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Dealing With Death During Quarantine - Catharine Smith


KAREN MANIRAHO, HOST: The Covid death toll passed half a million this week. For those coping with loss, the rituals we rely on for grieving have completely changed during the pandemic. In this personal essay, Cat Smith reflects on coming to terms with death during quarantine.


CATHARINE SMITH, BYLINE: For over 100 years, my family ran a funeral home. So I learned growing up, when someone dies, there’s a list of things that have to get done and a system for who does them: The stack of paperwork to fill out, the phone calls, the clothes you have to wear. And when an older family member died, I knew what time to show up and where to stand. There were fresh flowers and old photos, soft organ music and slow walks through the cemetery. Loved ones were all around and after the funeral, we moved as a pack to a restaurant, feasting and toasting and reminiscing.

Last Spring, when Covid descended on New York, my husband and I abandoned our apartment and fled to Vermont. We quarantined in a house with no TV or internet, and barely cell service. One morning, I was washing dishes under the frigid well water. We had been bickering about our dwindling savings. My husband sulked under the front window, the only spot in the house with phone reception. I heard him gasp. “Connan is dead,” he said, straining to hear the voicemail.

Connan was his best friend. He lived in New Orleans. He wasn’t young and he didn’t take care of himself. He lived off cheap whiskey and whatever food he could buy selling paintings outside the hot dog joint on Frenchmen Street. We thought he could survive anything -- even a pandemic. My husband once saw him eat a live palmetto bug, right off the sidewalk.

The call was from Connan’s neighbor. He said he’d found my husband’s number in a notebook after police left the scene. No one on the block had seen Connan in days, and when the cops finally beat down the door, they found him on the bed. My husband lowered his phone and walked out the back door.

I stood at the window and watched him cross the yard. I wanted to run after him, but I was still angry. I tried to remember the funeral to-do list. I kept picking up plates, rewashing them, and wondering what we should do. We could buy plane tickets and be in New Orleans tomorrow -- nope. Too much money. Plus, I didn’t know if planes were safe with the virus.

I could hear my husband tearing wood panels off the old shed he was restoring in the side yard. There would be no convocation. No rousing toasts to Connan’s memory. No flowers. Just a lonely house on a mountain and the wind rustling the trees outside.

We never found out exactly how Connan died. We heard later there was a socially distanced wake on someone’s porch -- only a handful of people came. We don’t even know where he’s buried.

Maybe someday we’ll be able to travel down to New Orleans again. For now, we’re still waiting to say goodbye to Connan-- waiting to start checking the boxes off that list.

MANIRAHO: Since the summer Cat and her husband have left Vermont and settled back in the city.

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