Walden, New York

April 2020

Nancy, my dear,

Once more I feel prompted to write to you. Last time it was as you were stepping into the unknown of a future that offered you knowledge and broadening of heart and mind, studying in Montevideo, Uruguay. Even more than wanting proficiency in another language as you studied subjects you love, you wanted to gain insight and empathy for a people, a country other than your own.

Having just transferred to Bogotá, Colombia, for yet another broadening of studies, your course set for another year to complete a bachelor’s degree in literature and graphics, this plan for your future was suddenly cut short by the forces of a pandemic sweeping from one country to the next across the world. You phoned me as you caught the last flight out of Bogotá – the country closing its borders behind you, as did the university its doors a day before. The finality is shocking – the last sudden farewells. This country had already become so dear to you as you came to understand its poverty and beauty, the political struggles that embroil its people in outbursts of violence, the human face of it. Will the homeless Venezuelan family in the street outside the university you felt so close to survive a coronavirus outbreak? What a heartache.

Your prayers for your friends in Bogotá mingled with mine for Braulio and Maria Condori in La Paz, Bolivia, who exit their safe home each day to spend three hours in their store – not for the sake of their slim income, which even in normal times barely covers their needs, but to be there for hurting people who turn to them in their fear and distress. The soldiers and their guns on the street ensure compliance with the lockdown – but the indigenous population knows that, when the virus spreads, their government will do little for them.

And what of the US government? How could a powerful, successful nation stand unprepared for this onslaught of suffering and death? It is not as if there are no vestiges of memory in modern times of the ruthless scourge of a pandemic. There was one just a century ago, the Spanish flu, in the wake of World War I. Out of it arose fanatic nationalism and fascism in Europe. What forces – good or bad – will this unleash in this country?

What will our country’s response be to this pandemic? First it touched China – not us! Then South Korea and Japan – not us! Then Italy, Spain, Greece, and England. And we? Did we feel so immune to the threat that our federal government did not even believe in it? Have we lost sight of our common humanity?

The United States’ economic power has been measured by Wall Street, by the number of billionaires, by our sports heroes and entertainment industry. Our values measured by how much instead of what we do for the least of these. Now, as everything has come undone, may we also see the disparity between the poor and the rich. This dreadful virus goes after the old and the weak, as we tragically see in the nursing homes. It also deals more harshly with the poor and marginalized.

In Pope Francis’s extraordinary blessing “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) in an empty St. Peter’s Square, he said, “We were not shaken awake by wars or injustice across the world, nor did we listen to the cry of the poor or of our ailing planet. We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick.” We must listen now.

We stand before the great why: Why is this happening to us? How can God allow death to have power over us? That is not a question of not having had enough medical equipment to save lives – even though that is so very distressing in a prosperous country like ours! It is a question that arises out of the depth of one’s heart faced with suffering and death on so great a scale.

Walter Ciszek, a Jesuit priest in a Soviet prison during World War II who underwent unbearable hardships, wrote in his book He Leadeth Me that the question is not one of doubt, but rather of our human incapability to see beyond the agony we are in.

Our God is not one of wrath. Easter, as it always does, reminded us that he sent his Son into the world to suffer every aspect of human pain – even that of feeling godforsaken – so that he can stand with us in such times of need. Christ weeps with us that death still has such a sway on this poor earth. Listening to the Berlin Philharmonic play the St. Matthew’s Passion, I was once more gripped to the core by Christ’s sacrificial death. I had sung the choruses in the past, imagining that Bach had put them in because his congregation knew them and would be able to sing along – but no! It was the response of “mea culpa” – not you, but me. May this time cleanse us from finger-pointing to taking responsibility for all that has gone wrong.

Compassion awakens within our hearts through our mutual involvement in suffering. Your perplexity for what comes next is part of the universal experience of our time. When security is pulled out from under our feet, it makes us aware of our common humanity: yours of an uncertain future for your hopes and dreams, mine of an uncertain end. Age changes things, for if this wretched virus would take me after an enriched life of eighty-two years, instead of a young person with untried dreams and unmet goals, I would thank God.

It was my grandmother, my Nona, who planted that thought in my heart. When I was ten, a mother of nine children died of asthma-related complications. In the backwoods of Paraguay, where we lived, there were no breathing devices nor medications that could have saved her. My Nona wept and said if only she could have been taken, she would have willingly died instead. Nona died four years later of influenza. I knew she had lived a full life of love and service to her neighbors, yet I mourned her greatly. It makes me think of the grieving so many of my fellow citizens are facing now. My mourning is for those who die alone in the ICU, and also for the ones who died without someone to grieve for them.

No pandemic overtook us during our twenty years in Paraguay. Yet death came unbidden all too often, taking especially the young and vulnerable, but fathers and mothers as well. My family traveled over the submarine-infested Atlantic during World War II seeking a new home after having to leave behind first Germany – expulsed by the Hitler regime – then England, our next refuge. Fear of foreigners, especially Germans, turned our British neighbors hostile. Internment faced German nationals – just like the Japanese Americans experienced in the United States. Paraguay offered us refuge.

I was two and a half years old, my baby brother Giovanni seven months – a bonny, happy little fellow. Within our first week of arrival in Paraguay, Giovanni died of dysentery – no IV to help with dehydration, no means to stop it. My mother walked behind the small coffin of her baby, to bury him at the desolate edge of the jungle – one other small grave already marking the site – before she entered her new home. It was a space within the roof shelter partitioned off by sheets or blankets from surrounding refugee families, the wilderness just steps beyond. There was no privacy to grieve. “I could not even cry without my neighbor hearing my despair!” she told me. “A pillow over my head, the only escape.”

Only in her last years could she speak of it, the sharp edges of pain mercifully dimmed by time, her grief refined by years of placing her trust into God’s hands. This experience made her a compassionate, tender mother, and later grandmother, to many others. She would take in babies when their mothers were sick, even when she had her own. As a widow, she would hold many a little one who needed special care, or just an extra portion of love. She would hum the precious lullabies that she had sung rocking her own dying child, her grief transformed into giving love and compassion.

John Singer Sargent, Poppies (Public domain)

That, dear Nancy, is the challenge of this hour: out of personal loss and fear, may there arise a force of love and service. It is not built into the structure of capitalism, which places individual success above that of the rest. The words of the ghost Marley from A Christmas Carol stand starkly before us: “Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The deals of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” Just as Ebenezer had to change, we – personally and as a nation – have to change to have this be our goal.

In my generation, we are doing what we can. In company with my five fellow “pod-members” – the name for our household of older women affectionately inspired by a group of dolphins caring for each other – we sew masks for local hospitals and nursing homes. And we pray; always we pray. We wept this morning when we listened to the news, the thousands of deaths in a day. We wept and prayed. We saw a rainbow spanning the sky after torrential rain, a sign that there will not be annihilation of the human race again. And then we heard of the birth of a son to one of our families – oh, what a sign that God has not given up on us, to entrust us with one more precious soul!

But I am especially heartened by seeing your generation springing into action, offering themselves to bring necessities to the old. Doctors and nurses, frontline workers, those in public service risk their lives over and over. May our prayers uphold them when their courage and physical strength lag.

There are many stories of sacrifice and bravery, as well as quiet ones we’ll never know. For me, to see a young generation rise to the challenge, place personal disappointments aside, and generously dedicate their energies to the care of others gives me hope.

So take courage: there is a future for you, and for us all – a more wonderful one than before, God willing we live through this hell. When we do, we’ll need your dreams. I have complete trust that your generation will rise up more resilient because of having met adversity – and that out of the ashes of this plague will once again arise the phoenix of life and love.

With all my love,

Your fond Oma