On being … gone

By Ingrid Sapona

I grew up in Western New York in a place called the Town of Tonawanda. Our house backed onto an expressway. If you looked straight across the expressway from our back yard, you could see the Town water tank. It wasn’t one of those tall ones that look like a huge bulb on stilts. It was more like the huge tanks that you’d see at an oil refinery. (Out of curiosity, I googled it and it really was big – it held 4 million gallons.)

The water tank fascinated me for a lot of reasons. I remember thinking that if it ever burst (or was bombed) we’d be flooded. But, the most lasting memory I have of it was that it was proudly painted with the Town’s green and blue logo and “population 105,000”. That was in the 1970s.

The Town took down the water tank in 2013, long after I moved away. In fact, it was friends from Virginia who were up visiting my mother who mentioned to me that it was gone. It seems the water tank was their landmark for where to get off the expressway when they were visiting us. When they told me the water tank was gone, my first thought was “Gee, how will people know how many people live in the Town?”

When you see a number day in, day out, it leaves an impression on you when you’re young. (Remember seeing the “Number of burgers sold” on the McDonald’s sign? That made an impression too…) Anyway, to this day, 105,000 is a benchmark for me – a handy reference regarding numbers of people for all sorts of things. For example, when I heard that the University of Michigan’s football stadium holds 107,000, I thought – “Jeez, that’s big enough to seat everyone in my home town!” When I got to Evanston, Illinois for university and I found out the town’s population was only about 80,000, I thought, “Wow, I guess I’ve moved to a small town.”

I find a benchmark like that a useful way to transform an abstract idea like a number into something I can relate to. So, as the number of Americans who have died of COVID-19 rocketed past the 100,000 mark this week, I couldn’t help but think about that number on the water tank. Indeed, by the time you read this, it’s likely that the number of U.S. deaths due to COVID-19 will exceed the population of the town I grew up in. Just think about it – it’s as though everyone in my home town is gone…. I know that for many Americans the Vietnam war’s 58,220 dead is an unthinkable benchmark. As the U.S. approached that number in April, like many, I held my breath. Now the U.S. death rate is closing in on double that!

No country has escaped the pandemic unscathed. But that people in the U.S. seem willing to take the staggering death toll as a given is simply unfathomable. The U.S. used to be the envy of the world. How can they not have the willpower to do what it takes to control the number of deaths when other countries have managed to?

If you’re fortunate, as I am, to not (yet) personally know anyone who has died of COVID-19 – count yourself lucky. But don’t just sigh with relief that you and yours have been untouched. I’m writing this column to urge you to make it personal. Start by thinking about all the deaths in terms that are real and meaningful to you. For me, it’s useful to think of losing all the people in my home town. For you, it might be something like thinking of it in terms of losing everyone in your church, or synagogue, or school district. How would you feel if all those people were no gone? Would you just accept it and carry on?  

Over 100,000 Americans are gone from COVID-19. How many more deaths will it take before Americans realize they all have a role to play and a responsibility to each other.

© 2020 Ingrid Sapona


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