I woke up this morning and got this email message from our niece:
“To my dear family, in light of the developing news of the coronavirus outbreak, our Lancaster family reunion in April is canceled in order to avoid unnecessary exposure for all of us, especially our senior citizens and those with health challenges. I will miss this special time together and look forward to the time we will praise God together as family again. May the Lord bless and keep you, as we trust in Him to guide, protect, and grant us wisdom in the days ahead. With my love and prayers. Annie”
I had always looked forward to this annual family reunion. This is one of my wife’s grand family reunions I’d feel most at home in, and to think that I’d always turn out to be the only Catholic among Christian Protestants. The only thing I dread about the event, I’d kid my wife, is when I’d have to make a public speech.
This year we were scheduled to watch the biblical stage play Ruth at the Sights and Sounds Theatre in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, about three hours drive from my place. This would have been followed by a family dinner and program filled with singing and praise at a rented hall in the hotel where we’d usually stay.
It’s sad, but I expected this to come about. I am sure many families all over the world are in the same boat. Anyway, there’s always next year, God willing.
Meanwhile, I turn on the TV and it’s all about coronavirus. The doctor being interviewed advises everyone above 60 to stay home, avoid travel and crowded places.
I turn off the TV and prepare for my daily walk. I drop by nearby Te Amo Convenience Store to try my luck at the dollar lotto, and I notice that my Te Amo pals Nick and Sammy are wearing gloves. In the counter beside them is a display of Purell hand sanitizers and face masks on sale.
“Need some, Manny?” Nick says. “We have sanitizer supply now.”
“No, thanks. I already have some at home. Have a nice day.”
I continue with my walk. As I turn the next block, a middle-aged lady walks past me talking loudly to her cell phone complaining about -- what else -- the coronavirus.
It’s all over the place, I tell myself, as I start vacuuming the kitchen and preparing to cook lunch.
After lunch I get a call from my bosom friend and classmate Goyo. Suddenly, I feel fine. It’s always a ray of sunshine to talk to and listen to Goyo. But this time he calls me to make my day even sunnier: our classmate George has recently migrated to the US and wants to get in touch with me. George was one of our school’s outstanding comedians -- the other one was Monlee -- whose wit and humor lightened up our world (see BM article “Ernie Verdadero and Other Superheroes Who Don’t Wear Capes”).
George and I finally get in touch. Same old George. He has tons of stories for me and I have a tons of stories for him. We have a great time reminiscing our Naga years, and for a while I forget about coronavirus. Time flies when you’re with Goyo and George. By the time we’re done, it is almost past bedtime.
I pick up my bedside Canterbury Classics Edition of Edgar Allan Poe and re-read The Masque of the Red Death, and I cannot help seeing it in the light of today’s coronavirus’ rapid, worldwide spread.
Prince Prospero and his guests quarantine themselves in the castle to avoid the Red Death. But Death gate-crashes just the same.
I nod in concordance. The fact of death is the one thing that cannot be ignored. Nobody, however lofty or privileged, is exempt from it. In fact, no matter how deep we hide in our “castles,” death will find us.
Death is an unpleasant subject, a killjoy, a topic fit for funeral parlors only. The average person, immersed in the things of the world, finds it hard to accept that one day the objects of pleasure will have to come to an end. Death will arrive at the door anytime.
I think of all the people I have known who have already died. A cursory glance at the daily obituaries is enough to impress upon me the great impermanence of life. Each time I visit a hospital, I think: how many in their last moments are still alert?
Regardless of our age, death can visit at any moment. It is not something that will occur in old age. Death is a rude visitor; it does not knock but comes in uninvited. It does not even listen to reason. You cannot plead, “Not now, not yet, my children are not yet grown up,” “I have unfinished work,” etc. When your number is up, your number is up. Material possessions, friends, relatives, fame, power—none of these can be carried over into the next life.
One day we will all die. Rich or poor, young or old, famous or infamous, no one will live forever. Death is the great leveler. It destroys attachments to sense pleasures, even as it gives a sense of proportion to our misguided sense of values.
I close the book and I’m surprised why death does not terrify me as it used to.
After talking to Goyo and George, death has lost its sting. Of course, I still fear it, but it is no greater than my fear of public speaking.