Ritual A Year Without an Ending
Is it strange, in a vortex of absence, to cherish endings? Only if loss and endings are the same.
On November 7, I was in the middle of the Saturday crossword when I heard cheering coming from the street. We are wombed in a first-floor apartment in an old factory building—our privacy-filmed windows at sidewalk level, our floor several feet below, thick walls muffling most noises except the occasional startling voice from someone standing just outside—so the cheering was faint. “Why are people screaming?” I asked my husband. I had a vague sense that maybe it was the half-marathon, which goes near our house, although not in November. “I don’t know,” he said. “Hey, the AP just called the race for Biden!”
I was torn: I wanted to join the screamers, but I hadn’t finished the crossword. This was a significant thing on November 7, the 330th day of my streak on The New York Times crossword app: every puzzle completed on the day it was released, without hints. I thought maybe I’d relax after 365, but until then, I was very serious about my streak. More than once, if I forgot to do the puzzle until perilously close to midnight, I had forced myself to start and finish through a melatonin haze. Maintaining my streak had become both more difficult and more crucial during the pandemic. I didn’t commute anymore, which upended my tradition of doing the crossword on the bus—but even though I was doing the puzzle itself at haphazard times, the act of completing it (on time, no hints) had become a lifeline of normalcy and consistency.
But this was not a normal day. This felt like the unseasonably warm day in my first year of college when the Massachusetts winter lifted enough for our blood to flow again, and this brief reprieve was so precious that my friends and I cut class and went down to the lake to sunbathe in our sweaters. The projected slackening of political disaster had my husband and me tipsy before noon—we went to the park to see friends, one of only a tiny handful of social outings since March, and even with the masks and distance it felt like a jubilee, the release of all our burdens. In the excitement, I somehow forgot to finish the puzzle. And that was it. An uneventful ending, something I’d been working on for months snipped suddenly off, clean as any thread.
It was a trivial ending to a trivial accomplishment in a year of much greater loss—but at the same time, it was the collapse of my one pandemic achievement, my King Lear . More surprisingly, though, as I flipped back through months of golden days—the app records your streak as connected gold boxes on the calendar—punctuated by the lone blue square of my failure, it also began to feel like a gift, maybe even a mercy. The year so far had been an airless canister, a hole in time where we waited for our real lives to start again. How fortunate, in this endless present, to know exactly how long something lasted, and to see that it was irrevocably over.
We keep saying “when this is over,” but what does over even mean? Our exit from this crisis will probably be as nebulous as our entrance was sharp.
This has been a year of stupefying loss. Loss of life and health, of course, and loss of parents and grandparents and relatives and friends; loss of jobs and financial stability; loss of faith. For those of us lucky enough to hang on to our lives, our livelihoods, and our loved ones, at least for now, the greatest loss may have been the year itself. Not just the things we were planning to do, but our understanding of the qualities of a year—how big it is, how fast it moves, how it connects with the years before and after. There was both too much and too little happening to get a fix on it; time bloated and shrank like Alice. For people who were both responsible enough to give up socializing and fortunate enough to work from home, holidays and birthdays and all the other mileposts of time became blunted and foggy, existing only in outline. Unmoored from these usual landmarks, we lost our sense of time as motion, the way a person stranded in the middle of the sea has no idea which shore they’re moving toward.
In December, Oxford University Press released a sixteen-page document about the Words of the Year, instead of a single word as it had done since 2004, because there was simply too much new terminology to choose from; one of those words was Blursday, a generic day that could just as easily be the previous day or the next. (On one Sunday this fall, my husband got up and started setting up work meetings and responding to emails, baffled at the eerie silence on Slack. Blursday draws no distinction between weekdays and weekends.) We have now moved from Blursday to blursyear.
As this lost year draws to an end, it is also drawing to a beginning: Soon it will be March again, a numb new milestone, another flag sunk in the quicksand of the pandemic and swallowed up. Vaccine availability for most of us is now perpetually a few weeks away, whereas in February and March and April and May and June and July and August it was consistently going to take twelve to eighteen months—but still the endpoint recedes as you approach. We keep saying “when this is over,” but what does over even mean? Our exit from this crisis will probably be as nebulous as our entrance was sharp: months to roll out the vaccine, weeks of waiting in between doses one and two, months more for the tide to recede. Not a clean line, but a smudge.
In a year when we feel suspended in time, there’s a kind of catharsis to a definite ending—even, in some cases, a death. In February, when the virus was (as far as we knew) still half the world away, my grandfather went into hospice care. For two days, his children and grandchildren stood around his bed, first talking to him—he was loopy but lucid, cracking jokes and commenting on the news and asking for a meatball sub he obviously wasn’t going to eat—and then, as his final surge of energy wore off, talking to each other. We offered each other food we’d brought in case anyone was hungry: two giant bars of chocolate, a bag of trail mix, a banana my sister had stuck in her purse at the hotel, three uneaten meatballs. (My aunt had gotten the requested sub, just in case.) This was code, of course, for the care we were trying to take of each other: Nobody was hungry, but everyone wanted to make sure everyone knew that the meatballs were available.
As it became clear that death was hurtling nearer, we mostly stopped talking at all. Toward the end, the room was very, very quiet; my grandma held his hand and said the things you’re supposed to say, the things people need to hear at the end, but not loud enough for us to hear. (They were less than six months away from their seventieth anniversary. It was Valentine’s Day.) At one point a nurse came in and told us gently that we were in the last stretch, but that it could be minutes or could be hours. We absorbed this information in heavy silence. Then my sister ventured, “Well . . . does anyone want a meatball?”
What I mean, you understand, is that we were together. The end proceeded more or less the way we’d been told to expect—they’d given us a booklet at the hospice that described everything, down to the hour—and we stood by to take our part in the rituals of death and the rituals of comfort. It was not easy. It was very hard, not least of all for him. But it was also the picture of a “good death,” a phrase used even by people who think no death can ultimately be good. (My grandmother: “Well, he’s in a better place.” The rest of my family, whom she had raised with zero religious sentiment: “You think???” She didn’t, especially, but you say the things you say.) Later, at my grandparents’ house—my grandmother’s house—we made Manhattans and amaretto sours. My aunt put a lemon in the microwave because she’d heard that made them easier to juice; it was so hot when she took it out that she screamed and threw it across the room, shattering my grandma’s glass of scotch. My sister and I drove to the Dairy Queen late at night and then sped back to the hotel to eat Blizzards on our beds. What I mean is that we were together, because the lost year had not yet started, had not yet begun to never end.
For weeks after lockdown began, my grandmother could not stop talking about how lucky we were, being able to say goodbye just before goodbyes became impossible. My sister and I had to leave before the funeral, but there was a funeral, with military honors (important to him) and a rabbi (less so). None of this—not the bedside vigil, not the collective grief, not the final rites—would have been possible even a month later. We would have had to wait to be told that he was gone, and deal with it however we could.
There have been so many losses and so many endings during the pandemic, but when deaths go unwitnessed—either because they only happen to people on the news and you never see the bodies, or because they happen to your loved ones but you’re not allowed to visit—they take on that same unreal quality, an event outside of time. “If many Americans still see the pandemic as a faraway problem, that’s because many Americans aren’t seeing the pandemic at all,” wrote journalist Roxanne Khamsi in a stirring plea for a more visible virus . Khamsi was primarily calling for the media to be less coy, but she notes that hospitals play a role in keeping the deaths at arm’s length: “Spouses and children have been blocked from seeing patients in the hospital, for fear that such visits will infect them and spread the virus further. This makes sense, perhaps, as a measure in support of public health; but aside from all the other human costs that it imposes, it also stops us from bearing full witness to the tragedy.” In this lost year, the greatest losses have happened offscreen.
Our troubles won’t end, but the year will. To this one thing, at least, we can say goodbye.
My birthday came early in lockdown, the first nonsense milestone of a timeless year. Uncertain of how to celebrate, I got my friends to read my favorite play, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, with me over Zoom. (To contribute to the feeling of being unstuck in time, this was a flashback to eighth grade, when I used to make my friends read it with me most days at lunch.) The whole play is, as you might guess, about death; it hinges on the fates of two minor characters in Hamlet, who in the original play are summarily dispensed with offstage. Among other meditations on mortality, Guildenstern repeatedly argues with an actor, an almost supernatural figure in the play because he is aware of its metafictional nature, about what it means to mimic dying in front of an audience, as entertainment. “You can’t act death,” he insists at one point. “The fact of it is nothing to do with seeing it happen—it’s not gasps and blood and falling about—that isn’t what makes it death. It’s just a man failing to reappear, that’s all—now you see him, now you don’t, that’s the only thing that’s real: here one minute and gone the next and never coming back.” The actor knows better: “On the contrary, it’s the only kind they do believe.” What Guildenstern has called “the mechanics of cheap melodrama,” the inescapable performance of death, is what makes it real. What he calls “the endless time of never coming back”—the offstage death and the eternity of offstageness afterwards—is only a hole in the void, invisible against the background radiation of loss.
Is it strange, in a vortex of absence, to cherish endings? Only if loss and endings are the same. When my grandpa was dying, one of the things the hospice told us to watch for was “terminal restlessness,” physical and emotional agitation as death approaches; it may look like anger, delirium, or pain. This year has been a perpetual unrelieved moment of terminal restlessness. A clean, definitive ending feels like grace.
In a normal year, my sister and my sister’s family and my husband and I all go uptown to my parents’ for the first night of Chanukah. This small ritual of togetherness is plenty for me—enough to connect to tradition, not enough to smack of faith. But this year there is no small ritual, and so much darkness. My religion, if I have one, is the tiny lights that get us through the winter: bulbs, candles, lanterns, other people’s trees, the windows of warm rooms with parties inside. This seemed like a year to bring the lights indoors.
So I bought a cheap but cool-looking menorah, on impulse, off an Instagram ad. It sits near our three-foot Christmas tree, a small ecumenical bright space. The candles I got, it turns out, don’t melt—they evaporate. They burn with spooky speed and leave no trace, not even a drop of wax on the traditional protective tin foil. On the first night we lit them, I was shocked to look up thirty minutes later and see them burned halfway down; the next time I looked up, they were gone. It felt like I’d been robbed of something. On subsequent nights, I started setting an alarm for an hour so I could watch them dwindle and disappear. The lighting ceremony comes with songs, rules, traditions. Why is there no rite to recognize the candles going out?
It’s foolish to think that things will immediately be better once we cross the meridian of 2020. Nobody believes that, no matter how often we say “I just want this year to be over.” But maybe what we really crave is the feeling of over- ness: Something is gone, we watched it go, we know it’s not coming back. This is the year to notice the breaking of the streak, the extinguishing of the candles, the moment (an arbitrary number within an arbitrary number) when midnight ticks over into 2021. Our troubles won’t end, but the year will. To this one thing, at least, we can say goodbye.