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Just over two years ago, my friend Janet came over to commiserate with my husband, whose leg was in plaster after a road accident. We immediately noticed a change in her. This sharp, funny woman in her mid-60s, who had nothing good to say about men (with the exception of her three beloved sons, whom she had raised almost single-handedly) had softened.
Not only was she happy, we realised, but it may have been the first time we had ever really seen her that way. She soon admitted she was in love. She couldn’t get over the fact that she had met the man in question, even if it had happened relatively late in life. Her happiness was infectious. It was a jewel of an evening that only shines more brightly in my memory because of what happened next.
A few weeks later Janet returned to see us and mentioned, but only as she was leaving, that the man had died. He had failed to meet her one chilly, early spring morning in the park, and it had taken her a while to find out why. A few weeks after that, she rang late one night from a hospital emergency department to say that her legs had given way beneath her. The doctors had found cancer in her brain, lungs and liver. My husband was out of plaster by then, and limping about with a walking stick. I remember being struck by the switch in fortunes. His health was on an upwards trajectory; hers was headed downward.
For the best part of a year I visited Janet as her health deteriorated, and she died on 12 March last year, just before the UK and other countries went into their first lockdown. She had been mostly oblivious to the pandemic lapping at her windows, as if she and it no longer inhabited the same world, and I feel towards her now the way the Brazilian diarist Pedro Nava felt towards the girl he idolised as an adolescent, who died in the 1918 flu pandemic: “She belonged to the past now, as distant as the Punic wars, as the ancient Egyptian dynasties, as King Minos or the first men, errant and miserable.”
There was much more death to come, of course – some of it caused by Covid-19; some of it caused by the knock-on effects of Covid-19; some of it, like Janet’s, coincidental. Millions of love stories, vendettas, encounters, debts and projects wiped out. What the extinguished lives have in common is that we haven’t yet been able to commemorate them – social distancing excludes it – and in the meantime those individuals have been swept away on history’s floodtide. So how should we pay tribute to them, eventually?
Maybe it’s the times, because steles are passe, but many of the memorials that have been created to date seem to embody ephemerality. The mayor of London is due to plant a tree in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in east London soon, which, along with 32 others – one for each of the capital’s boroughs – will blossom every spring. The New York Times filled its front page with the names of the dead; Germans made shrines out of burning candles; India created a memorial website. I don’t know if he would call it a memorial, but the artist Christian Boltanski’s new Paris exhibition contains videos of bucolic scenes that are contaminated by flashed images of 20th-century massacres – the horror piercing the limen of consciousness.
Pandemics have a paradoxical quality because the sheer scale of death they drive forces us to become aware of our own mortality, and yet we’re bad at relating to death on a large scale. Beyond our own circle, it shades into meaninglessness. At the same time, because pandemics destroy people but not infrastructure – unlike wars, which destroy both – humanity tends to recover from them relatively quickly. People are replaced by other people. The residual sense of loss stems from the passing of individuals, who are irreplaceable. These memorials try to bridge the gap between names and numbers, sense and nonsense. They make us think about what vanished in an instant and isn’t coming back.
But there’s another aspect of pandemics that memorials need to mark, and that is their eternal return. They are both ephemeral and perennial. Whenever we think we’ve beaten the invisible enemy, we’ve really just entered a new round.
One such memorial has been in the planning for a year in Montevideo, in Uruguay, with construction due to get under way in the next few months: a shallow bowl in concrete and steel, nearly 40 metres in diameter, suspended over the South Atlantic. Visitors will walk out to it from an urban beachfront and gaze down through a central void at the roiling sea, whose sound the concave structure will amplify. In certain climatic conditions it will disappear from the view of those looking out from “civilisation” – or melt into the horizon – and it will weather over time. The idea that the architect, Martín Gómez Platero, wants to express is that “humankind is not the centre of the ecosystem in which we live, as we will always be subordinate to nature”.
The beauty of this “world memorial” is that it will commemorate all pandemics – the one we’re living through, the ones we’ve forgotten and the ones still to come. It’s a reminder that black swans – unpredictable events with extreme consequences – are a part of reality too; and that, as my friend Janet learned, and John Lennon sang, life (and sometimes death) is what happens while you’re making other plans.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: We need to mark the countless lives Covid has claimed. But how to do it? | Coronavirus