Most people are familiar with the question: Is so-and-so still alive?
I’ve always appreciated those end-of-year remembrances of notables who died, not only to be reminded—or to confirm a suspicion—but also to remind me to remember. Or, at least, to take a moment.
The pandemic has made the exercise more compelling. Not only have countless people died while we were trying not to, but we weren’t permitted to close the chapter in our usual ways. For all human time, we’ve celebrated and mourned the dead with a degree of ceremony. The recent discovery of the remains of a 3-year-old child in Kenya—from 78,000 years ago—reminds us that even our earliest ancestors felt a need to commemorate their losses in some way.
COVID-19 has meant few to no funerals for most of us, depriving us of what, for lack of a better expression, we call “closure.” Much as I dislike the word, there’s some value to it. A funeral allows us some little time to meditate upon the life of the departed, to consider his or her meaning to us and, of course, to ponder our own mortality.
The tragic costs imposed by plagues carry consequences that might only reveal themselves in time. Some of us have become socially skittish after so many months in isolation. Some of us want people to think that is so. In my own little speck of the universe, I’ve noticed a new obsession unfolding: list-making.
Listing is a way of managing anxiety. So it isn’t surprising that some of us have become more committed than usual to organizing our lives with pad and pen, even if actual productivity doesn’t follow. Just getting things down on paper in an orderly fashion can sometimes feel like an accomplishment.
My lists of late, however, have taken on a new character. We’re not talking broccoli and errands here. Though it startles me a little to admit, I’ve been compiling columns of the living and the dead. That is, people who are, in fact, alive or dead. It isn’t so much that I don’t remember who has died; it’s that I don’t want to forget them. The same goes for the living. I don’t want to forget to remember—and act upon—how much they mean to me.
This isn’t busy work. Every now and then a person comes to mind and I catch my breath because they’re gone. If I don’t remember them, who will? Doesn’t friendship require that we spend at least a few moments now and then recalling someone who once meant so much? I am tortured by such questions. The converse is obvious: Who will remember us? And for how long?
I’m guessing there are others out there who’ve done the same. The passage of time combined with psychological and physical ravages of the pandemic have forced a reckoning of what matters to us most. This applies to our nation as well as to ourselves as individuals. Between my own incessant, decadeslong deadlines and the energy-sapping demands of everyday life, it’s easy to lose sight of who and what should be priorities. How many times have we said we’re “gonna haftas” to friends and family, knowing full well that we’ll never get around to it? We’re “gonna hafta” have lunch, grab a drink, get together, plan a reunion.
Speaking for myself, it’s well past halftime and I don’t want to spin myself into a web of regret. My list of the deceased is way too long, but it gives me some measure of relief to see a name and to think of that person for a while.
The living list is, not surprisingly, shorter. The people we count as true friends—the kind you can’t live without—are few.
If this all seems a turn sad, do not be concerned. It’s just my way of remembering to remember all the people who’ve made my life better or more meaningful. It’s also possible that I’m hoping to be on someone else’s list. We know from experience that our all-too-brief time on earth is noted only for a short while by a diminishing few.
Eternity belongs to those who make the list.