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Mourning during Covid-19: My mother is not a universal

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Schalk Engelbrecht is a research associate with the Centre for Applied Ethics (University of Stellenbosch), and a research fellow at the Stellenbosch Business School.

My mother is not a universal. My mother was always a particular. And like all particulars she was destined to originate, to exist imperfectly, and to perish. To be mortal and forgettable. It is this cursed forgettability, not a virus, that so many are battling during the Covid-19 pandemic.

My mother died yesterday. Not of Covid-19, but of a host of physiological events that resulted from living for 69 years. She died because she’d become a smaller, frailer, more vulnerable mammal.

The astute reader with some experience of human finitude will diagnose this piece as a desperate attempt to turn my mother into a universal. It is a common symptom of mourning, I imagine, to seek and insist upon immortality for those we love but who suddenly cease to be. Thinking in universals also dampens the pain of the particular.

Perhaps, then, if I write this right, just right, and if enough people read it and recognise their mothers and their mourning in it, then my mother will continue existing in a different form and will receive what humanity and the universe owes her.

She may no longer direct her thoughts on the world or on her children. She may no longer feed the little bird that comes to the kitchen door every morning. But everyone will come to remember and use her name, like Anna Karenina, Jane Eyre, Heidi, Scout Finch, Juliet, Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Mrs Dalloway. Her name will arise in conversation as a figure representing an eternal quality. Her name will stand for a visceral, universal and truly human experience.

But my mother is not a universal. My mother was always a particular. And like all particulars she was destined to originate, to exist imperfectly, and to perish. To be mortal and forgettable. It is this cursed forgettability, not a virus, that so many are battling during the Covid-19 pandemic. During New York’s “peak”, obituary writers were reportedly overwhelmed in their attempt to “restore humanity” to the pandemic – on some days the obituary sections ran into tens of pages. In Mexico City, it was reported that crematoriums dealt with a three-day backlog.

Some mornings as I start my lockdown routine, I switch the television to Sky News. And some mornings, Sky News shows viewers the ones who died of Covid-19 the previous day. It is a spectacular signal. While commentators were concerned that naming those who die from the virus could lead to stigma, Sky News admits the tragedy by turning the daily pandemic statistics (“x many new infections; y many deaths”) into people. The screen is filled with picture icons of all the recently deceased, whereafter each person is displayed separately, with their age and their occupation. Tessa Peterson. 66. Nurse. A beautiful gesture, and quick. It is my favourite part of the day.

My mother loved her children but stubbornly believed that she should not butt into their lives. She refused even to butt her own life into their lives, and therefore often suffered in secret, until her husband shared the ailment (equally secretly) with her children.

A ritual similar to the Sky News segment is performed in the film “Fight Club”. The protagonist, Tyler Durden, turns a parking lot fight club into a guerrilla movement against a humanity alienated from its primality, adrift in meaningless and pathological consumerism. During one of the movement’s nightly exploits – vandalising a symbol of capitalist life – they are pursued and a member of the group dies. One of the tenets of the movement had been that each member must remain nameless. In death, however, the fallen compatriot is accidentally particularised in the chant “His name was Robert Paulson”. A futile, but arresting protest against the threat of anonymous non-being.

My mother cannot be turned into a universal. She was fatally particular. She made deconstructed salads before there was such a thing. The lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers were cut up into little pieces, but kept separate (I think because she didn’t like tomatoes). And then drizzled with her favourite guilty pleasure – Hellman’s Mayonnaise diluted with a little milk. She poured water into dry white wine. But she felt bad asking for water at a restaurant, so she poured it surreptitiously from a bottle of water she kept in her handbag. She compulsively washed dishes (thrice daily), until her hands were wrinkled and wretched.

My mother loved her children but stubbornly believed that she should not butt into their lives. She refused even to butt her own life into their lives, and therefore often suffered in secret, until her husband shared the ailment (equally secretly) with her children.

Like so many who are mourning during lockdown, humanity may have to come to terms with the fact that it is not a universal. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wittily narrated the dramatic irony of our species condition in his essay “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”:

“Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of ‘world history’, but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.”

This type of stance has been dubbed philosophical pessimism – the idea that human life has no particular significance, or, more affirmatively, that whatever significance it has is self-contained. It is a nihilistic view to the extent that it denies any transcendent meaning to the life of a person. To correct the Gladiator: what we do in life may very well fail to echo in eternity. Far from stripping us of any motivation or responsibility, however, this particularity and insignificance charges us with a more urgent task to be meaningful, and to leave no meaning for a hereafter.

Unlike with other particulars, however, when a (particular) species ceases to be there can be no remembrance and no mourning. The death of a species is a tragedy-less tragedy. We could accept this tragedy if it were inevitable, and if the species faced it nobly. It is less stately when non-existence was wilful, and when the species did not urgently embrace its immanence.

The doctors tried but could not prevent my mother’s death. And there is no Sky News segment for her.

My mother is not a universal. Suzanne Engelbrecht was a beautiful gesture. And quick.

Suzanne Engelbrecht. 69. Teacher. Mother. DM

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