April is the cruelest month
In early April, as the pandemic was raging through New York City, transforming my home into another Ground Zero, I awoke to an ominous email. My uncle would be having back surgery. Although he was in the Hudson Valley, a place less overwhelmed by fear and death, the local hospital was on lockdown. A lovely man of 85, my uncle Eric would face the ordeal alone. The five-hour surgery would begin that morning at ten. I thought of calling him to offer comfort, but alas, it was already too late.
Eric and his wife were both artists—he a photographer, she a writer, a maker of unusual creatures, and a professor at Vassar College. When Nancy passed away, in 2017, her memorial was overflowing with family, friends, colleagues, and former students. There were many readings of her poems. During my recent visits with Eric, he’d spoken with undiminished feeling of their ten-year courtship. No wonder—despite the lengthy prologue, their marriage had been as loving and companionable as any I’d ever seen.
Back surgery at 85 is enormously risky. With ambulance sirens wailing through my Brooklyn neighborhood and death hanging—so it seemed—in the pollen-laden trees, the news was hard to grasp. What rhyme or reason was there for such surgery right now? I had spoken with Eric just a week before, and he’d sounded good—inexplicably cheery, I thought at the time, for an elderly man enduring a quarantine alone, with his only son a thousand miles away. He was adapting, though—he’d even given up his morning outings for fresh coffee and the newspaper. I promised to call again soon, but in the urban crush of the pandemic, I delayed for a few days. I thought he would be safe up there in the Hudson Valley.
Soon after, the pain my uncle had long suffered suddenly became acute, and a new round of doctors and diagnoses began. Alone and suffering, he finally agreed to the surgery first recommended several years before. Yet the circumstances had changed. He was older, and the hospital was on COVID-19 lockdown. Nevertheless, the doctor had reached a sobering conclusion—in the absence of surgery, my uncle’s chances of mobility were fading to none.
Although death came to my uncle during the pandemic, his death was not sent by the pandemic. He succumbed to something less newsworthy, though similarly fraught with danger. Aware of the jeopardy he faced from many sides, he chose to leap—stepping westward, it’s been called. As they were administering the anesthetic, he spoke a final hope of life, of death: “If anything happens, let me go. I want to see my wife.”
In these pandemic days, there can be no memorial for my uncle. Even his son cannot go to the family home. Yet my uncle Eric is not simply gone. The house is not empty, but full to breaking with books, photographs, and fantastic objects—many of which he and Nancy created throughout their richly inventive lives.
While the pandemic rages, we honor the dead any way we can.
In 1940, as German tanks rolled across Europe, W.H. Auden commemorated the death of Yeats:
He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.
A Brooklyn Requiem
Yes, the pandemic season feels dark and cold. And yet, on the day of my uncle’s death, the earth bloomed in benign indifference as the blows fell on us humans. On the day of my uncle’s death, I fled the rough slap of solitude for the healing touch of our green spaces. There, in the park among a masked and fearful crowd, I sought the sun on my face. I welcomed the sun even as my uncle struggled with the angel of affliction, seeking his wife.
When I reached home and through the long evening, there was no news about Eric, only a sense of foreboding. But as with the waxing and waning of ambulance sirens during the pandemic, no announcement was necessary. Death is its own announcement. We read its signs where they fall.