The Altar of the Dead

For the past few months, death has been dominating my mind.

I designed this website so I could share thoughts I have about writing and creating art from time to time, but this doesn’t seem too out of line with the topic.

Death, after all, is something I have lived with my entire creative life.

An Elegy for Amelia Johnson, for instance, is a book where the title character spends the bulk of it dying and it ends at her funeral. The most difficult parts of Form of a Question, which was a very difficult book to write to begin with, were about my grandfather Joseph Kacenga and his passing. And every single work in progress I have going now involves at least one character biting the dust in a pretty dramatic way.

So I’ve never stopped thinking about death.

But for the past few months, death has been dominating my mind.

2019 ended with me losing two people—my grandmother, Kathryn Rostan, who lived to be 98 and never lost a shred of her mental acumen and gargantuan spirit, and my oldest uncle, Thomas Rostan, a veteran who I know is somewhere feeling very happy that I am thinking of him a LOT on Memorial Day—both of whom, in different and irrevocable ways, shaped the person I am.

And since March 17th, I’ve been working out of a three-room apartment while a variation of existence passes by my window, a variation premised on the idea that we could well be transmitting a new way to die.

My current lifestyle makes me feel like one of my heroes, the man whom I consider the greatest novelist in American history, Henry James. James was also a bachelor who designed a quiet life for himself, alternating between time spent with the close friends whom he valued more than anything and a rigorously controlled solitude where he had nothing to do but write.

One of Henry James’s finest short stories is “The Altar of the Dead,” which would one day be turned into a movie by no less than Francois Truffaut. The story is about George Stransom, an artist who spends years grieving over the death of his fiancée, until one day he reads of the death of an old friend who betrayed him in an unspecified way. This causes Stransom to realize death as something universal beyond his personal loss and obsession. He begins a meticulous ritual of tending to a church altar and lighting candles for everyone he’s ever known who has passed, but he never lights a candle for the ex-friend. In the course of time, he meets a woman who goes to the same church, and a closeness develops between them that might turn into something more…until Stransom discovers that she lights a candle each time in memory of someone she cared about: his ex-friend. From there, the story builds to an emotional finish in which, at the least, Stransom achieves an internal reconciliation and sense of grace.

There’s a lot packed into “The Altar of the Dead,” which is typical of James, but what affects me the most is how driven (another quality typical of James’s protagonists) Stransom becomes with the act of mourning. It’s twofold: the mourning shows that the dead, including the ex-friend who dominates his mind, are not forgotten by the living, and it is through mourning that Stransom is himself able to mentally and emotionally change.

Death and mourning are supposed to change you.

I can recall when death changed the entire world…when I watched an airplane fly into the second tower of the World Trade Center on live television, and how decisions were made because of that which to this day reverberate.

And I can recall the mourning, in every corner of this nation, for 2,977 people—2,977 parents and children and spouses with rich lives we can only imagine—who died needlessly.

They were us, as a New York Times header declared.

Except that header wasn’t published in 2001.

It was published yesterday, when the Times listed the names and minute biographical notes for 1,000 people who died of COVID-19 on American soil.

(One of my best friends said that she’s going to remember certain parts of that list for the rest of her life. I understand that so much.)

Right now, 97,720 people in the United States are confirmed to have died from COVID-19. That number will top 100,000 in the next few days, and I am not sure where that will end.

I spend some time every day reading about COVID, considering it deeply, but it was as we approached that round number—because, and I say this as a lifelong baseball fan, there’s something about certain numbers that weighs on the mind and brings things into focus—that my own sense of grief, which was present from the start, itself grew into a deeper form, leaving a heavier impression.

I see a tragedy unfolding around me on three different levels.

The first, foremost, and highest is this: the deaths themselves, a loss I increasingly feel with every passing day.

The other two levels of tragedy…I am not sure which one is worse.

The people in charge of our country knew COVID was coming. There is no way we could have saved every single life, no matter who was running the government, but there was definitely a way we could have instituted procedures to keep the disease as contained as possible, developed a testing program to better track it, and keep that plan going until a vaccine could be found.

This did not happen because the government was focused on keeping the economy at a high level in hopes of a re-election, and doing anything to diminish economic activity would have been, in their eyes, a disaster.

So instead we were given a haphazard series of guidelines which were continually changed and reversed and now seem to be fully abandoned. Almost nothing was done to increase testing and tracing. New outbreaks are occurring on a daily basis. And the economy still collapsed…as this writer who lost his job can attest.

That is the second tragedy…that there was a significant number of people who didn’t have to die and did, and there are living people who lost so much that they might not reclaim.

Finally, there is the third tragedy…and that is the near-total absence of a sense of mourning.

Again, after September 11th, mourning was de rigueur. It was inescapable. And we were asked to make something of a sacrifice, to support giving things up in the name of honoring the dead and an ideal of freedom and safety…a smaller-scale version of the sacrifices made during World War II, a time so many people I know still point to of collective action, of doing something and giving up in honor of the dead and those who could die.

Today? With nearly 100,000 dead and that number rising? There is so little mourning. There is so little sacrifice. When I look at my windows to the outside world, I see footage of people in Florida, in California, in the Ozarks, in New York City, communing en masse without masks or distance. (And full disclosure…at the very beginning I was a touch too cavalier about it myself but that changed quickly.) I see people wishing others might get COVID-19, sometimes applauding when they do.

I see that President Donald Trump is far, far more concerned with the death in 2001 of one of Joe Scarborough’s aides than the deaths right now of the people he is supposed to lead and serve.

And I see that so many of our elected officials prioritize a working economy and a sense of normalcy, neither of which they did anything to put us closer to, over the health and safety of others, with an attitude of “well, people are going to die anyway.”

That so many who will carry on about the sanctity of life are so cavalier about death is not lost on me.

But that’s the thing at the end of the day, isn’t it? Pretty much since 2008, I’ve watched so many aspects of my existence that were supposed to be givens be proven terribly wrong. That those, on every end of the ideological spectrum, who speak of certain ideals and values—who speak of freedom and sacrifice and a society of respect where all people count, where all people have a chance—those ideals and values can be discarded so easily. That people don’t have the need to pretend anymore.

It’s enough to make one fall into cynicism and despair, on top of all this sadness.

So what is to be done?

***

One part of my life which has managed to carry on is the part given over to worship.

Church isn’t the same of course, without being in the pews and taking communion…

But on Sunday mornings, I log online for a virtual service where we read, we sing (and oh, does my voice sound bad without a crowd around me), and we pray together.

And on Sunday evenings, my church’s youth group checks in on each other, and these brilliant people half my age talk about their fears and uncertainties of this time but also show the same spirit of my grandmother, one completely irrepressible.

I do not write this—I never write such things—as a way of urging people to find faith, because God know that might not make sense for you.

I write this because the past few weeks, as the tragedy and the pain grew within me, I found myself paying attention more to these meetings, and the power (as my wise ministers put it) of prayer as a collective experience.

The kind of experience I desperately needed.

But it is not only prayer…when I have my facetime conversations, when I gather with people spread out across the city, the nation, to watch the same film or read the same book and we discuss what that means…these are collective experiences.

And what happens when you have a truly great collective experience, spiritual or secular, is that it ends up translating into more of your own life. That you take it and have a new sense of mindfulness of the personal level.

What that has come to mean to me is an even stronger form of something I already possessed: a love for those in my life.

And a love for the living easily gives way to a longing and a mournfulness for the dead. All of them. Maybe especially, as James’s story urges us to consider, those we might not even feel inclined to mourn.

When I was very little and going to St. Matthias’s Church in Youngstown, I would light votive candles at the altar. For the sheer childish delight of playing with fire. What it truly meant…what it would have meant to the real George Stransom and those like him…was a flicker in my perception.

Now I look back and want to be a real George Stransom…lighting candles and not caring in the end if the person you lit them for did some great wrong, because we are all in this together, and in the world I dream of, death would be felt with that in the forefront.

I may not be lighting candles. But I know I can take what I have from my collective experiences and turn it into something meaningful.

To think upon the dead, so they are not merely statistics or something to be used.

To act for the dead, so that just maybe no one else has to suffer loss in this way.

And hopefully, a little bit or a great deal, now in some ways as we keep muddling through this time of uncertainty, more on a day I cannot yet foresee when we have more confidence in how to live and deal with this age, all of us will be thinking and acting, each in our own way, for every living thing.

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