Monday, January 04, 2021

Each person's death diminishes me

Every day I check the website of the Tompkins County Health Department to read the latest report on Covid in this area. I check the number of new cases, the total number of people who are currently infected, and any deaths. For a long time there were two deaths - two people who had been brought to our local hospital from New York City during the height of the pandemic in the spring and had died here. 

Then there was one death of a 95 year old man. 

And then we started hearing about infections among people at the local nursing homes - first of all, Oak Hill Manor. It became clear, eventually, that all of the residents were infected. Twelve residents have now died - twelve of our elders, of people beloved by their families, by their friends, by the people who worked with them at Oak Hill. We then, recently, heard about people who tested positive for Covid at Beechtree, another local nursing home.

In the last two days there have been reports of two additional deaths, one, yesterday, at an unnamed nursing home, and one, today, of a resident of Tompkins County, who was not living in a nursing home. Now a total of sixteen people in Tompkins County have died of Covid, all but two in a nursing home.

When the Health Department reports on the deaths, they never give the name of the person who has died. I look in the obituaries in the Ithaca Journal, but often there's very little information provided about those who have passed away. I understand the concern for privacy, and that it's up to the family to reveal when a loved one has died of Covid (or any other cause). I still wish I knew the person's name, and something about their life.

Why? As John Donne wrote: "because each man's death diminishes me."

Just before the passage in which that sentence appears, he writes, using a beautiful simile in which every human being is likened to a page in one volume: 

[A]ll mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.

Each of us is "translated," that is, dies at God's hand, by old age, or illness, or in war, or by the operation of justice.

We all belong to one another. None of us is separated from the other. When one of us passes away from the world, we have all lost something. When one of us enters into the world, we have all gained something, a new person whom we may come to know and love. 

As Donne writes:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

The quotations from Donne are from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, published in 1624, Meditation 17.

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