If you have not already seen it, watch this sorrowful video showing the increase in deaths in Bergamo, Italy, since the coronavirus outbreak began. The speaker shows you first a newspaper from mid-Febuary: One and a half pages of obituaries. Typical for the area, apparently. By mid-March, flipping through the paper as the coronavirus epidemic intensifies: Ten pages of obituaries.
Most of these deaths are elderly people. At this writing, my own grandmother is 96 years old, and though now facing what will probably be her final illness, she’s had many long years of healthy retirement. My mom died when our children were ages 0-6, and her mother became very ill with dementia about that same time, so for my children, their experience of “visiting grandma” on my side of the family is long road trips to Florida to see their great-grandmother.
They have many happy memories of playing dominoes and taking Grandma to eat out at local chain restaurants, and listening to her approve and disapprove of various styles and habits. Two years ago there was the never-to-be-forgotten discovery of toy bananas when we all went to Walmart, in which the elder and younger generations ganged up against the mother in the middle in the Great Banana Impulse Buy Debate. (They eventually won, but I exacted my price. Totally worth it.)
It is not unlikely, now, that my grandmother’s final illness will be COVID-19 instead of the slow-moving cancer she’s currently dealing with. “But she was old and sick,” people will say. Well, yes, but we were hoping to see her again in June.
She’s 96. We knew last summer that our visit then might be the last. But what if she were eighty? We’d have lost an entire lifetime of visits for most of the children; none of them would have any but the faintest memory of her. I would have lost nearly two decades of mentoring from a woman whose vocation and outlook on life is so much like my own, and whose differences are like iron sharpening iron (clean your house, Jennifer!). I think I can safely say that her children and other grandchildren and great-great-children feel the same: These last nearly twenty years she has enriched our lives so much, despite “doing nothing.”
Suppose you’re sixty right now. You are looking at retirement soon, you’re tired out, thinking about downsizing, probably dealing with some health problems, and maybe beginning to feel like you haven’t got much more to offer the world. And yet, if you don’t die of COVID-19, you may yet make it to eighty. During which time:
- You could grandparent a child (your own or a neighbor’s) from birth to adulthood.
- You could mentor a young professional from young adulthood into the peak of his or her career.
- You could, from the comfort of your desk, armchair, front porch or fishing hole, provide another ten or twenty years of incisive analysis and otherwise-forgotten experience related to difficult issues developing in your area of expertise.
- You could finally write that memoir or novel, learn to paint, play the piano, or perfect your putting game, and in the process encourage some younger person who needs to hear by your example, your words, or your companionship, “What you are doing is worth it.”
- You could write letters to the editor and bless out upstart politicians and conceited middle managers, in the process saying what the rest of us wish we had the nerve to say, but aren’t old enough not to care what other people think.
- If you’re a priest, you could . . . well, you don’t get to retire. Sorry. Nice try.
People with “not much more time” still have much to contribute.
I won’t say that every old person is therefore wise. I won’t say that every younger person facing a shortened lifespan due to medical problems is therefore living the well-examined life. Nor do I say that the value of human life can be measured in utilitarian terms; your life is of infinite worth even if you can’t do anything at all.
But sick people and old people and the perfectly healthy young person who also dies of this thing do bring value to the world.
Nothing we can do, individually or as a society, can eliminate every untimely death that this new coronavirus will cause. We can, however, delay the spread of this disease so that our healthcare systems are not swamped, and therefore no one needs suffer for lack of all the current treatments medical science has to offer. Slowing the epidemic also buys us more time for doctors and nurses to learn which existing treatments are most effective, and for researchers to develop new treatments or preventatives that will save people who would otherwise perish.
They are worth it. Stay home.
Photo: St. Wolfgang Altarpiece, Austria, showing scenes from the life of Christ. I’m sure you can think of ways it relates to this post, but honestly I just thought it was cool looking. You can read about the artist here. Image courtesy of Wikimedia, CC 4.0.