Death Does Not Define Us

An Ohio man was in the news. He lived about an hour away from me. He died in a hospital about fifteen minutes down the road from me.

COVID-19.

The reason people have been talking about him specifically is because he called these quarantine measures “bullshit” and speculated about how serious this really was. Now after he has passed, people laugh and use him as both a joke and a cautionary tale. I’ve seen it on social media, and picked up in major news sites.

To echo his own words: I call bullshit.

I say that because there’s something really stomach-turning going on here. Something shallow, something vile, something that comes from the weakest part of a person.

This narrative circulating online is not what it appears, first and foremost because death does not define a person. Judge a man by how he chose to live, not how he died.

There’s typically no volition in death. And what is death anyway? I think Marcus Aurelius captures it so profoundly — it’s just a moment that passes, like any other.

And death is so absurd. Did you know more people die from a vending machine falling on them than from shark attacks? Remember that the next time your bag of chips gets stuck.

God — imagine how awkward those funerals are.

But even if that’s how you go, I won’t judge you for it. Again, death is only a moment — not a lifetime. And also, I get it. Those goddamn vending machines cling onto my pop tarts all the time. Sometimes you have to take some risks. I can hear people at my funeral now: At least he died doing what he loved.

Death is at most a punctuation mark at the end of life’s sentence. Every sentence has one, and it can add a little inflection, but the meaning is in the words. It’s hard to look at death and not be dismayed by a sense of tragedy or meaninglessness. But if I opened a book and only paid attention to the punctuation marks — it would be equally bewildering. I have to read the words.

Carrying this thought further, what makes a book is not simply words on a page, but what the words mean when put together. Similarly, what makes us human is not the virtue of being alive, but the virtue of how we live. We can’t confuse the precondition as the definition. If we overlook what defines us then a virus can destroy us without ever having to kill us. Fate worse than death. A book full of frenzied gibberish.

Thomas Duncan.

If you know him at all, you probably only know the punctuation mark version. He was the first person who was diagnosed with and later died from Ebola in the US during the 2014 epidemic. I remember reading those articles and following his story, as well as the stories of the nurses who later developed it from treating him.

The reason I remember his name is because of how he contracted it. While he was still in Liberia, he helped a woman and her family go to the hospital. She was seven months pregnant, and she was hemorrhaging. When the hospital turned them away because they were overflowing, he helped her back to her home, literally carrying her from the taxi to her house because she could no longer walk. She later died.

I have always remembered his name. I felt like he deserves to be remembered.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked what she considered the first sign of civilization in a culture. Instead of tools, clay pots, or religious artifacts, Mead referenced the discovery of a 15,000 year old femur that had been broken but healed.

Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, you cannot drink or hunt for food. Wounded in this way, you are meat for your predators. No creature survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal. You are eaten first.

A broken femur that has healed is evidence that another person has taken time to stay with the fallen, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended them through recovery. A healed femur indicates that someone has helped a fellow human, rather than abandoning them to save their own life.

Thomas Duncan had the means to come to the US. He was getting out of the hot zone. He was going to survive. And just before he left, he helped a fellow human rather than abandoning her. Had he not helped her, I imagine he very likely would have made it to Texas and still be alive today. Instead, he died.

I try not to focus on the punctuation marks, but it’s hard. I understand that there were a lot of mistakes here. He could have declared at the hospital that he came from a hot zone. So many things could have been better that might have led to a better outcome. But those things didn’t go better. And the question I am left asking myself is if it was worth it that he risked himself to help a pregnant woman, knowing they both ended up dying? Would I have done the same?

More than surviving, I realize I also have to live with myself. Is being alive more important to me than being a person that would risk helping a dying, pregnant woman?

Long live Thomas Duncan.

Fast forward from Ebola to COVID-19.

We have neighbors out of work. We have friends unable to pay rent or get their unemployment checks. We have people who are sick and dying alone because hospitals and hospice won’t allow families in to be with them — which in my opinion empties those tragic but sacred moments of so much humanity, dignity, and even compassion. What is death without life?

And then we repost this story of the Ohio man who died — and it’s sick. We laugh at the man who called bullshit while we recite what is quickly descending into a party slogan straight out of Orwell — “We’re all in this together!”

I read his obituary. He lived a rich life full of family and friends he loved and who loved him. He was a real person, full of energy, humor and life. His spirit was such that even when he was diagnosed with cancer, that did not stop him or his wife, who “were partners in crime, sharing thirty on years of love and fun together.”

And when I read the posts he wrote about Coronavirus that everyone mocks him for, I found these words:

“It shouldn’t keep … us from living our lives.”

There is a deeply human truth in that, and I’m really grappling with it. In all of this, it was something we were too quick to sacrifice — myself, especially.

As has become normal now, his family originally planned to live stream the funeral services, but then decided to instead privately record it to share with his family and friends. His wife shared why in a letter:

“[The] news has opened the flood gates for people to share their own misguided anger and unfounded assumptions about a man they don’t know. Wanting to protect my family and John’s legacy, we have decided not to live stream his funeral services via Facebook today. For those who were tuning in to share in our grief for your loss, we sincerely apologize.” She goes on to share these words: “… we will forever have to live and cope with how his life ended far too soon. Further, we will never be able to erase from our hearts and minds the negative posts that have been made and shared about John this past week.”

The virus isn’t the only thing devastating our communities. It won’t be what collapses our civilization. It’s us.

So I call bullshit. I call bullshit on what we’re letting ourselves become.

The virus is formidable, but so is the human spirit. I want to not just survive, but to live. When shit hits the fan, that’s not an excuse to be a shit person. I want conversations, I want us to have room to be good to each other — and that includes addressing policies that are dehumanizing us right now. I agree we need to be smart about things, especially being careful for those with pre-existing conditions and compromised immune systems. The risk is real. But to some degree, the facts are still saying the same thing they always have: the world is dangerous — and intelligence is impotent without some degree of principle and courage that helps us face it. I can’t help thinking that a lot of the policies that are depriving people of dignity and even health right now are enacted out of fear and mere concern about liability.

More suffering is coming. The disease is not done yet, but when it is we are going to emerge from this like people who huddled indoors during a hurricane and find their homes flattened. I have a sense that this virus has started a fire beyond the pandemic, and like the wildfires we see out West we might not start healing until the fire has run its course and everything has burned down.

Unless we mend broken femurs.

And call bullshit.

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Christopher Guarnera

Christopher Guarnera

Entrepreneur, software developer, and writer. Enthusiast of good stories, interesting conversations, and serendipity.