Once a week my county health department publishes their Covid update- giving a complete breakdown of new positive tests, those in isolation, hospital bed usage, and a list of those who passed broken down into age and gender demographics. I read it every week; my friends and I work with the public, and I’ve got a current medical condition that elevates my risk (that is a story for a different day), so we like to stay tuned into the current trends.
I knew that this last week would be different, steeling myself as my eyes scanned down to the list of those we lost. 13 new deaths, very first one: “1 man in his 30s.” I felt the tears welling in my eyes, the letters blurring as I stared. It hits a bit different when it is someone you knew, someone who was a fixture in your life. It was strange seeing him listed like that, anonymous and completely devoid of the context that made up who he was as a person. Just another statistic, one more tally that made up our local history of this event. How could a life be chalked up to those 5 simple words?
His name was Kahn. He and his mom had moved from South Korea when he was 2 years old, finding their way to the tiny town that would become the backdrop for so many of his life stories. He had just turned 31 ten days before it happened- a birthday we never got to celebrate because he had just gotten sick. He left behind a mom, two younger brothers, a wife, a young son, and a plethora of friends who loved and adored him. He and my husband had been best friends since they were five years old. He was more like family though; the two men had been like brothers for as long as I had known them. We had all lived together on multiple occasions and were there for all of the big life events, and many of the small insignificant ones. He could drive me absolutely insane sometimes, but in that special way that family has.
When his son was born, my husband was the first person in the room to meet the new bundle of joy. He and I are expecting our own little girl in a few months- and I have always pictured Kahn being the first person knocking on our door to greet her, so excited that his best friend was finally joining him in the world of parenting. Even now when we walk through the baby isle at Target my husband will point to something “Kahn said we really need one of these, he swore by it,” and it’s a bittersweet moment because up until we lost him, he was giving us pointers for the next step in our lives. Their last conversations are still steering us in the direction we should be going.
His loss was sudden and unexpected. When his family got covid we didn’t think much of it; it seemed everyone we knew was getting sick- even we had been in quarantine for exposures just beforehand. But while his wife and son got better, he noticed his breathing wasn’t quite normal. He went to the ER on a Wednesday and was diagnosed with mild pneumonia- nothing serious, they said. Over the next two days he went back to the ER once or twice because he was still struggling to breathe. Even then, we weren’t as worried as we probably should have been. We thought he would bounce back like everyone else we knew.
Then on Saturday night we got a message from his wife: they had to call 911 because he couldn’t breathe. Within 5 hours of getting to the hospital he was gone; before the sun even had a chance to rise Sunday morning. His wife wasn’t allowed to see him until it was over. There is nothing more heartbreaking than the stream-of-conscious thoughts of an unexpected widow trying to process the jolting loss of her husband.
The thing that no one tells you about loss: the initial news isn’t the worst part. That is the moment the world cracks and swallows you whole, the part that shocks your system and leaves you reeling. But the truly difficult part is later- after the announcements are made, the funeral is over and your loved one is put to rest. The worst part is in the little moments afterwards: when you suddenly understand that you have to spend the rest of your life missing them. It’s in the moment when you look around at the ruble and realize that you will have to rebuild, you will have to create a new normal in this place known as ‘after.’ Grief is nothing new to me, and yet each time it makes an appearance that old friend looks different. It is unsettling to feel so unmoored, to reach for your phone before realizing they won’t be able to pick up the line. It’s overwhelming to face your mortality through the loss of someone you always knew would be there for you.
My husband said to me, “I keep waiting for him to get back so I can tell him this crazy story about someone I know who died. And then I remember. I keep seeing funny videos that I know he’d like and start to send it, but then I remember.” And that’s what your life becomes for a while; these instinctive reactions to reach out before reality comes crashing in on you like a tidal wave. It turns into a desperate attempt at self reflection: what should I do with my life now that I know that it could be over just like that? What would he tell me right now if he could?
The thing about Kahn: he didn’t always have it easy, but he never let that stop him. It didn’t matter how many times he got knocked down or how hard the blow had been- he always bounced back up and tried again. Over and over. I admired that tenacity, we all did, though we didn’t fully appreciate it until it was too late to tell him. The other thing I always remembered: he had an uncanny ability to laugh about everything. Granted, sometimes it was a cynical chuckle, but there was still a smile. He was always able to find the humor in any situation; sometimes I wonder if that’s why he was always able to get up and continue trying- because laughter keeps you from breaking a lot of the time.
So I sit here this morning full of profound contemplation; a tiny urn of his ashes sitting sentinel across the room as I type these words. What do we do now? Where do we go from here? How do we make sense and find meaning in something that feels so utterly pointless? It seems only fitting to carry the lessons he taught us; not through any lengthy speeches, but through his everyday actions. It is important to remember that these moments we get are precious- you could have 100 years, or a mere 31. You never know when the last time you see someone will truly be the final time, so pay attention, listen, and slow down long enough to appreciate it. Start on all those little projects and goals you’ve been dreaming about. Even if you fail, there is something so deeply satisfying about knowing that you tried. So write that book, play the video game, start the business, create the art, play with your kids, walk the dog, curl up with your spouse and a glass of wine just because it’s a Wednesday. Remember the small joys that mean the world. What solace will your family and friends have if they lose you tonight? What are your daily actions saying about who you are and what matters to you?
And if things go sideways, like they inevitably will sometimes- remember that ‘one man in his thirties’ who never failed to pick himself up, dust himself off, and try again. All with a slightly mischievous smile painted across his lips. Remember the man who deserved so much more of the world than he got. Here’s to you, old friend. You are loved, you are missed, and you will be with us forever.