Oct/Nov 2020 Spotlight

Death and Distance

by Georgia San Li

Look back, look now, and reimagine this. Today you are writing in the rampage of the virus. It is Day 25 since the virus was declared a pandemic. Today, over ten thousand in the US are already dead, millions are afflicted around the planet, and many more in some vast number are on the horizon to succumb. You are here, in the Virtual Place, where glass towers have risen into a mirage of the harbor, where little boats still sleep in the crook of the north jetty. You are crouched over this laptop. It is 3:37 AM, the time of your father's death. And although a year has already passed since then, you cannot sleep. The tap-tap of this writing stops and starts, like a boat, unmoored, adrift and fogged in grief.

Sometimes, in a crisis, you tend to do things you do not normally do: slip down chutes, climb up on ladders, or tumble along routes you have not taken before. You play as you did when you were a child, remembering when he was alive. Death comes with crisis. A dilemma. A time of trouble, a time of mortal danger, a time in search of meaning. You search for a way out and a way in—to somewhere else, a space where the order and commotion are familiar, a space where ordinary life is restored.

In daily life, you do not tend to dwell on the overall design of the world, its spaces for coming together, spaces for being alone, the connections from one space to another, the sidewalks, the walking trails, the trace through a grove of tall pine. Some say this space, wherever you are, is common to everyone, built on a mix of landfill and cow paths, industry and agriculture, like twin brothers, city boy and country boy, running like a jigsaw puzzle across the world.

The virus has kept moving through it all, the haphazard confluence of city boy and country boy—this man, this woman, this X, this Y, this African, this Asian, this American, this European, this Black, this Brown, this Anglo-Saxon, this Buddhist, this Catholic, this Protestant, this Hindu, this Muslim, this Jew—instead you call them by name, you know who they are, you say, These are my friends.

You have sent email notes and text messages to them in Bangkok, New York, Portland, Seattle, Sujo, and Seoul. You try to quell the roil of your thoughts and simply say, Stay well, stay safe. Some remain silent, some silent for days. Some silent for weeks. And in anxious moments, you have retraced your last exchange, watched, and waited for a sign, for the shadows of ellipses to appear as if a ghost saying, I'm still alive. I am here.

You are alone and listless, the tap-tap of this writing stopping and starting like the tower lights across the water from where you live, signaling to no one and anyone looking out in its direction.

The coming of death is crisis. In shock, disbelief, and abstraction, you boomerang into routines, compartmentalize the pieces of your life, sometimes organize the day into a list. And what comes back is what you have added to it, things you did that erased and re-wrote the day. You look back and ask yourself, What did I do? And you can't quite remember, and in this flicker, you catch a memory of something your father said, and you chase it like the wind.

And then it edges in; this crisis is familiar to you, and it does not hit you now as it did in the beginning, when your father first collapsed, that first thunder of panic, that first terrible fright. In crisis you were jolted. You sometimes started with a reflex, retro fit and re-assembled pieces of the machinery to find a temporary fix, some sort of invention to solve for what was amiss. But soon enough you saw patterns tearing, as if lightning cracked through the air, and for split seconds, exposed the glare of judgment for all that was lacking, all that was unforgotten, all that was irredeemable. You remember secrets he whispered when they became too hard to have and hold, and they spilled out for you to catch. You remember saying to him, Look how far you have come. Please try for just a little while longer. And you remember how he did, how he tried with all his might. You remember his want to live, how much this gave you hope.

How will this pandemic end? How many lives? How deep the long, quiet misery. You gather with those who have shared your childhood, so joyful in the realization that childhoods continue in this way. You remember how his childhood friends lifted his suffering, the sound of their voices sweet reprieve from his pain. You remember how much he treasured them.

You write. You write beyond the messages you have delivered. You write to erase the screen otherwise left gray and cold and blank. You see the pandemic, its bladed tail still thrashing in our midst. It passes through like a strange dream, but your village bore witness to what was lost. Fathers and mothers, sisters, brothers: gone. The creature of truth could not escape.

Look ahead, ahead in the distance. The world is reopening, and you live. Life comes with crisis. A dilemma. A time of trouble, a time of mortal danger, a time in search of meaning. What will you make of all this you have been given? This time. This life.

Imagine now, what happens? The screen is open, and it is yours. And in your village, before the morning, before you open doors, you hear your friends, your neighbors, their rising march, their rising chant. The echoing comes from behind their doors and moves out to the streets. You hear them now, no longer muffled. And the chanting rises: What now, what next? What path will you choose? What now? What next?


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