Two days after my father, William Robert (Bob) Aldrich died of COVID-19 (May 10) in Hyannis, Massachusetts, I was a participant in an online video meeting. Just before it was my turn to speak, something caught my eye: a cardinal, small but rich red in color, alighted on the Rose of Sharon bush beside my window.
Not many birds choose to visit this bush; it is crowded with thin branches and it is smack against the side of the house here. Also, the flowers are not in bloom yet; when they are, the bees will comprise approximately ninety-eight percent of the bush’s visitors rather than birds: through the day, the sound of bumblebee collisions with the window next to the Rose of Sharon punctuates my day.
The red of the cardinal caught my eye, because red always does, and birds are somewhat rare on that exact spot and cardinals rarer still (this was the first time). I mentioned it as I spoke, mostly to make a joke about the fact that the previous speaker’s cat had leapt into her camera frame. (Her cat had chased this bird to me, was the quip. I’m a dad joke waiting to become a father.) Someone all but said that the cardinal was my dad; I do not remember if the thought was that a bird’s visit is spiritual or a cardinal’s visit is.
Red cardinals are the males of the northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis); my dad was male, of course, but his hair was red when his hair had color. Red so noteworthy that his nickname in his hometown was “Red.” My friend had no way to know this.
I do not believe in a spiritual world, but sometimes it can almost seem (even to me) that the spirit world wants my attention. I do believe in a spiritual life in that I believe the only point to life is love; perhaps that is not “spiritual,” perhaps it is.
Just before 9:00 p.m. last night (May 20), I heard my father’s name spoken online by a reverend I do not know as a part of an event that I had not heard about until it had already started. A group of people organized a live vigil in which readers read the names and details (age, hometown) of those Americans who have died of COVID-19. It started at 2:00 p.m. on May 20 and ran for twenty-four hours, until 2:00 p.m. (EST) on May 21.
There are more than ninety-two thousand names known so far. I submitted my father’s name on an online form (#NamingTheDead submission form.) My father’s death was explicitly due to the pandemic and the funeral home gave it as cause of death, which is something for which I am grateful. My father was eighty-four and had Alzheimer’s disease; he did not die of old age, “natural causes,” or Alzheimer’s disease. His death was more than the loss of a loved one: it need not have happened. (A famous model started a Twitter fight with me about this: she thinks the pandemic is a hoax and wants the country “opened up,” I wrote that my father had not died of a hoax, she wanted to see his death certificate. At least she wears a stylish face mask in her photos.)
I submitted my father’s name and obituary. At about 8:30 p.m. last night, I started to listen to the live stream, with no expectation I would hear my father’s name. (I had no plan to stay awake with it.)
Reverend Jen Bailey of Nashville, Tennessee, founder of the Faith Matters Network, and associate minister with the Greater Bethel AME Church in Nashville, was the reader. I was reading a book across the room from my laptop, and the rhythm of names flowed on like a sad, quiet river.
My father’s name, as unmistakable as my own, was a gut punch to hear. I do not cry easily for some reason, and I do not cry alone (I am in quarantine, like, well, everyone). The tears collect, well up, and I feel them. A photo of my dad: there those tears are. A memory of family dinners: again. A photo of my dad enjoying ice cream at our favorite restaurant chain (Friendly’s, if you need to know; the new England runs deep in us): almost overwhelming. The tears will come, I assure you, in someone’s arms. It will cease to be almost overwhelming.
The sadness I feel is over my father, for my mother, my sister, my first cousins, and me. It is for the hundreds of thousands so far who have lost people they love and will miss and can not replace; it is over the fact that this did not need to happen the way in which it did (“Lockdown Delays Led to at Least 36,000 More Deaths, Models Find,” New York Times, May 20, 2020), and over the thought that this will happen again. For as long as a we elect governments that choose incompetence as a political philosophy this will happen again. I do not want a government to be “run like a business.” I want a government that thinks like a family.
Some of the readers are famous, some not as famous, and all have been respectful and emotional. I happened to be online while the actress Piper Perabo participated, and this moment in which she appears almost overwhelmed, well, this is me since May 10, 2020:
We are so moved by the feelings our live readers share with us in order to honor #EssentialWorkers and all the people essential to our lives lost to COVID.
— #namingthelost (@namingthelost) May 20, 2020
* * * *
A stanza from W. H. Auden came to mind:
Beloved, we are always in the wrong,
Handling so clumsily our stupid lives,
Suffering too little or too long,
Too careful even in our selfish loves:
The decorative manias we obey
Die in grimaces round us every day,
Yet through their tohu-bohu comes a voice
Which utters an absurd command—Rejoice.
—”In Sickness and in Health,” W. H. Auden
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