This was said by President Donald Trump during a White House cabinet meeting this week, regarding a study linking the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine that he’s been touting, and allegedly taking himself, and an increased risk of death in coronavirus patients:
There was a false study done where they gave it to very sick people, extremely sick people. People that were ready to die. It was given by obviously not friends of the administration, and the study came out. The people were ready to die. Everybody was old, had bad problems with hearts, diabetes, and everything else you can imagine.
Let the ‘eloquence’ of that mass eulogy sink in for a moment.
Now imagine that one of your loved ones – a grandparent or parent or spouse or sibling – was one of the (at the time of this writing) 96,370 people in America who have died from COVID-19.
I am most certainly not alone in having come to expect this appalling lack of empathy from our President, so his words, while shocking, are no surprise. What has surprised me, however, is hearing similar sentiments echoed by people I know. Cavalier statements such as, “Most of the people who die were going to die soon anyway.” Racist statements such as, “It affects black people more because they do more drugs.” And downright diabolically chilling statements such as, “It’s God’s way of clearing out people who have no reason to live anymore. Who would want to be in a nursing home anyway?”
I understand utilitarian philosophy, and although it’s not an outlook that I personally think a civilized society can morally adhere to, nor do I consider those who lean toward utilitarianism inherently evil. Still, I am stunned by the lack of humanity exhibited by people whom I considered for the most part like me – educated people, not bad people, people I have always assumed would throw me, or anyone, a rope if drowning at sea.
People who themselves have parents, and children, and elderly relatives like grandparents or great aunts and uncles. What offhand dismissal of the deaths of our elderly fails to take into account is the profoundly painful circumstances under which these people were forced to say goodbye, or to not say goodbye as the case may be.
When my maternal grandmother died on October 11, 2011 at the Sunrise Assisted Living facility where she had lived – and been the running Trivia Champion – for over a decade, it was at the end of a week where either I or my mother had been at her bedside every single day. In fact, my mother spent most days just sitting in that room, while Nanny fluttered in and out of consciousness.
On the eve of what would have been Nanny’s 103rd birthday, we were no longer bedside but graveside. In my eulogy, I was able to joke, “It’s always a tragedy when someone dies young . . .” precisely because I was at peace with my grandmother’s passing, and only because I had had the opportunity to say goodbye.
Nanny was with it until nearly the end. At 102 and beyond, she remembered the names of my college roommates and childhood friends, and would ask about them often. When I was sitting next to her, literally on her deathbed, she spoke of each of her “wonderful” sisters and her brother, and of the family housekeeper the late Ruth “Rooshie” Johnson “who came for 3 weeks and stayed for 66 years.” She spoke of how well Rooshie had taken care of Grandma Dora and Grandpa Abe in their final days. She also told me how much she loved me, and my brother, and our children. And she kept calling for Susan, my mother and her daughter; Susan was never but a few minutes away. As she lay dying, Nanny was not alone.
What I remember most about those last days was that even stronger than Nanny’s centenarian mind was her grip. In her final hours, Nanny clutched my hand so tightly, like a coconut crab, I thought she would never let go. Without words, her somehow bionic grip told me she was still with us.
When you live for more than a century, as Nanny did, you’ve been old for so long that people often forget, or don’t even realize, that you were once young, and vibrant, and full of humor and hope.
Growing up, my grandmother told me so many stories of when she was young: sleeping on two chairs pushed together on the fire escape, with her sisters and brother, in Brooklyn; moving to Yardville, New Jersey, where all the neighboring farmers came out to see if the Jews had horns; working in the psychiatric ward of the State Hospital where she and her sisters had to wash the caged patients with hoses and brooms; hitchhiking to Canada; ice-skating on a nearby frozen pond; managing the boys’ baseball team; visiting Coney Island, and on and on. Her memories were always vivid and her stories, no matter the hardship they detailed, always reflected family togetherness, and joy.
People who met Nanny later in life might not have realized what a wicked sense of humor she had. She loved fart and dirty jokes, the slapstick movie Weekend at Bernie’s. Her humor could be dark too. One time when I was 9 or 10, I visited Nanny at the old duplex farmhouse in Yardville and brought along my best friend. For the first time, instead of sleeping in Nanny’s bed with her, I slept in the small room with twin beds, right off the kitchen. Just as we were about to go to sleep, Nanny pointed at my bed, and casually remarked, “Grandma died there.” That was her sense of humor.
Nanny lived to see so much in her time, and so much change. In her own quiet way, she always came down on the right side of politics. We had close friends, an African American family named the Millers during the 1970s when our nation was not as integrated as it is now. Nanny routinely pulled out photographs of Kim and Karen Miller, along with me and my brother, when showing off her “grandchildren.”
Nanny would have thought President Trump was a schmuck.
As I reflect on her death, the circumstances of which afforded us, her family, the opportunity to say goodbye, I cannot for the life of me imagine having been denied that.
Every single one of the “sick people” “ready to die” of which the President, and others, so callously speak, and whose deaths seem to represent no great tragedy, no big deal, is somebody’s mother or father, or grandparent, or sister or brother. With little doubt, each of those people in their lifetime loved, and was loved, in return.
No matter where you come down on the “politics” of the pandemic, and which should supersede – saving the economy or saving people – if you do not at the very least see the sadness in people dying alone, you have either lost your humanity or never possessed any to begin with.
True, many people die unexpectedly to other causes – car crashes, gun violence, brain aneurisms and sudden heart attacks – and their families also never have a chance to say goodbye. And true COVID-19 may prove lethal to only a small percentage of the population; but that small percentage is comprised of people. The circumstances under which they’re forced to spend their final days, hours, and minutes alive are not any less tragic, no matter how old or infirm they may be.
Arguably, the ethos of any big corporation – and Donald Trump treats our country as such – trickles down from the top. I do not think it’s a mistake that people I used to think of as decent now speak so cavalierly of the dead, and with callousness toward the living. They are modeling the behavior of the “captain” at the helm.
Since November of 2016, I myself have passed (albeit kicking and screaming) through four of the five stages of grief in mourning the death of this country. I must admit I have been hovering close to acceptance, or more like resignation, since the pandemic began.
But then I heard an NPR story about a woman named Sophie Avouris; an infant in Greece when the 1918 influenza pandemic spread across Europe, Sophie Avouris lived through the Great Depression and World War II before emigrating to the U.S. in the 1950s. And recently – at the age of 102 – Sophie Avouris recovered fully from coronavirus.
I believe America can recover too.
I believe there is hope for this country and its people. But we must individually and collectively reject the cold-heartedness that prevails at the top. We must individually and collectively tap into our reservoirs of empathy, and let that form our swords; and our humanity, our shields.
And at the very least, we must find and express sorrow for not only our own losses, but those of our fellow women and men.