Every day, Lois Jones walks past 119 strangers who died from COVID-19 last year. Their photos cover the front page of a newspaper that has been taped to the glass door of a curio cabinet in his entrance hall. Its shelves lined with miniature ceramic pianos, the piece of furniture holds a place of honor in her home.
A wave of sadness runs through her with every encounter, which takes place every time she moves from her bedroom to her kitchen, living room or piano studio, and as uncomfortable as the feeling is, she doesn’t avoid it. .
“It’s my way of showing respect to people who have lost their lives,” she said, “of respect for the fact that they had families that they couldn’t see afterwards. they got sick with this terrible virus. ”
At 88, the retired piano teacher shares her Monterey Park home with her 70-year-old daughter, Nena Cummings, and hasn’t been out for over a year. She is determined to live long enough “to hear Dr. Fauci declare the pandemic over.”
The newspaper section covering his cabinet was published by The Times last July, when the human cost of the pandemic in California slowly began to concentrate. At the time, 9,000 people had died. Today, more than 61,000 have died, and with nearly 60 new deaths recorded every day, the pandemic still has a grip on the state.
Death on this scale makes all of us survivors, struggling through the haze of emotion to understand how serious these losses are, especially after surprising us like this. Sudden death leaves a void like no other.
Editors, writers and interns have tried to keep pace, making those lives through short obituaries that were printed weekly at first, and now every alternate Monday. They can also be read online.
Browse the site – “The Pandemic Toll: Lives Lost in California” – and a name, photo, and story appear, then disappear as the next one appears. The procession is solemn, a funeral procession in words, all the more moving as there are no public memories.
This common refrain – no gatherings are planned at this time, memorial services are pending, a memorial will be held at a later date, due to COVID-19, the family will hold a memorial at a later date – adds to the loss, and what is celebrated then may never be enough for what we feel today.
Some over 300 have been written, and this fraction alone is overwhelming. Yet Jones has looked at this front page enough times to consider these men and women almost like friends.
“I feel a kind of connection with them,” she said. “I do not know why. I can not explain it.”
The images on the page are small, and almost everyone is smiling, that quick reflex in front of a camera. Happiness can sometimes be so simple and fleeting.
She chooses Betty Gentry in a service cap and blues dress from her time in the navy. Gentry and her husband adopted a child from an orphanage while stationed in Japan and a second child when they were redeployed to Chula Vista.
A row below is James Lanier Craig with his broad white mustache, who “would never make you feel bad about yourself”, according to his daughter.
“I wish more people were like this,” Jones said.
Further down and to the far right is Patti Breed-Rabitoy, whose pixie cut is an easy gift. She left work early one day to surprise her children with an unexpected trip to Magic Mountain. Nothing so ordinary has ever felt so special.
These three names, these three short stories, are as important as any of the 300 or 61,000 others.
In a state of nearly 40 million people, most of the dead are unknown to us: neighbors on a street, family in the car next to ours, those we would have liked to meet if only our paths had been crossed. crusaders.
“That’s why they’re hooked on curiosity,” said Jones, where their paths meet.
But for us, these posthumous lives in print or on the website are our meeting place, a place where we join our loved ones, listen and try to bridge the distance between grief and solace.
Writer Hayley Smith wrote of the project at its inception: “To scroll through the stories is to experience a cross section of the state.” At the time, Smith was one of six journalism interns at USC, which partnered with The Times on “Lives Lost.”
Many dead have come from far away – El Salvador, Vietnam, Bronx, Mexicali, Quebec, Missouri, Korea, Ohio – and we imagine their farewells and their dreams of a future free from the past.
Some have struggled – drugs, alcohol, mental illness, cancer, loss of a child, a spouse, homelessness – and in those struggles we feel their loneliness, their frustration, the clouding of hope with hardships. .
They’ve found jobs and trades – cook, forklift driver, caregiver, school bus driver, teacher, newspaper press, host – and in their jobs they are seen navigating everyday life, anticipating d ‘a paycheck, the ride, some sort or ruthless boss.
And they all seemed to be hanging on to their passions – sweet Turkish coffee with milk and only a little sugar, chess games, grandchildren, karaoke, the California coast, vanilla ice cream, music. Filipino pop, the Backstreet Boys, the Philadelphia 76ers, mariachis at the Hollywood Bowl, vintage tequila, sunflowers – and this is where we come across them most easily.
As quirky or familiar as their tastes may have been, we catch their laughter and see something of ourselves.
Jones gives in to his tears. A box of tissues and her striped tabby, Mister Mikey PurrPence, are nearby.
So much is not said in the midst of mourning, and so little is said about lives lived without notoriety, scandal or controversy.
Decency is rarely a part of the news cycle, and it was mostly good lives of modest accomplishments belonging to men and women satisfied not to be recognized for sacrifice, hard work, love and dedication. that they shared with a few.
“It’s a reminder that ordinary people are amazing,” said Mitchell Landsberg, editor of the project. “There is no such thing as an ordinary person.”
They would no doubt be embarrassed by the attention, the privacy made public: bicycles on loan to children, donations to charities, volunteer hours at the church. What they have done for others is what others have done for them; it was often that simple.
“That’s what we lost,” said Steve Marble, an editor who worked with Landsberg. “That’s the definition of those whose world you want to see filled.”
What if grief turns into anger – and there are reasons to be angry: reluctant politicians, skeptics and deniers, ambulances surrounded, crowded ICUs, personal protective equipment and ventilator shortages – so anger at this time can be a mask for more difficult feelings. Express.
The hardest part is to hold onto those memories, to walk beside them each day like Jones does, and to recognize that this is how we lived and died during this extraordinary time.
Through each life we understand the extent of our own life, our ambitions, what gives us pleasure and happiness, what obstacles we can overcome and how we might one day remember.
Passing through his lobby, Jones glances at 119. The images are like gravestones in a national cemetery, markers tracing the outline of the grounds. The thought accompanies him into the piano studio.
Many years ago her now deceased husband built this room for her, which was an extension into part of the front yard, luckily decreasing the amount of lawn he had to mow.
Jones sits in front of the six foot black grand piano that was once on display in the window of the piano store they owned together.
She turns to Scarlatti’s Sonata in E major. The melody, written over three centuries ago, slowly comes to life, again bringing the promise of joy and beauty back into our lives.
Editor’s note: As the death toll increased in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak last spring, editors on staff at The Times in the newsroom and a team of interns here through partnerships with the Pulitzer Center and USC have started telling the stories of some of the more than 61,000 people. Californians who had perished. Now that the death toll is dropping and the restrictions on how we go about our daily lives are relaxed, “The Pandemic’s Toll: Lives Lost in California” project will soon come to an end.