Our American Suicide
July 17, 2020
First drive-by funeral this morning.
There have been many deaths, to be sure. Black lives lost at the hands of police around the country. More lives lost at the Black Lives Matter protests that followed. The death of First Amendment freedoms at these same protests, where unidentified federal agents grab protesters and shove them into unmarked cars. The impending death of our democracy if Trump wins the November election. The COVID-19 deaths – more than 136,000 in the U.S. as of this writing, 2,500 of those in our home state of Arizona. The dream I keep having: I’m out and about in my pre-COVID life, running errands, attending a play, visiting a museum, and no one is wearing a mask, including me. I hear many people are having this dream now. Is this how we process the huge losses of the pandemic? By tapping into the collective unconscious of our grief, where it’s safe to go maskless and engage with a world we yearn for so much we have to dream about it?
The funeral today is for one of my husband’s hiking buddies who lost his battle with cancer. Because of the virus, his family is offering a virtual way to say goodbye. I’m debating whether to go because I didn’t know the man. But I do know the stabbing pain of loss from personal experience, as well as from my time running a pet grief hotline in the mid-90’s.
Alan resolves my dilemma easily. “Funerals are for the living, you know.” I tie on my mask and follow him out the door.
At the All Faiths Memorial Park in Tucson, a long line of cars extends into Avenida Los Reyes where we wait, windows up, AC running. I notice a Star of David on the wrought-iron fence and think, “Lovely. We can be buried here, too.” I must have said it out loud because I hear Alan remind me of our plans to be cremated and scattered.
“Hey look, it’s Ginny.” One of the deceased’s closest friends is heading toward us, stopping at various cars along the way. She’s not wearing black—nobody is. This is good, I think, as I run my hands over the worn jeans I threw on and won’t be shamed for wearing.
I squint for a closer look and see Ginny hooking her short brown hair behind one ear, leaning toward the open car windows and chatting freely from an uncovered mouth. I feel my breakfast edge up as she makes her way one car at a time in our direction. We tighten our masks and brace for impact.
When Ginny reaches our car, Alan rolls down his window cautiously. She leans in and stops four inches from his face. My God, what is she thinking! I lean hard against the passenger door, a panic push, as though the car were under water and we were trapped inside. I raise my eyebrows and widen my eyes in my best attempt to show fear when half of my face is covered. Thankfully, she takes the hint and moves away. I have no idea what she just told us.
After about 20 minutes, the cars roll forward. Déjà vu envelopes me as I travel back forty years to the Canadian town of Moncton, New Brunswick, and the mysterious Magnetic Hill. We sat in a line then, too, waiting eagerly for the chance to feel our car climb backwards up a hill without power. It was an optical illusion, of course—while the car seemed to be climbing up, it was actually rolling down to a lower elevation—but we queued up again and again, unable to grasp what seemed like a tear in the natural order of things. Now, as we sit in our cars to pay final respects to someone as though waiting to order fries at the Burger King drive-thru, those feelings have returned. Everything topsy turvy. Nothing as expected.
We snake along a circuitous route that provides an overview of the cemetery. No one has made any attempt at landscaping. No spreading palo verde or mesquite trees to shade an eternal resting place. No green winding paths. No relief at all from the desert’s brutal agenda: to bake everything flat as a burnt tortilla forever.
Finally, we see a reception area of sorts, blue pop-up tents on the way to the exit. The family, wearing colorful summer clothes, waves and smiles and hands out what look like party favors as each car passes. We wave and smile, too, but keep our windows shut. How strange is that? Cheerful faces, no one crying. Tents set up like carnival booths. Nobody in black. Door prizes… So this is how it is now. I take a second to register the moment and mourn a little for the death of Death in the time of COVID-19.
Back home, we make coffee and bookend the kitchen table with our thoughts. I run a finger over a deep scratch on the wooden surface. It feels good to have something to do, since I don’t have anything to say. Finally, Alan breaks the silence.
“You know, to emigrate to Australia, you have to sign a document saying you agree to the values of the country.”
“You do? What values? What do they want you to agree to?”
“That you are a peaceful person, accept democratic ideals, value multiculturalism… things like that.”
After Trump was elected, we started talking about where we might go if things became dangerous. It was something we tossed out there in a wishful way, like a little girl saying she wants to be a ballerina. But now, with the election less than four months away, the possibility of another four years of Trump is terrifying. We talk more often now about possible escape scenarios. But I am still surprised to learn Alan has been actively working on one.
At our age, 67, making a move like that would be more like a suicide from American life. Not much chance of ever returning to the country we’ve cherished all our lives. Of course, there’s no saying whether Australia would want us right now, pariahs as we are to the Europeans, Canadians and others who’ve shut their doors to America because, thanks to Trump’s utter failure to lead, we are one of the sickest countries on Earth. Aussies don’t want to catch the coronavirus or any other viruses from us. Racism, a growing authoritarianism, the eagerness to accept lies as truth… no wonder Australia wants prospective immigrants to pledge allegiance to its values. Americans can no longer be trusted to embrace them.
I think of all the goodbyes we’d have to make. I wonder what it would be like never to see a saguaro again because they grow nowhere but here in our Sonoran Desert. To leave my small group of writer friends it took 12 years to find. To give up our distinctive Tucson life—our gloriously warm winters, the orange tree on our patio that gives us gifts every Christmas, the overpass up the street where Mexican free-tailed bats pulse out in dark, vibrating clouds on spring and summer evenings, the Gila woodpeckers hammering away like nail guns at a metal pole. To never see our family again.
I think more about a self-inflicted death, the finality of leaving everything forever, and remember what we taught volunteers on the hotline. It was rare that a caller became suicidal over the loss of a pet, but the issue did come up and we wanted volunteers to be prepared. We told them that anyone who talks about suicide should be taken seriously. We taught them how to probe gently to evaluate the likelihood that the caller might act on his intent. How isolated were they? Did they have a plan? Did they have the means to carry it out?
Alan and I are isolated. We’re working on a plan to leave the country, and we have the means to carry it out. We’ve been lucky so far—no family or friends lost to the virus, no one we know harmed by Trump’s dystopian policies—but a sense of loss washes over me just the same. Anticipatory grief. That’s what they call it. And it’s overwhelming. We are rolling in a sea of loss—not just lives taken by the pandemic, which is terrible enough, but also the loss of customs, freedoms and ideals. Maybe it’s wise to prepare for a different kind of death.