I’ve been oddly fortunate to have not experienced much tragedy or death in my life. Some of that is due to just dumb luck, but a lot of it may simply be numbers: I grew up in a pretty small family, and a lot of the traditional extended family had already passed by the time I was born. My one grandparent passed nearly 20 years ago; distance and time had always limited the closeness of that relationship. I felt more sad for my Dad, who hadn’t gotten to be with her when she died. Other than her, I’d never lost a family member or even a friend.
But in the annus horribilis that was 2020, my father died. Like so many others, I had to confront the pain and confusion of dying, death, and existential crises, in a year that had already seen me laid off from my beloved teaching position and over 200,000 deaths in the US alone due to the sheer incompetence and indifference of the Trump administration. My father did not die of coronavirus infection, but the pandemic kept some of my family, including me, apart from him as he lay in a hospital, virtually alone, for months. When he finally left the hospital for home hospice care, he declined so quickly that I could only listen on the phone as he passed into the next life.
Through the pain and guilt of everything that happened, there were bright shining moments of human kindness that I will never forget, and which move me to tears every time I think on them. But in a time of grieving and loss, the kindness of others is a balm for that grief. While it cannot remove pain or bring back those who are gone, it can overlay your grief, changing the tones and shades of mourning into something richer and less monotone. I will hold tightly to these moments as I continue to grieve, clutching the comfort they provide like a talisman.
My father took up karate in his later years. My nephew started taking classes at a local dojo, and just through the process of ferrying his grandson to class, my Dad became close to the instructors, a husband and wife team who have been teaching for years. Eventually, my Dad got his own gi and was taking kata classes and even learned how to use a bo staff. While he hadn’t kept up with classes in the past couple of years due to health problems, he struck up a close friendship with his sensei. They worked together, sometimes in private lessons, and my Dad learned balance and breathing techniques that helped him feel much stronger. I hadn’t realized just how close the two of them had become until after my Dad died. I learned that my mother had decided to bury my father in his go, but that the sensei had given them an addition for Dad’s uniform: a black belt. After the funeral, the sensei told us that he considered Dad a close friend; in all their time together, he felt that Dad had taught him almost as much as he taught Dad. And that even though he’d not tested for his black belt, the sensei said he’d earned it through sheer discipline and dedication, and it was for those qualities that he gave our family the black belt to tie on Dad’s gi.
The kindness and generosity of this gesture overwhelmed me.
My father was laid to rest in a state military cemetery, with a military honor guard at his internment. While my sister, an army chaplain, conducted the graveside service, there were two young soldiers acting as honor guard. They stood watch over the casket, removed the flag, folded it, and presented it to my mother. This is a standard order of events, a ritual performed many times a day (at least in non-pandemic eras), and undoubtedly a rote procedure for the soldiers who participate. After all, they don’t know the deceased or anyone present for the service, but it is crucial they perform their job perfectly each time.
I was honestly quite impressed with these young men who stood watch. They were sharp and respectful, dispatching their duties with professionalism. When the higher ranking officer presented my mother with the flag, he did not rush through his words and move along, but rather spoke them with resolve and compassion, after which he put the folded flag into her hands and saluted slowly. He had spoken to her the standard words that accompany the flag presentation: “Ma’am, on behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for honorable and faithful service.”
I was grateful to be standing close enough to hear this speech. I was not impressed, necessarily, by the discipline or militarism or the freshly pressed uniforms. I was impressed by this soldier’s dedication to this moment, and to this widow. He offered me comfort, in a way he’ll never know, or likely ever intended. I was comforted by his kindness and respect, when I would have easily understood it if he’d phoned it in, so to speak. But he didn’t, and I thank him for that show of grace.
Now we have advanced into 2022 – I did not blog or post for the entirety of 2021, because things were just that difficult. A short list of things that happened to me in 2020, aside from Dad dying:
- I was laid off from my contingent teaching job of 8 years, via an email.
- My husband and I contracted COVID in October.
- In November, we had to move to a new state in about one month’s time.
- We moved from IN to SC with no help, just ourselves and a LARGE moving truck we rented (after recovering from COVID).
And yet, even after remembering how completely shitty 2020 was, I actually feel lucky. So many people never even got to have a funeral for their loved ones that year. Our cases of COVID were awful, but not serious. I was officially out of a job in May, but was able to teach my summer classes. I was able to get unemployment and the extra pandemic assistance. I got maybe 5 interviews over the few months I was on the job hunt, and when I accepted the Clemson position, they let me work remote until I could arrive in December, and were very kind about me being sick in October. So – in my pain and frustration, I also know how much others suffered – and continue to suffer, even at this dawn of a brand new year.
So, to close out this long post, I’d like to make commitment to more help, more community, more mutual aid. I was lucky to work with Mutual Aid Louisville/BLM in 2020, and that kind of support is the only way we are going to get through this 3rd year of pandemic, and through the upcoming fiery days. Find a Mutual Aid group near you: Mutual Aid Hub.