I found myself reading obituary after obituary of the COVID-19 dead while talking to friends and family of Thomas “Reem” Cotton.
Cotton, 54, died of the virus on April 29.
Colleagues have carefully and compassionately tended to the memories of some of the hundreds in the Philadelphia area who have died:
The matriarch of a large family who cheerfully defied doctors’ expectations from lifelong health challenges.
The musician who was nowhere near ready to play her last song.
And the man who spent 28 years behind bars only to die shortly over a year after earning his freedom.
That was Cotton, a man who loved his friends and family and the Los Angeles Lakers, who got two college degrees in prison, and who was a widely respected advocate for prison reform.
And who by all accounts spent a lifetime in prison answering for his part in a 1991 drug-house robbery where two men were fatally shot. In 1995, the second-degree murder charges were dismissed, and Cotton continued serving time for aggravated assault and other charges. WHYY’s Ximena Conde chronicled the life of a man who transcended his prison cell in his own journey for redemption, but also for the redemption of others. It made me wish I had met him.
To read the obituaries, distinct yet profoundly similar, is an exercise in wishful thinking.
Wishing they’d had more time. (That includes the elderly who had other health issues that so many seem willing to sacrifice.)
Wishing we didn’t live in a world where compassion and empathy are exercised only as long as it’s convenient. We’re all in this together … until we’re not because we want a “freedom” haircut or manicure or gym time!
Cotton was getting a master’s degree from St. Joseph’s University when he was released in February 2019. He was still working on his thesis at the time of his death.
He was a beloved employee at Eastern State Penitentiary, where he was the supervisor of Education and Community Engagement.
He talked about going to law school.
He was finally under the same roof as his wife, Karen Watson, who has cancer.
He wasn’t done living — not even close.
Neither was the Connecticut father who left an emotional note on his phone for his wife and kids before dying.
Or the New York City doctor who delayed his retirement to fight the pandemic that killed him.
Or most of the Americans who have lost their lives to the coronavirus while politicians and “patriots” continue to talk of deaths — if they consider them at all — in the abstract or as collateral damage because, well, “everyone dies.” I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard that kind of dismissive justification for not wearing masks or defying social distancing guidelines or acting a complete fool because someone had the — gasp — nerve to suggest that we be decent to one another. Endless examples of people yelling, whining, or worse when asked to wear a mask, for instance, are just a Google search away.
In a recent Washington Post story about the reopening of a Georgia shopping center, one shopper said: “When you start seeing where the cases are coming from and the demographics — I’m not worried."
How are so many of us so comfortable with the stunning loss? How dare anyone claim love of country when they would rather wave a piece of cloth in faux patriotism over their heads than wrap a piece of cloth around their faces to actually save lives.
Two months into the pandemic and we are nowhere near appreciating the scope of the historic loss.
I’ve heard people suggest that the disconnect is somehow the fault of “the media,” as if American deaths haven’t been marked in story after story, page after page of obituaries. The truth is there. It’s always been there. We can’t force you to accept it.
What we should do, perhaps what we should have long done, is replace the deranged and dangerous White House news conferences with photo after photo of those who have died, or at the very least split the screen between Donald Trump and his enablers peddling propaganda with portraits of the dead.
Some communities have already begun to honor coronavirus victims. A church in Ohio created a flag memorial. In New York, a memorial called “Ribbons of Remembrance” is dedicated to Westchester County residents.
Our national death toll needs to be permanently memorialized. If so many of us choose to reject the inconvenient truths of this pandemic, we can at least try to remind those who come after of what didn’t have to be: Americans selfishly sacrificed fellow American lives.
I vote for finally giving Trump the wall he deserves.
Much like the memorial wall that honors those who died in Vietnam, Trump’s wall should list the names of every American who died of COVID-19.
Except Trump’s wall will have to be bigger. As of Memorial Day 2019, there were 58,276 names of those killed in Vietnam.