The thing about death in the year 2020 is ... it’s not limited to COVID-19.
In the year of COVID, people you love make their transitions the same way — socially distanced, with much time since you saw or even talked to them last, their passing a jolt to your isolation-addled consciousness, memories left to fade like beautiful ghosts.
And so it was this weekend, when news came of the passing of two beloved members of my church family, from cancer, on the same day, Dec. 3. Gloria Woods and Nathan Clark were also members of my smaller, close-knit sub-family, Evanston Area Black Catholics, Inc.
COVID has created a new lifestyle. We are isolated, adapting to executing our own everyday work and family obligations under the fears and anxiety 2020 has wrought.
COVID deaths occur in hospitals that are locked down by a coronavirus cloaked as the grim reaper. It shuts out loved ones and our opportunity to say goodbye.
But death is still our eventual destination, and COVID hasn’t changed that.
It simply means when the grim reaper shows up, our loved ones transition the same way as those from COVID — isolated, subject to limited visits, at home or in the hospital.
Moving to the North Shore a quarter century ago, I’d sought out a church home.
The first time I attended mass at St. Nicholas Church in Evanston, the late Margo Butler grabbed me and introduced herself before I could rush out, the way I did church back then.
She headed up Evanston Area Black Catholics, a small group — we’re talking Black Catholics on the North Shore, after all — but a mighty one, under the leadership of this powerhouse. Margo loved the Catholic faith deeply, and her Black community even more.
Her mission in starting the group was to get us similarly minded folks together, in a subset of our church family that identified with our cultural heritage.
I nodded and smiled and tried to avoid her for weeks. She was always there, introducing me to yet another member, eventually among them Gloria and Nathan, and I joined them.
Year after year, I sat near Gloria in “our” section, west end of the church, near the font.
Gloria’s smile could light up a room; her intellect, intimidate. But she was beyond humble, and oh so kind. She worked in human resources, and was the ultimate people person. A lector, she left you riveted when proclaiming the word, imparting whatever message she’d gotten.
And year after year, I entered church through the western door where Nathan greeted you.
Nathan, who worked in information technology, was quiet, and dedicated to his faith, head usher at the 11 a.m. mass, and there in rain, sleet or snow, greeting you, proffering the weekly bulletin as you left, with a warm smile and the unnecessary “thank you” as he passed you the collection basket.
It wasn’t just through church that Gloria and Nathan became family. It was through EABC, the tiny group that would meet for Bible study every Lenten season in the home of our founder, before Margo passed suddenly, of a massive heart attack, in 2013.
Together, our small group built an amazing tradition in which each member had a role — the North Shore’s lone Kwanzaa celebration by a Catholic church, now in its 21st year. People came from far and wide.
Initially encompassing Black Catholics as far as Lake County, EABC shrank as the numbers of Black Catholics grew, and it was no longer an aberration in our neck of the woods.
It had become just us, led by church sister Yvonne Smith, to whom Margo had passed the baton. We all knew each other, perhaps not the intimate details of personal lives, but family nevertheless, with the weekly embrace, smile or unspoken words.
Gloria, 60, loved Kwanzaa. She never missed it. She’d had cancer before, was in remission.
At the 2019 Kwanzaa, she dropped off the case of libation, completing her task, then begged off. She didn’t feel so well. In January or February, we learned her diagnosis. The cancer returned.
Then came the pandemic. And I didn’t see her again.
Nathan, 73, would give you the shirt off his back. Any help needed, he was there. He was always at Kwanzaa, including this last one in 2019 — greeting, ushering, carrying heavy stuff for us ladies.
As with Gloria, we’d heard at the beginning of the year of his cancer diagnosis. Then came the pandemic. Both funerals are this week.
The thing about death in the year of COVID is when people you love make their transitions, it’s at a social distance. If you are lucky, it wasn’t so long ago you saw them last, or picked up the phone to say, “Hi friend. I’m thinking of you.”
If you’re not so lucky, it’s been a while since you last talked, their passing a jolt to your isolation-addled consciousness, memories left to fade like beautiful ghosts.