I dreamt of my father last night.
In my dream, he was in the hospital, sick and in pain. He held out his hand, and I took it. He told me that holding my hand made him feel better. I told him I would hold his hand as long as he wanted me to.
And then I either woke up or moved on to another dream; I don’t remember. I do know that when I opened my eyes this morning, the dream was on my mind. I could still see his face and hear his words. I could still see his arm, swollen and bruised, reaching out to me, and I could still feel his hand, warm but weak, holding mine. The dream both saddened and comforted me.
My father died before the pandemic, before the necessary rules of separation and isolation. If one can be grateful about a death, I suppose I’m grateful for the timing of his.
I knew that his life was ending and was with him each day, along with my sister and stepmother and friends who came to see him, caring for him, talking with him as slowly, bit by bit, he grew weaker and then was ultimately unable to speak. In those last days, just as in my dream, I held his hand. I stroked his arm, his forehead. I sat quietly beside his bed, looking at his face, his closed eyes, his hollow cheekbones and thinning hair.
Regrettably, I wasn’t there at the final moment. That fact haunts me sometimes. I do find peace in knowing that other people were there on that day and that in the time leading up to that moment, he and I were able to say our goodbyes. I find comfort in knowing that we were together through most of it, that he knew I was there and that he was soothed by my presence.
There are so many stories of death right now, of lonely deaths in hospital rooms sealed off by protective measures, FaceTime goodbyes and remote grieving. There’ve been more than 200,000 of them as of today, and there are likely hundreds of thousands more still to come. They are in addition to all the other stories of death, of passings due to cancer or heart disease or car crashes, all the same fatal circumstances that existed before everything changed, circumstances that didn’t go away, that will continue to exist as long as humans do. Even those may be governed by the same strict measures and protective rules, necessary steps that limit in order to safeguard.
It’s tempting to avoid these painful stories, but I make myself pay attention to them. I do so as a means of honoring the people within them, but I’m careful not to take in too many at once. The sadness becomes too great. That sadness then leads to anger, which is justified and important, but which can also be incredibly destructive if not channeled in productive ways.
So instead, I focus on small bits of humanity. I look at the pictures the families have chosen to illustrate the existence of their loved ones. I learn about the special moments in these strangers’ lives. I vow to respect them by doing what I can to prevent more death, to acknowledge and heed the wisdom of those who speak in terms of science and history, empathy and common sense.
Very often, the stories mention the kindness of a nurse or a doctor or a hospital worker who was with someone at the end, who spent a few special moments to comfort and care when nobody else could. I think of these people as guardian angels, present in the absence of those who wanted to be there but who were unable to, were not allowed because of the reality of today. When we talk of heroes, these are the people we must include.
Death is inevitable, but we don’t have to be numbed by it. Feelings and connections are needed now more than ever. It’s such a simple gesture, holding somebody’s hand. It’s an easy choice, honoring the last moments of somebody’s life, acknowledging their existence, assuring them that they matter and will be remembered, even if we are strangers.