Yes but they were very old anyway
We heard quite a lot of that over the past year. A sort of generational shrug. It’s human nature of course to treat the passing of the elderly differently than the death of the young. We have to think that way or else the existential horror of all of this would paralyze us. But death is death is death in the end.
Indeed the majority of deaths from Covid in America — 581,000 in total if you haven’t checked in a while — were in fact people over the age of 75 which I guess means that they “didn’t count.” What today’s essay by Lucy Schiller below asks is what if even a very old human being dying needlessly during a pandemic is still a human being who died needlessly during a pandemic?
She walked out of a crashing plane into the air and pulled the parachute
by Lucy Schiller
Anita lay in the hospital and the rest of us leaned forward into the group Zoom call from our five different homes. A nurse held the screen shakily, badly, switching between “speaker” mode and “grid” mode before settling on one, so that we saw both Anita there in bed, wild-haired, and a doctor next to her, who, because of the sheer volume of Covid patients at the hospital, was speaking to all of us and to Anita very rapidly, delivering the news that she was to be taken off oxygen soon if, and this was very likely he said, her lungs did not react sufficiently positively that night to the experimental medication. In the moment I had the sense that she had anomalously gotten this experimental medication. That she ordinarily wouldn’t have gotten it because of her age, her proximity to death. Something idiotic came to me then, while I was searching for the reason that she had gotten this drug: that somehow the force of our love, and my dad’s love in particular, must have been conveyed to the doctors. That the debt incurred by love and care, even at a distance, was paid off, in kind, by others who happened to be caring for her.
In reality, I think she got the drug because it was expensive and my family decided we could afford it. That was the equation.
I remembered later that she had looked at the doctor after he said she would likely die—all of us were just hearing this for the first time—and, for lack of anything else to say, saying this, I think, not to appease him exactly, but just to say something, she said “that’s fair.” But she did not believe it. I know she didn’t believe it. The situation was the same combination of unfathomable and terrifying as a plane crash. Although she’d actually survived one of those when she was younger.
In part because her death was horrific in the way of all of these Covid deaths, we were in a particular kind of shock about what happened. How Anita could go from testing positive and being cheerfully asymptomatic for two weeks (“I actually feel better than I did before!”) to the rapid and indescribable deterioration.
She was infected around Christmas by a woman who was giving her a bath. After her Covid diagnosis her necessary helpers could no longer come inside her house. Now alone, she fell one day at the threshold of her front door attempting to reach the meal her friend had left outside. A group of girls passing by saw her lying there attempting to shout for help, and managed to get her her phone, and then left her. She somehow called 911 and the paramedics came and tried to take her to the hospital, but she refused, feeling that she did not want to end up there under nearly any circumstances. Here, in Central New York, I spent almost ten hours on the phone attempting to find someone in San Diego County, which was beyond “oversaturated” at the time with Covid (in nearby LA they ended up lifting air pollution regulations soon after this, to make room for the “demand” for cremations) to safely enter her house and help her eat and go about her day. The day after I found someone I called her to see how she was doing and heard an odd hitch between every few words she uttered, and registered a fatigue and also an odd anxiety behind her voice. Her doctor, agreeing that it was best to avoid going to a hospital if at all possible, made Anita an appointment at an Urgent Care, to which she painstakingly schlepped, and was then turned away from because she was ninety-four, Covid-positive, and had a DNR. Too old to save.
I have a message from her on my phone from around this time. At this point she was alone and just starting to show symptoms. She said my name over and over into the phone, somehow thinking I was there and just cruelly staying silent. The way she said my name was odd. It was extra enunciative, the “oo” at the center of the “Lucy” elongated, as if she was trying on a new language and wanting to get it right.
“Lucy has always liked the plane crash story,” she said to everyone, with tangible annoyance, during the first of our three Zoom calls to the hospital, in which we were tentatively, disbelievingly saying both hello and goodbye at once. Even then I couldn’t stop watching myself on the screen. Zoom makes it impossible to train your eyes for very long elsewhere: there you are, always, reacting, your mouth opening wide, your eyes squinting, your everything on display in ways familiar to anyone else but new to you. I wore a bright red shirt because I had worried she wouldn’t be able to see me otherwise.
It was true, I had been drawn to the story over the years, often asking for more detail that she didn’t want to share. She was annoyed, I could tell. She was annoyed not just about having to talk about the story, but also by my very interest in it. It was an anecdote she hated, because it was understandably more traumatic for her to retell than anything else, and yes, it was so obviously, so blatantly interesting. It was the story about her that most people would find impressive, for the nerve she had displayed, but also for the situation in which she had found herself.
She walked out of a crashing plane into the air and pulled the parachute. Everything between her drop and her landing in some tall pine tree in the Eastern zone of Germany I still have to imagine for myself. She refused, always, to describe it in any real detail. I’ve imagined it many times, the flipping of her stomach as she tumbled through cold air so forceful it might have felt like thick water. But my uncle had brought it up, not me, during an excruciating, halting, emotional, numbed, disbelieving goodbye over Zoom.
She had been the only passenger to choose to evacuate.
The newspaper clipping about the incident that I found, rummaging through her things while she napped downstairs one day, called her “Caterpillar Schiller.” She was thankful, she had said in a quote under a photo, that she had worn slacks that day. The photo showed her stoic, the wind pushing her hair away from her young face. Going through her things a year ago—two years ago?—I found other photos: the crashed plane (no fatalities) surrounded by stunned German youth, Anita sleeping deeply on a couch after the rescue, covered in a blanket. The flight the next day, she told me sharply once, conveying that she would say no more than this, was scarier to her than the crashing plane the day before.
I keep thinking about a tweet from probably three or four years ago. The man who wrote it was on a creative writing program’s admissions committee. He wrote, basically, that he couldn’t believe how many applicants to this program were writing personal essays about their dear, departed grandmothers. The implication was that all these people were using their grandmothers’ deaths as necessary traumatic cruxes for their resultant boring, overly emotional essays. Everyone old dies, basically, and therefore, because this is universal, there’s nothing special about the individual experience. It can’t be made into good art. That was the logic. A few days after he wrote it, the tweet disappeared. He was probably told to take it down; it could have had a deleterious (though small) effect on the income on the University where we worked, he as a tenured professor of English, me as a grad student. With one fewer admissions essay about a dead grandmother, there might be one less chunky little application fee paid.
But more largely, I think, the tweet, while callous, exposed something uncomfortable that those “in charge” didn’t want to be attached to: that the old have ceased to matter, if they ever did at all. That we have housed them, millions of them, far away from where we can see them, on purpose sometimes, out of discomfort and pain. Even pre-pandemic, we were triaging, I guess. But it was impolite to say.
Now I wonder what will happen in the wake of this flood of elder death—no, the deaths of so many, so many people who were not meant to die this way, in agony and solitude, because of basic governmental neglect. Will the elderly’s deaths be viewed differently than they were before?
That is, to those “in charge,” does the fact that these elderly people died of Covid matter? So far, I’m not certain that they care. Or maybe they know that they could care, and decide not to—see Cuomo hiding fifteen thousand nursing home deaths. The logic is, I think, that they were old anyway, and that it would take far too much effort—actually, it would probably be a cultural overhaul—to see old people as, in basic terms, valuable.
Before the first session of the Covid grief group I began attending, I got an email reminder from Eventbrite, the platform through which I secured my reservation. Get excited! Eventbrite told me in the email. “Your event, Tuesday Night Grief Support Group Beginning Feb 9, is coming up soon!” The email came during the SuperBowl halftime, which ran commercial after commercial in which corporations very vaguely hinted at the depth of pain in “this moment,” if they did at all, while also attempting to encourage increased traffic on their food delivery apps.
Other memories about what happens when you mention that an old person who you loved died this way:
My uncle, an expert on his state’s unemployment policies, testified before his state legislature. As he had dreaded, the Republican legislators were not wearing masks. “My mother died three weeks ago from Covid,” he told them, and requested that they either put masks on or go into a different room to hear his testimony virtually. They said nothing, and did nothing, and so he testified in the same room as them. They just smiled and moved their eyes away.
I was talking to a mechanic who was working on my ancient car. I told him what had happened to Anita. I was telling everyone now, I couldn’t stop. I had to prevent myself sometimes in the most minor interactions from saying it: to a cashier, to the student who brought her dog to meet mine for daily playtime, to a Comcast representative over the phone. “I’m so sorry,” the mechanic said, and, during this year of isolation, it was the first and only time a stranger seemed to really say what I wanted to hear. He told me about how the bank had repossessed his own grandmother’s home after she had died of Alzheimer’s in an assisted living facility that ran through her savings account more quickly than anyone could have anticipated. I remember watching his hands ball up involuntarily as he spoke.
A friend Tweeted Anita’s obituary. I scrolled to the comments, which I was not expecting to exist. There a stranger had written “94 years old. Another life shortened by Covid. Are you people insane?”
Over the next three days, I filled in the “Contact Me” form on the stranger’s website. Drafting, deleting. Sometimes the text I wrote was short, sometimes it was long. It held varying degrees of anger, pity, righteousness, fury, despair, blankness. I couldn’t decide what tone to take. All the ridiculous Captchas kept expiring as I drafted: fire hydrants, bridges, bicycles, crosswalks, hills. I had to keep fucking clicking them. Yes, I kept clicking, yes, I am not a robot, yes, I recognize the things of the human world.
And of course, I couldn’t and can’t send this man the message.
Lucy? Lucy? Lucy? Lucy? She asked, into the phone, in a message I can’t imagine ever listening to again, but will never delete. Obviously. I heard it. I will never forget it. She was alone, and watching herself, waiting to see: with no one else watching, how do I think of what is happening inside of me?
Anita herself had an interesting theory: that the older she got, the faster each successive year felt, as it was a smaller and smaller fraction of her total age. Mathematical! she said, and laughed, in her way. She was not saying that each year mattered less, just that it went faster. She couldn’t believe it, she said sometimes, and again, it is a cliché because we have all said it, or thought it: how fast time seems to go. Ha! Ha! Ha! That’s how she would laugh.
And as time arcs and stops and speeds and slows now, I watch myself ride the agony of the death. It’s not out of resistance, exactly, but a need to inquire into both time’s speed and the callous logic, basically eugenicist, that on bad days, the rest of the world seems to hold: that she was old enough to die this way. I hear it in condolences. She led a full life. To let that logic all the way in would be to write her off as the gridworks of this country wrote her off: expendable, basically, one old person among many who had ceased to be useful, attractive, productive, interesting, independent.
What I haven’t said yet is that Anita was a librarian, and an activist librarian whose main fight was to preserve the public’s access to government information. From the beginning, she’d noted how the internet held an immense amount of promise for the democratization of information, and how this promise was quickly harnessed by private companies. It was a way, she felt, of privatizing information itself—of monetizing information that should be free and available, and of surveilling our use of that information. In her house she taped paper over her computer camera, before she stopped being able to use the computer at all. It was to this computer, though, that basic information like changes to her medical appointments was now being sent, via platforms like MyChart, owned by private companies. How was she supposed to access this information? She was being phased out. She missed necessary doctor’s appointments, expecting that if there was a change to the time, they’d call. It was maddening and insulting and heartbreaking. I’m reminded, too, of the way that many libraries were (sometimes badly) digitizing old books that they said were “decaying” and throwing out the original copies. It was a massive “informational loss” of old things, Nicholson Baker wrote in his book on the topic.
The week she was dying I learned that those hard-to-read text Captchas, it turned out, weren’t just tests of basic humanity, they were ways to help Google digitize old books that their algorithm couldn’t translate. The actual old books, once they were digitized, would often be destroyed. Why not. They could live forever online now, encased by private company ownership that would blank out pages at a time so you couldn’t read an entire book the way you could at an actual library. Stories became products even more than they had been before. It’s not just this country that isn’t kind to old things, but the structures undergirding everything. If something can’t be monetized because it’s old, it’s failing, it’s unprofitable, that’s it.
A death over Zoom is already insane. “Join Meeting.” This kind of goodbye mediated by a company that’s made billions during the pandemic on people trying to see one another, and in hundreds of thousands of cases, to say goodbye—to convey information you desperately want your loved one to know, to hear. She would have laughed at the awfulness, except she was there, and she didn’t.
Find more of Lucy Schiller's writing here.