The piece of paper you’re holding in your hands isn’t a political rant. It isn’t a sermon or a lecture. It’s a love letter, plain and true.
I love you—not you alone, but you most deeply, of all the nations in the world. By accident of birth, I know you better than the rest. I’ve made my life here. And by every measure my life has been fortunate.
Yet, for all that I appreciate about you, and must thank you for, I recognize that, like other countries, you’re not perfect. For one thing, you never admit when you’ve screwed up. In your own eyes, you’re never to blame. You can never bring yourself to say, “I’m sorry,” let alone work to make amends.
This criticism might be hard for you to accept, even from someone who loves you. But you can’t expect me to ignore what’s going on. Genuine love isn’t blind. It sees what must be seen, says what must be said, does what must be done.
As I’m writing you this letter, almost 282,000 of your people have succumbed to COVID-19. (Your eyes are glazing over. You’re tired of numbers. But wake up and listen, will you?) That toll of 282,000 is likely a gross underestimate. Even so, it’s 94 times the number of people killed on 9/11. In fact, as of late, as many or more of your people are dying every single day than the 2,997 who perished in those awful terrorist attacks.
In the aftermath of 9/11, you held public memorials. You planned and built monuments and museums. You passed laws that curtailed our civil liberties, hoping to ensure your safety. You started two wars to avenge those killed.
But now, in this pandemic, with a death toll that dwarfs 9/11’s, where is your outpouring of grief? Why won’t you acknowledge and mourn the scope of your suffering? Why won’t you act more purposefully to slow the spread of this dread disease throughout your body?
You’ve now buried more people from COVID-19 than you did during World War I, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War combined. Yet you seem in extreme denial, unwilling to face facts.
I believe that your inability to grieve stems in part from your reluctance to admit what’s obvious to any sober-minded citizen: This pandemic is a catastrophe, and your response has been a disaster. Every death reminds you of your failure. But rather than let yourself feel remorse and sorrow, you’ve gone numb.
A 61-year-old sculptor based in Bethesda, MD, did her utmost over these past months to wake you up. Her name is Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg. (Forgive my regional pride when I note that she was born in South Dakota, the state where I reside.) Way back in March, Suzanne heard a politician remark that elderly Americans should be sacrificed to the virus in order to preserve the economy. That comment distressed her. Twenty-five years as a hospice volunteer had taught her that “every life is valuable, no death … just a statistic.”
To help you visualize your pandemic losses, Suzanne created an art installation in front of the Washington DC Armory, near the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. That’s just down the street from your Capitol building. There she began planting small white flags in memory of your citizens killed by COVID-19.
That three-and-a-half-acre field quickly became a space of collective mourning. Every day Suzanne and her team of volunteers would add enough white flags to keep pace with the rising death toll, posted on a billboard on the west side of the installation. Members of the public could submit requests for personalized flags honoring deceased loved ones.
By November 30, the last day of Suzanne’s exhibit, over 248,000 flags were rippling in the breeze, as far as the eye could see. The field in front of the stadium had filled up. White flags had spilled into nearby medians and other green spaces.
“Look at a single flag,” Suzanne would say to visitors. “Now conjure up a story. Think of it as a schoolteacher who just lost her life.” She invited them to imagine everyone affected by that one teacher’s death, including the medical professionals who had fought to save her. “Try to hold all that grief,” she’d say, “and then look up and multiply—” referring to the flags stretching out of sight.
O America! If only you would have taken time to walk in silence among that field of flags and meditate upon what they represented! Doing so would surely have helped you face up to what’s happening. There—in the immensity of your grief—you would have discovered a wiser way forward.
You can no longer visit the field of flags. But somehow you must grieve. You must allow yourself to feel all that you’ve lost, down to the marrow of your bones. You can’t keep lying to yourself, pretending that the pandemic dead don’t matter. Lies have a way of coming back to haunt us. If you ask me, far too many ghosts are already wandering around, from coast to stricken coast.
Listen … can you hear the veteran in Queens playing “Taps” on his bugle at sundown? Can you see the billboard-sized portraits of the dead displayed along the streets of Detroit? The hundreds of handmade roses hung on fishing nets in East Los Angeles? The candlelit rows of empty chairs on the public square in Phoenix? The wall of broken paper hearts in Atlanta?
I’m begging you, America: Open your mind and your heart.
Don’t leave us to grieve alone.
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