I believe that Americans have a responsibility to share the stories of those who have died so our leaders don’t have the luxury of looking the other way. We have a responsibility to learn from their stories to better protect one another from this terrible disease. And we have a responsibility to affirm the basic dignity of our dead, proclaiming that their lives had meaning, and that those who loved them are not alone in their grief.
This ritual has changed me. I remember little pieces of every single story.
I remember Julena, a licensed cosmetologist, drywaller, and bricklayer who loved to garden. She was the matriarch of her family. Raymond, the ironworker who loved organic gardening and beekeeping—a hell of a guy to have a beer with, I bet. William loved to tell stories about peeling potatoes in the Navy mess hall to anyone in Ohio who would listen. Tom would drive his motorcycle around Virginia’s mountain roads with his little rescue pup in the sidecar, and Lydia lived for summer nights on her porch in Michigan listening to her favorite Mexican bands. I remember Connie, who made an epic peach cobbler and could often be found in her living my best life T-shirt, and Joe, the local barber who went to every single garage sale in town.
I remember the photos that their families shared with me.
Bessie’s radiant smile made me miss my grandmother, and I loved Lauryne’s face as she raised a glass; her family said she had “sass for miles.” Nicola’s photo featured his beautiful and overflowing family, who miss him terribly, and Phil’s showed him dancing with his daughter at her wedding. There was the flower behind Kim’s ear, and I can’t help but smile when I remember Jose in the swimming pool with the grandson he adored (his son Cesar says, “He was my two-year-old son’s favorite person”). I will never, ever be able to forget the photo of Sally’s final moments with her son before she passed away.
I remember the young people who died of COVID-19, despite virulent misinformation from President Donald Trump, who conveyed, with a shrug, that the virus “affects virtually nobody.”
I remember Andre in Indianapolis, who was 16 and loved basketball, bowling, and photography, and Yasmin in Connecticut, an 18-year-old aspiring artist and actor. Dar’yana died just shy of her 16th birthday, and Skylar was only 5 years old when she died of COVID-19 in Detroit. I remember Stephanie, who was 29 and died five days after what was supposed to be her wedding day; Kiara, 26, was a newlywed. I remember Anna, who was just 13 and loved to dance and play with her siblings. Her mom sent her story to me.
I remember those who undertook selfless acts of service, each of whom has inspired me to do better and more.
I remember David, a guy I wish I’d met—a World War II veteran who took part in the liberation of the Ohrdruf concentration camp in Germany and died of COVID-19 within hours of his beloved wife, Muriel. Lois invited the unhoused to her huge Thanksgiving dinners in Pennsylvania every year for four decades, and Tony received a Bronze Star from his time in Vietnam and became a pillar of the Latino community in Phoenix, Arizona, after the war. Ronnie was a bus driver and carpenter in Chicago who trained countless others in the trade, and Edward showed up to volunteer immediately after Hurricane Harvey, wading through waist-deep water to help his neighbors. I remember Melanie, who was an educator at a community college in New Orleans and quietly bought supplies, textbooks, and bus passes for the students who couldn’t afford them, and Ray, who was a gifted woodworker in Minnesota who would make toys and donate them to kids at the local children’s hospital.