Susan J. Demas: The persistence of tragedy, the preservation of memory
For many years, the only piece of artwork I could afford to frame was a dorm-room-quality print of Dali’s “Persistence of Memory.”
I’ve been thinking about that painting a lot lately. Sometimes the melting clocks seem jolting and sinister; sometimes there’s an odd comfort in the infiniteness of time.
There have been so many things that have haunted me in the last three years during a pandemic that has killed millions and debilitated millions more.
The gleeful barbarism that marked the Trump era became the lifeblood of the pandemic, as time and time again, politicians, plutocrats and assorted self-styled “influencers” told us not to believe our eyes or the mounting death toll. Things weren’t really that bad. And it was those of us who tried to be good neighbors and take basic, scientifically tested precautions like wearing masks and getting vaccinated who were the real enemy.
Trying to stave off a deadly disease and protect those we love — especially those with the greatest health risks — was cast as an act of stupidity or even unforgiveable oppression of those who were quite fine with mass death if it meant less inconvenience in their lives.
As the pandemic has worn us down, even the most conscientious of us have stopped getting booster vaccines. If you don’t want to risk getting your elderly parents sick and you still don a KN-95 in the grocery store, you can expect dirty looks, even from those who were masking up not that long ago. We’re supposed to be at a point in the pandemic where you can make the choices that are right for you, and yet the choice to take any health precautions is often mocked.
People want to forget. It’s a human response, but a devastating one.
When even the most sensitive people casually declare, “I haven’t thought about the pandemic in forever,” it stops me cold. Every week, thousands of people are still dying of COVID. It hasn’t gone away, no matter how much we wish it to, no matter how many politically driven declarations there are.
There are a lot of reasons for hope. We’re far more equipped to fight COVID than when it overtook the world in early 2020. But essentially telling seniors and immunocompromised people that their lives don’t matter because you’re “over” the pandemic is madness.
And jeering those who care about others is a sickness of the soul.
It’s that same cruelty that we encounter after every mass shooting. We’re told in so many different ways to just get over it and for God’s sake, stop making it political. We’re somehow supposed to believe that there’s no way to prevent weapons of war annihilating us beyond recognition every day, in every part of this country, when we just happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Two months after students like my daughter survived the Michigan State University shooting, so many people are not OK.
Susan J. Demas: What we owe our children after the horror at MSU
I’m not sure we really know what being OK is anymore.
I think about Feb. 13, 2023, every day, replaying the moments before she got the alert and the terrifying hours after, wondering what else I could have done to keep her safe. It’s a profoundly lonely and sickening feeling.
But I’ve pushed on, because that’s what I do. As a parent, my job is to make sure my kids are OK, or as much as they can be in a world like this. Failure in that job is simply not an option.
And as a journalist, it’s my job to write about these tragedies with the utmost care. Part of that is talking to experts about what can be done. That also means wading through vile comments from broken people who somehow learned it’s OK to harass survivors and their families for just having the audacity to exist.
There’s a heaviness in grappling with these cascading tragedies. There’s so little time to grieve, to heal.
I believe there’s no greater obligation right now than to honor those who have suffered so needlessly during the pandemic and gun violence epidemic. Their lives cannot be forgotten. If they are, that is perhaps the biggest failure of all.
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Susan J. Demas