that belongs among those other things. One thing that won’t change is our memory – my friends and I, that is – of Alex.