Death is for everyone

The virus slinks amongst us and I’m not sure whether to write in the present or past tense. Time seems stuck on the slow spin cycle. Epidemics might be as old as civilisation but the fear of a lethal disease is new to many of us. As Trump bizarrely commented last March, ‘there are people dying who have never died before’.

My son died five years before the virus. Mutated genes are also as old as time, yet I hold the memory and I learnt the fear. A faux handwritten letter arrived from the crematorium, a year after they burnt his body. It did not mention death.

We encourage you to establish a memorial for your son. Our traditional niche walls offers a secure location to house your loved one.

Find your niche. Just another brick in the wall. Safe and sound. Do people steal ashes?

Tumbled River stone Memorial.

For the damming up of sorrow, a tasteful disguise (not shaken, not quarried).

Clay Outdoor Paver in Kimberley sunset

Colours from a Dulux chart. Paint over your pain/walk on your dead. The Kimberley: known for sunsets and the highest youth suicide rate in the world. The décor of death.

Jewellery urns – to accommodate a small portion of your loved one.

A large portion presumably would make a cumbersome necklace, bringing one to ones knees. A not inappropriate position.

Melaleuca garden memorials – by peaceful ponds with the serine [sic] trickle of flowing water.

Serine: ‘n. a sweet-tasting amino acid that is synthesized in the body’.

A rose position is available in landscaped gardens providing for internment.

Internment: ‘state of being imprisoned’.

To secure this year’s price the product will need to be fully paid for before July 1.
Yours sincerely,
Manager Corporate Services.

Death sanitised and corporatised. Remembrance without the pain.

Covid-19, however, has caused the language to shift. We now talk of ‘the dead’. No longer ‘sleeping’, ‘passed’ or ‘lost’; no mention of angels, fairies or stars. No balloons or doves. No Kimberley sunsets. The words have become raw, allowing the spaces for sorrow.

We have grown used to images of the dead: mass graves (from the old English ‘to dig’) in New York. Burial cities with stones as markers of death. Processions of army trucks carrying the dead, a modern ekphora. Body bags outside hospitals and clusters of cardboard coffins in corridors.

I read about a mother during the Spanish flu of 1918 who called out repeatedly as they took away her tiny son’s body: ‘let me get a macaroni box, please please, let me put him in the box’. In Australia, we have counted and plotted on graphs and listened to heart-wrenching stories. Death is stripped back to the bare facts. There is a daily toll, unimaginable. In Latin ‘gravis’ means heavy. Death has gravity. It is momentous.

What do we do with these images? As Sarah Sentilles wrote in Draw Your Weapons, ‘sympathy is an impertinent response … admit instead how our privileges are located on the same map as the suffering’.  My relative wealth and my white privilege offer me considerable protection from the virus. We are not all ‘in this together’. We need to take the time to mourn, to acknowledge the individual life behind each death, as well as the injustice.

‘She would light up a room with her smile,’ a devastated daughter recalled of her elderly mother who died alone with no one holding her hand. My son died with a family member at each axis of his body. It should always be so.

Who can forget the aged care owner with his Maserati and his Gucci decorated, $13 million Toorak mansion. ‘The callous see us as dispensable objects, like broken furniture or dead flowers,’ wrote Patrick White, with reference to growing old – although the same could be said about the disabled and marginalised. I am reminded of men like Sassy, whom I read about in The Age, who left the Melbourne locked down towers ‘in a desperate bid to care for the bees he has raised at the gardens of the local church’. He was turned back by police.

My son lived/died from Duchenne muscular dystrophy. It was his virus, slowly diminishing his mobility but not his intellect. The whole family was alert to tell-tale signs in his body. We lived with a permanent anxiety and the knowledge of death, while he developed a rich inner life and an attentive outer life that sustained him for 30 years.  His freedom of movement was restricted despite his electric wheelchair, he was fed from a stomach peg tube and breathed with the aid of a ventilator for half his life. (To vent: blow out air or to release strong emotion. Both were true). The gentle swoosh of air in and out, a lapping tide that would become the soundtrack to our lives. Who would have thought it would be a word in common usage in 2020. ‘There are 25 people on ventilators in ICU’, a newspaper headline read. Ventilators are feared. Yet Sam’s ventilator was in operation for 15 years. It was his life support, allowing his mind to soar as his body plummeted. When he died the ventilator took his last breath and we turned it off. We saw his unmasked face for the first time for years. His beauty.

Maybe we can learn from the disabled and elderly how to be in this shrunken world. There is a project online by CityLab where readers around the world were asked to share homemade maps of a world transformed by the virus. They reveal what was out of reach; what basics became elevated and what injustice there was about who was dying. I like how the maps are simple, sketched with pencil, watercolour, clay and found objects. Maps of the layout of homes and close neighbourhoods. Arrows, crosses and red lines to follow. The stories behind the emptiness. Short comments marking the spot, like poems:

The fresh air that only the virus gets to enjoy/where I howl out the window/the place where I used to put my clothes on to go out/snack control/there’s a package/we must love each other because we still like each other.

Fantasy maps have poignant signs: untold leagues to the world of friends/fjords of privacy/gardens of uneasy rest/there be dragons. The map of sounds; the map of the heart; the map of pandemic animal prints. There is a sense of yearning, a gentle longing that such restrictions generate. The emoji I use most during this time is the quizzical sideways half smile of uncertainty.

We select the things we feel sorry for. We mask too easily the language of death. The Spanish flu stories were supressed under the muscular narrative of WW1. Human malice eclipsing that of a microbe. I can’t help but wonder how history will rewrite this virus. What language will be used/misused, what memories selected and sold.

My son’s map may have read: ‘this is my globe’.


Image: a map from Abraham Ortelius’s atlas (1603)

Marg Hooper

Marg Hooper is a writer who lives in Central Victoria. She has previously been published in Meanjin and Island.

More by Marg Hooper ›

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  1. Marg, this is a deeply affecting, beautifully composed, sad yet sunshiny, complex & incredibly-well constructed, very clever piece of writing. Your powerful words have made Sam stand big among us, thank you. I shiver at your close, in silent contemplation of how history ‘will rewrite this virus’. It is far too easy to say: What a crazy, beaten-up, diminished world. But I have, and I haven’t even gone near the ecology wrecking ball.

  2. Thank you Marg for your deep thought provoking piece. I appreciate your insight and ability to bring challenging ideas together while honouring Sam. Big picture and the very personal and intimate. Thank you.

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