When a family member dies the script is clear: you scramble the jets, cancel your appointments, lean on a friend to watch the dog, and get there. For me, that means getting to Los Angeles from Portland.
My aunt, Marlene Meyer, my mother’s sister, died on May 15th. She was 86, vibrant, still working as an insurance agent days before her death, not ready to die. Our family wasn’t ready either. We do not know if she had contracted Coronavirus — a maddening ambiguity — but we do know that Coronavirus changed her decline, death, and funeral.
I’ve lived in Oregon since 2009, always aware that the biggest challenge of being far from where I grew up and where my first family still lives would be moments like these.
The script is clear, but Coronavirus changed the script.
Within minutes of learning that Marlene had died, I got a second text from my parents: “Brad, in case you thought about it, don’t think about coming here. Would not want to see you on a plane or train.”
My duty in the moment was to get to my family, to be present, and I couldn’t. Even if I had gotten on a plane, where would I have gone? My parents are in their late 70s, a high-risk group. I couldn’t stay with them. My brother has asthma and a one-bedroom condo, so no option there either. If I had gone to Los Angeles, to keep them all safe I would have had to check into a hotel for two weeks of self-quarantine to make sure I hadn’t picked up the virus en route. By the end of that time, the funeral would have been long over.
I wouldn’t have been able to attend anyway, even if I idiotically skipped the quarantine. A limited number of people, 10, principal mourners only, can attend funerals in Los Angeles during this pandemic. With Marlene’s three children and their spouses, grandchildren, husband, sister, brother-in-law, and best friend, a nephew wouldn’t have made the cut.
Still, I wanted to support my family. I called Lin, my cousin, Marlene’s middle child, offering to help set up a Zoom so that far-flung friends could be at the funeral virtually. Lin’s husband Peter had already taken care of the Zoom. All my wife and kids and I had to do was click a link on Sunday.
We set up a laptop, gathered on the couch, and watched the funeral from 952 miles away. Peter kindly propped his phone with a clear view of the podium, Marlene in her coffin a few feet behind. We saw tiny thumbnails of ourselves and the other virtual visitors stacked next to the main screen. It was a beautiful, sunny day, but also breezy, so we couldn’t hear the speakers at the podium when the microphone picked up the wind.
Then, a pair of the other virtual visitors, who had forgotten to mute their microphones, started chatting about a kitchen remodel. I couldn’t pay attention to the few words that were audible from the podium. All I thought about was whether the in-person mourners could hear tinny voices coming out of Peter’s phone having an excruciatingly inappropriate conversation.
That’s when it struck me that the technology, Zoom, had achieved the reverse of what it should have done. What my family needed was our mere presence, bolstering their awareness that the world had noticed and cared when Marlene died, that she had lived her long life in a complicated web of relationships that stretched from the 1930s to 2020, that the world had been better for her presence and would now be diminished by her absence.
Instead, Zoom made the funeral present for us, distant, invisible, inaudible (I hope), unable to offer comfort to the principal mourners, which included my mother, or to receive it ourselves. I still don’t know if my cousins and uncle know that we watched the funeral from afar.
“How did I sound when I spoke?” Mom asked me later.
“I don’t know, Mom. I’m sorry. The wind picked up and I couldn’t hear you,” I replied.
“That’s probably for the better. I wasn’t prepared to speak, but the rabbi made eye contact with me, and I felt I should say something.”
Two common clichés of Coronavirus are, first, that the pandemic has merely accelerated inevitable trends. Movie theaters and shopping malls and commuting to an office were already doomed. The second cliché is that there is no going back to the world before Coronavirus. Organizations will discover that their fancy headquarters are no longer necessary since everybody can work from home. Restaurants and grocery stores will never recover because people know they can get food delivered. New York skyscrapers will be vertical versions of the Egyptian pyramids: empty, dark, still.
But are these clichés accurate? I don’t think so.
There are limits to how much of our emotional lives can squeeze into videoconferences. Zoom strips away the non-informational side of language. My brilliant friend Grant McCracken talks about how much of our language is “phatic” rather than transmitting information. Phatic means social, signaling, “I’m OK. You’re OK. We’re OK,” rather than, “who is going to pick up the donuts?”
Phatic isn’t the same as trivial or unimportant: it’s just hard to measure its value.
In her 1987 book, The Body in Pain, Harvard English professor Elaine Scarry explored the uncrossable frontier between language and pain. Doctors know that patients have trouble describing pain because pain exists beyond language’s ability to make ideas hold still and travel between people.
Grief, emotional pain, wanders similar territory. We say, “I have no words” to the grieving because grief is too big and words are too small. We can understand grief intellectually, but the facts of another’s loss don’t make sense until something similar happens to us. “Oh. That’s what this is.”
Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, upon learning of his daughter’s elopement, cries out, “the curse never fell upon our Nation till now!” Then he corrects himself, “I never felt it till now.”
Like a Zoom funeral, digital technology is extraordinarily good at erasing context. With Spotify, you can skip directly to the Beach Boys song “God Only Knows” without knowing anything about the 1966 Pet Sounds album that originally contained it. In doing so, you’ll miss “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “That’s Not Me,” “Caroline, No,” “Sloop John B,” and nine other songs that are too good to miss. More importantly, you’ll miss how Pet Sounds is a sequence that adds up to more than 14 songs. That’s a small price to pay for an infinite supply of music always available.
But a small price is still a price.
Our emotional lives build slowly through numberless accidental interactions, a coral reef of context. You nod to the same early birds at the gym before work. You realize that for some impossible-to-determine reason you and a co-worker are on the same bathroom schedule after lunch. You buy your yellow cherries from the same vendor at the farmers market every summer Saturday. As a species, we’ve never had to put a price tag on context because it has always just been there. Until now.
If movie theaters never reopen it won’t be because people no longer want to look at screens in the dark with a few friends and many strangers, but because a weird revenue model between studios and exhibitors no longer works. We’ve seen this with newspapers: they don’t have an audience problem — we’ve never been more interested in news — they have a profitability problem.
The Coronavirus pandemic has asked us how little context we can live with and for how long. We’ve learned that we can live with less, surprisingly less, and particularly less around the informational parts of language.
And then, like with my aunt’s funeral, we reach the limits of language and learn that we cannot describe some losses. We can only feel them.
A community is more than the sum of its individual members. Conversely, sometimes a Zoom call is just a stack of faces, seeing but unseen.