In the first piece of science journalism I ever wrote, I compared deciphering the effects of climate change to baking a cake. I was a college sophomore. This was homework. We were to read a study and then find an analogy for it, transforming what we found dizzying and technical into something easily imaginable. In my hands, an existential threat became dessert. I don’t remember exactly why I thought that computer models showing possible futures for an ocean inlet were best conveyed through recipes and increments of butter. But I do remember what (I think) the professor wanted us to remember: When an idea is hard to grasp — too big, too small, too abstruse, too abstract — liken it to something else.
It’s so fundamental it’s almost a cliché, so prevalent it’s almost unnoticeable. We describe genes as blueprints, receptors and viruses as locks and keys. We take the measure of galaxies in celestial football fields.
The same goes for casualties. We’re now approaching a million officially counted Covid deaths in the U.S. alone. The journalistic response I was taught is to do a kind of imaginative arithmetic. Picture 17 Dodgers Stadiums, packed full of fans, each one mysteriously, wondrously alive, a slow evening of baseball distracting them from divorces and diagnoses and conversations they wish they’d navigated differently. Now picture them all gone. Picture some 5,500 commercial airplanes crashing in a little more than two years.
That doesn’t do it for me. It just doesn’t compute. Instead, faced with that vast statistic, my mind conjures up the lost in the shape of people I know. It does this automatically, instinctively, like an animal nosing its way back to a favorite burrow — though the affection I feel is tinged with nausea.
These are some of the people I can’t imagine having to live without. They appear in my mind mostly as snatches of sound. They aren’t really saying anything, but the ums and ahs and filler words are immediately recognizable. The way my brother enunciates more when he’s being thoughtful. The way a friend lets out a low chuckle when he finds an idea beautiful. The cadence of an old housemate whose every sentence creaks like a see-saw from high to low, who sounds a bit like a goose — an unflattering comparison, perhaps, and yet there is no one in the world I’d rather listen to.
Only through this library of familiar voices do the lists of the dead begin to seem even remotely comprehensible. But this analogy is imperfect, too. A person’s voice is, after all, a bit like the person themselves: impossible to sum up or pin down, infinitely variable but also unmistakable. It’s the opposite of interchangeable. Knowing it intimately doesn’t mean you can summon it at will, or even describe it very well; it’s a kind of knowledge you can’t pass on to anyone else.
What I love most about journalism is the license it gives you to peer into other people’s worlds, to spend enough time with a stranger until you know their quirks and tics and idiosyncrasies. It might sound voyeuristic, but I like to think of it more in terms of empathy, every life worthy of its own novel. With patience and luck, plus a bit of generosity from someone else, you can create a doorway for readers to walk into.
I’ve tried to do that for a few families grieving people lost to Covid. I can picture one man at his dining room table, at 1 or 2 a.m., cutting and pasting text and images onto sheets of paper to format the community magazine he ran, so it would be ready to send to the printer in the morning. I often think of his son who lived near his dad in California. He said he felt as though he’d let his siblings in Guatemala down. There had to be something he could do, some way he could make his father feel less alone at the end of Covid; he lived so close to the hospital.
The day after her father died, a woman in Texas told me as much about him as she could in the minutes she had before her next shift. There were family members in Massachusetts who wouldn’t talk to me because they couldn’t hear their loved one’s name without weeping; instead, I found myself on the phone with their 11-year-old niece, just weeks after the death of the aunt she lived with — an interview I was utterly unequipped for. Her voice was high and unnervingly composed. I did what I often try to do: Gently probe for details that might make the deceased come momentarily alive on the page.
There are limits, though. Every interview, every sentence is an attempt, an act of striving. I will never truly know what it is to be that 11-year-old, just as I will never truly know what it is to be any of the families I spoke to.
That’s what sticks with me as the American Covid death count ticks up towards a million, with worldwide statistics even harder to fathom. It isn’t just the staggering number of them that makes them unknowable. Every one of them is unknowable, in more ways than one, surpassing our understanding in every person left bereaved. We need a kind of impossible math for that, not stadiums and airplanes, but an equation multiplying absence by a figure that is itself unimaginable.
“Doubt keeps a kind / of faith, is belief / without a word / for what / it knows,” wrote the poet Kevin Young, after the death of his father. There are things we can know and name. We can understand the fluttering heart rate of the grieving, the tendency to withdraw from the world, the way loss can spur inflammation. We can explain viral mutations as “typos in the genetic code.” The Covid numbers clearly speak of shameful inequalities, of neighborhoods, of racial and ethnic groups left to sicken and die in horrifying numbers. That isn’t accidental. It’s the result of policies, of governmental failures, of institutional failures, of health care and economic security made unavailable to people long before SARS-CoV-2 existed.
And then there are the things that remain private, wordless, untranslatable. The library of voices I’ve been trying and failing to imagine is, in a way, already amassed, surrounding us at all times but unheard by most. A smell wafting from a laundry vent might weirdly conjure up a dead friend’s snorting laughter. A conductor’s announcement in the metro might have the same staccato consonants as your mom, the loss hitting you afresh on your morning commute. A pair of glasses that to everyone else is just a pair of glasses might, for just a second, make you sense the presence of your late brother. Then you take another step, the light changes, you’re distracted by a siren or a passerby, and the person is gone again.
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