Jun 01, 2021
We walk with the dead, we aging ones. We spend time in their company. Mother, father, friends, enemies: all walk with us in memory. If memory is an electrical pattern in the brain, they walk with us in every moment. Some of us tune them out, or try, but they are there all the same as music in memory, steps on an endless staircase, a carrier wave in the human soul.
A nation walks with its dead, too. Ours is no exception. If it were, it would not have a holiday called "Memorial Day." As these words are written, the holiday was commemorated just yesterday. (Remember?) It's a day we tend to celebrate with a rather conspicuous absence of memory. As historian David W. Blight reminds us, it began as a commemoration by Black Americans for the Union soldiers who died under brutal confinement in Charleston, SC, in a race course turned internment camp.
The dead have rights upon us. We owe them our memories. We owe them our respect. And, sometimes, we owe them our amends.
But our memories should not be limited to martyrs of war. Our economic and political struggles have left more than their share of victims, from those killed by police violence to those who have died from other causes: from poverty, from healthcare industry greed, or from the addictive gains of the pharmaceutical industry.
And now, because of the pandemic, we are approaching a milestone in mortality. The official number of American dead, as of this writing, is 594,000. That's an off-kilter number, one that doesn't stay in the brain or compute itself into palpable tragedy. It is not, in the words of Elvis Costello, a punch line you can feel.
It's also wrong. A study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington weighed other factors, including increased mortality from increases in mental health disorders (like depression and higher use of drugs and alcohol), as well as decreases in mortality caused by social distancing and other causes. They also factored in increases in mortality caused by delays or deferment of needed health care during the pandemic (something that imperiled me last year).
They concluded that there had been 912,345 direct deaths from COVID-19 in the US, at a time when the official figure was 578,555. As of today, the official figure is 594,000. If the ratios hold, that means the actual figure is now approaching 937,000, and will almost certainly reach one million before the pandemic ends altogether.
One million dead. That's a figure to conjure with, a dark fate spelled out in political numerology.
Here's something else we don't talk about: The dead have rights upon us. We owe them our memories. We owe them our respect. And, sometimes, we owe them our amends. That's true now. We owe amends to our million dead. They died because we were too easily persuaded, discouraged, or distracted from protecting them. We allowed ourselves to be misled by those who would rather see an ongoing parade of deaths than sacrifice their own wealth or power. In a "good" year, after all, tens of thousands of people die from lack of insurance. More die from poverty, from despair, from the indifference of a society that claims to value life even as it traffics in death.
"God bless our troops," Joe Biden likes to say. "God bless our troops," we say on Memorial Day. What about saying "God bless our doctors and nurses," the ones who died trying to save others? What about blessing our teachers, who showed up when others wouldn't, who bought school supplies on their meager salaries when you and I wouldn't? What about blessing our delivery workers, our grocery store clerks, the mothers who went in to work to feed their children even when they knew they could sicken and die if they did? What about blessing our old, who joined the ancestors among sterile machines, without even the comfort of faces to look upon in their final moments?
Our spirit of remembrance is as impoverished as our social contract. Who will walk with them in memory? Who will send blessings upon them? Who will recite their elegies or sings their songs of mourning?
Say it again: One million dead. Say it for them. Repeat it like a mantra, an invocation of those who died needlessly. Don't undercount them. Don't discount them. Honor your obligations to the dead. Sing it. Say it. Say it again. Remember, remember.
And then, act.
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