The challenges of estranged grief

My late mother. Elegant, complicated.

By Caitlin Kelly

There are times that a deeply personal and private experience intersects with the larger culture. In journalism, it’s called the hook or the news peg, i.e. since everyone is now talking about it or thinking about it, it’s worth discussion and an assignment.

And my primary goal, often, for writing about a topic, especially a difficult and painful one, is to be of service, to comfort and to connect people to others who know their journey and who truly understand.

To explain to those who don’t understand and might become less judgmental as a result.

My mother Cynthia died Feb. 15, 2020 in a nursing home in Victoria, B.C. a seven-hour flight from our home in suburban New York. We had not spoken in a decade and even though I sent cards every Christmas and included a newsletter, no reply.

We had had some good years and some good visits.

But we had also had some very very bad ones.

She had been through so much in her life, including divorcing my father when she was 30, traveling through Latin America alone for years, living alone in such places as London, New Mexico, Mexico, Bath, Montreal and Toronto, surviving multiple cancers. She never re-married.

Intimacy was not her strong suit.

So, have I grieved this loss? Yes and no.

Which is why I wrote this story for The New York Times, probably the most revealing and personal words I’ve ever published there.

I was scared.

I’m actually a quite private person, and choosing to discuss painful issues before millions of readers worldwide is objectively somewhat frightening.

Here’s some of it:

When the phone call came from my mother’s nursing home, I knew there could be only one reason. She had died at 85, sitting in her armchair watching television.

I was her only child, but we hadn’t spoken, or even tried to be in touch, in the previous decade. She was a Mensa member, a world traveler of independent means and a voracious reader. She was also bipolar and an alcoholic. Worn out by decades of dealing with both, which meant years of chaos and broken plans, I had finally, reluctantly, exhaustedly, just given up trying to have a relationship.

For every anguished iPad farewell made to a dying Covid patient, or during another Zoom funeral or someone dearly loved and mourned, there are many people like me, estranged from their parents, children or siblings when those family members pass away. And because of this, we may not grieve the same way people typically expect. For some, the end of an unhappy and complicated relationship just comes as a relief.

As I write this, the story has gathered 49 comments, and they are so so painful to read, as so many others share their stories.

I was stunned to see how many people — through Twitter and Facebook — praised the story’s honesty about such a difficult topic and how many people struggle with estrangement in their own families. I had no idea.

It’s very hard to be estranged from a family member, as I still am from a half-brother who is 23 years my junior and father of year-old twins, a boy and girl I may never meet.

It’s also hard because it’s really taboo to admit you don’t speak to your mother or father or siblings or any of them. The myth that “family” equals love is a strong one. Those of us who don’t have that experience seek out others who get it. Our husbands and wives and best friends know. Our therapists know.

But it tends to remain secret and private because you can never trust someone new not to gaslight you or deny your lived experience since theirs has been so happy.

There is a great deal more detail, of course, I couldn’t include in this article. There are more characters and more history.

But the gratitude readers have shared has been deeply moving.

Who are you turning to?

Jose, 2020, photographing the judging of the Pulitzer Prizes, Columbia University, New York

By Caitlin Kelly

I’m really lucky.

In a pandemic dragging into its second year, and with no real end in sight, I’ve still been able to turn to trusted friends, some opf whom are still in great shape, some not so much, to share our thoughts and fears.

One is a delighted first-time grandmother. One struggles with a lot of physical pain. One is single and lives alone and is just very lonely. One recently sold her home and moved into Manhattan, savoring city life.

My husband — we met 21 years ago next month at a midtown Manhattan French bistro for our first date — has been amazing. But I realize he’s not a Swiss Army knife, capable of meeting my every emotional and intellectual need.

I fear we’re going to burn ourselves out if we try to “soldier on” alone.

I fear we’ll burn out our spouses and partners who are by now also feeling claustrophobic and, in a very snowy cold winter, are also succumbing to cabin fever — no cafes or gyms or libraries or restaurants or pals’ homes to flee to.

I had a two-hour conversation last night, so gratefully, with a friend in California who is a long-time pro in the book publishing industry. The latest agent for my book proposal, of course, fell through, and she was both tough and loving in what she suggested should be my next steps.

Tough and loving is pretty much my MO as well.

Who are you turning to these days for comfort and joy?

Who’s turning to you?

What makes “home” truly home?

An earlier version of Jose’s desk

By Caitlin Kelly

Some people live their entire childhoods in one home, maybe in a house, maybe an apartment, maybe a trailer. But it’s home. There’s no doubt.

They feel safe, welcome, happy and well-nurtured there. They can’t wait to get home and miss it terribly when they are away.

For others, it can be a place to flee, for a while or forever.

Here’s an astonishing essay about home and house keys from a writer who — oddly — recently moved into the same small coastal British Columbia town my mother lived in for many years.

It brought up so many feelings for me.

Like this passage:

I first visited my father’s house when I was sixteen; we’d not shared an address for fifteen years. A few months later, I moved in, having nowhere else to go.

I used the keys like a tenant on a month-to-month lease—non-committal, curfew-blind—as did everyone else there: my father; his second wife; his stepson; the woman from church his wife invited to stay; the woman from Mexico his wife brought back to stay.

The whole crew pushed off eventually. My father sold the place and took an apartment next door to his office. I slept in his RV for a December and a January, then left for a commune six-and-a-half thousand miles away.

It was already my observation that you can peg the quality and tenor of your in-house relationships by how you feel when you’re steps from the door, key in hand, about to let yourself in. Are you braced for a hurricane? Ready for the dull emptiness of dead air? Smiling before your foot crosses the threshold? Quiet like a mouse?

My parents split up when I was seven, and sold the large house we lived in in one of Toronto’s best neighborhoods, on a quiet street where I played with the neighboring kids. My mother and I moved into a two-bedroom apartment downtown and I went off to boarding school.

But at 14.5, I also plummeted, with almost no notice, into my father’s home, shared with his live-in girlfriend, only 13 years older — a 28-year-old poorly suited to nurturing a troubled teen. It was often challenging for all of us.

They sold the house we later lived in when I was in my second year at University of Toronto, giving me a month’s notice to move out and find a place to live at 19.

I found a ground-floor studio apartment, at the back of an alley in a not-great downtown neighborhood — the sort of place a more attentive parent would have immediately ruled out. But he didn’t.

I was attacked there, so I only lived there for about eight months, glad to flee.

Between 1982 and 1989, I changed my place of residence a lot: Toronto-Paris-Toronto-Montreal-New Hampshire-New York. That included two apartments in Toronto, a student dorm in Paris, a gorgeous two-bedroom apartment in Montreal, a farmhouse in New Hampshire and then, finally, a one-bedroom, top-floor apartment I bought, thankful to never deal with another landlord or rent increase or cracked window or drafty kitchen, in suburban New York.

I haven’t budged since.

I love this moment when the rising sun hits the windows across the river!

In this apartment, with a stunning view northwest up the Hudson River, I’ve been through plenty: a marriage, divorce, being victimized by a con man; two knee surgeries, a shoulder surgery, hip replacement, early stage breast cancer. Three recessions. Jobs won, jobs lost. Friendships gained, friendships that withered.

A happy second marriage, now almost 21 years!

Bu throughout all of this, it’s been a good home.

I love our street — atop the highest hill in our county. Across the street is a low-slung townhouse development (so never a blocked view) and downhill another two-story apartment complex. Our street is winding and quiet, with old growth trees and stone walls. At the bottom are dozens of raspberry bushes — and yet (!) we can also easily see the towers of downtown Manhattan, 25 miles south.

So, yes, it’s the suburbs, and yes it’s pretty damn boring. But also quiet, clean and beautiful. Our town is so attractive it’s often used for film and television locations. It’s diverse in age, ethnicity and income, unlike many others nearby.

Our town reservoir

So, for me, home isn’t just the physical structure where I sleep and eat and work, but a larger vibe where I and my husband, who is Hispanic and a winner of a team Pulitzer for The New York Times, feel welcome.

I keep trying to envision our next home — whether a second home or selling this and leaving — but haven’t seen anything yet (affordable for us) that makes my little heart sing.

I have always longed to live in a private house again, with a fireplace and a verandah and a bit of land and privacy, although I am also very wary of the costs of renovation and surprise/expensive maintenance. The one downside of living in our 100-apartment building is having neighbors who keep opposing its very badly needed renovations — which could easily boost our apartment’s market value by 50 percent.

Tell me about your home — the residence, your town or city or region.

Do you love it?

Or long to flee?

And go where?

The challenge of intimacy

By Caitlin Kelly

If there ever was a time challenging our traditional ways to be intimate with others — from hugging a friend to cheek-kissing a new acquaintance to long conversations face to face, let alone sex with someone new — this pandemic is it.

It’s really difficult to eschew all emotional, physical, sexual contacts for months in person, soon to be years, even when we know it’s the only safe option.

And, odd as it may sound, reporting and journalism can be very intimate emotionally as people share stories, sometimes things they’ve never told anyone else. Face to face is much better for this — body language, sighs, eye-rolls…harder to parse otherwise.

Of course medicine and therapy are very different without in-person contact.

I had lunch this past weekend with a dear friend who lives in the next town; we met in the large, airy parish hall of the church where we first met and where she does volunteer work, so she had a key!

She sat very far away and I sat on a sofa and we caught up. And it was so so good to see her. She is always so elegant! I show up in matching olive green leggings and a fleece and she’s in palest cashmere.

I’ve been working hard since November 1 to lose weight through intermittent fasting 16/8 and it was nice to see her agree there’s a difference in my size and shape — she knows what I normally look like.

That’s intimacy — the trust it takes to be vulnerable and to share our weakest and most scared moments, not just the performative WOOHOO of social media.

But another friend, a much newer one, has withdrawn and I admit I’ve struggled with that. I miss her friendship, even though we only met two years ago. She has two teenagers and works, so she is busier than I, I know. But the few times we’ve gotten together recently, with our husbands, were enjoyable.

I finally told her I was pretty much giving up — having tried repeatedly to make contact. Her reply was a terse and impersonal two sentences that she has had some health issues.

The only way to grow a friendship is to share, good and bad.

So I’m sorry this one seems to have withered, temporarily or permanently. But I’ve really learned the hard way that true intimacy means both people have to want it.

I enjoy much of my life in suburban New York, but, as I’ve blogged many times, it is lonely as hell.

I work alone at home and now, thanks to COVID, all social activities and events are verboten.

I have no kids or grandkids, the two obsessions of almost every woman I’ve met here, over decades. Or work. Or both.

Friendship, here, feels very low on people’s list of priorities. I just don’t spend much time trying now.

So I’m even more grateful for those who do connect now by phone and Skype and Zoom — like C in London and my college bestie, Marion, in Kamloops, BC or Leslie in Toronto, or Melinda and Alec in San Francisco.

It’s ironic, and sad, that the people with whom I share the closest emotional intimacies live so far away.

One of my Twitter followers said it perfectly:

Burdens shared makes for lighter burdens and deepened trust.

Home for the holidays?

By Caitlin Kelly

Not for me!

I haven’t been back to my native Canada since summer 2019, when I was reporting a major story and attended a northern Ontario conference.

My father lives alone in rural Ontario; at 91 he has to be very careful about exposure to the virus, even though he’s in pretty good health. If I tried to go up, I’d face a two-week quarantine, so I’ve chosen not to.

The pandemic has killed almost 250,000 Americans and infected millions worldwide.

In the U.S. Thanksgiving is a huge event for many people, the one holiday that gets people to travel far and wide to celebrate with family or friends.

This year?

It’s just too dangerous!

We’ll be at home, just the two of us, but that’s been our norm for many years, as Jose’s family all live very long drives away from us and his closest sister heads further south to visit her own adult children.

Yet many Americans — as usual — insist they’ll host as many people as they like and the virus is a hoax and all those morgue trucks full of COVID corpses are…some sort of illusion.

How about you?

Do you have Thanksgiving plans?

What about Hannukah or Eid or Kwanzaa or Christmas?

Why EQ beats IQ

Are you someone eager to start a fire — to destroy?

Or to comfort?

By Caitlin Kelly

I found this story interesting — a list of 19 things emotionally intelligent people do.

Here are some of the ones that really resonate for me:

2. They pause.

Emotionally intelligent people realize that emotions are fleeting, and that often making impulsive decisions leads to regrets. Therefore, they try to pause and think before speaking or acting—especially when they find themselves in an emotionally charged moment.

In short, their goal is to never make a permanent decision based on a temporary emotion.

Boy, does this one ring true!

How many of us can easily destroy a friendship, relationship, marriage or job with something snapped or shouted in anger?

Even if it doesn’t end it, it can cause serious damage.

The key word for me here is temporary — if you’re consistently miserable, time for a change.

7. They’re authentic.

Those with high emotional intelligence realize authenticity doesn’t mean sharing everything about yourself, to everyone, all of the time.

Rather, they endeavor to always say what they mean, mean what they say, and stick to their values and principles above all.

I think about this a lot with my social media presence, here and on Twitter, where I spend (too) much of my time in these lonely, isolated stay-at-home pandemic days.

As I said to a friend, a very senior level journalist, I may be playful and revealing on social media — but never careless. Whatever I decide to reveal publicly, it’s actually who I really am and expressing how I truly feel and I do that know anyone, anywhere can see it — including future clients.

15. They help others.

One of the best ways to inspire someone is to help them.

By extending a supportive hand, emotionally intelligent people help others to become the best version of themselves.

I’m no Pollyanna, but one of the things I do consistently — like every day or at least every week — is try to help others.

Recently, I introduced a writer in Nashville to one in London, to help her work on a high-level, potentially career-making story. A student whose class I addressed a few weeks ago has become a fairly regular email correspondent.

I work as a journalist, a challenging business that demands decent intellectual ability (not nearly as much as you’d hope) and, ideally, real emotional intelligence — as one of the 19 keys is empathy.

We recently caught up with a friend who’s won a lot of journalism awards and really is a fantastic writer and reporter. While writers love to brag about how much they earn or what awards they’ve won — we so rarely talk about how we do our reporting.

How we get total strangers to trust us with their stories.

Only empathy gets us there, she agreed.

I have no kids and my only niece and nephew are twins born in May 2020 to the brother who refuses to have any relationship with me — for 13 years.

He’s 40 and someone who’s spent his lifetime, since winning major awards in his teens, preening in front of everyone that he is super smart.

I find him one of the least emotionally intelligent people I’ve ever met, and not just because he dislikes me.

Because he places all his value on being a tedious “intellectual”, determined to out-argue everyone on every topic.

Intelligence isn’t something you beat people to death with.

That’s insecurity.

The new COVID-era etiquette

Only solitude is 100 percent safe

By Caitlin Kelly

Canadians have just had their Thanksgiving and Americans are already geared up for Hallowe’en and their Thanksgiving, let alone other holidays and the (large) family gatherings usually expected and anticipated.

Not us.

Jose’s parents are long gone, his nearest sister lives a four-hour drive away and my only close relative, my 91-year-old father, is in Canada, where my American husband is banned and I face a 14-day quarantine. I haven’t seen him in more than a year and haven’t crossed that border since late September 2019, when it was no big deal.

Every social gathering — let alone professional — is now so fraught with menace and fear, caution and basic human desperation for a damn hug!

This week we are joining two friends, outdoors (bringing a blanket!) for a two-person birthday celebration at a Manhattan restaurant. This weekend, we’re meeting three people, also outdoors, for lunch.

The grilling!

Who will wear a mask and when and for how long?

Who have they met with and how recently and under what circumstances?

Do we trust their friends — who we have never met?

We live in downstate New York, where daytime temperatures are still in the 60s or 70s but night-time plunging to the 40s, hardly a comfortable temperature for sitting anywhere for very long.

It’s wearying.

Our family’s first and only grandchildren are twins born in D.C. in May — and my father still hasn’t seen them. Nor have I, since my half-brother refuses all contact after a 13-year estrangement.

Millions of people have now lost loved ones to COVID and never had the chance to say good-bye.

Forget weddings and other groups….the latest NY crisis was the result of (!?) a Sweet 16 party, after a wedding in Maine had the same effect.

Our local church is now, finally, open again physically, with an indoor service (limited, it’s a small space) and outdoors at 4pm on the lawn. What I miss more than anything is belting out my favorite hymns…now a dangerous thing to do.

Yes, it’s hard and lonely to never see anyone.

Yes, it’s annoying and difficult to negotiate these times, especially with government “guidance” that shifts daily.

Needs must.

The managing of money

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Broadway tickets always a splurge — worth it?

By Caitlin Kelly

Few things are as frightening to some people as managing money.

For many, it’s a question of sheer survival — when the American federal minimum wage, shamefully, hasn’t risen from $7.25/hour in 10 years — while the cost of living now dictates a minimum of $14.84 an hour in Cleveland and $24.30/hour in San Francisco.

For others, it’s the best barometer, literally, of their worth and value to the world, to their family, to their industry — and to themselves.

One freelance writer bragged this week about making $10,000 in a month and how she’s about to hit her $50,000/year income goal.

Which inspired many others but also annoyed me and some other writers I admire. I really tire of money being held up as the sole metric of success.

Income is not one-size-fits-all.

Expenses, as well.

I recently had an interesting conversation on Twitter with a stranger, a mechanic earning $40/hour, about my use of the words “working class” — wondering if that meant him. I suggested “blue collar.”

I’m endlessly fascinated by what we earn, how we earn it, what we spend it on and how much (if any) we save and for what purpose. As subscribers to the Financial Times, we also get its glossy oversize magazine called — no kidding — How to Spend It, which often features $10,000 dresses and $100,000 watches, pocket change to the bankers and other HNW (that’s high net worth) readers it’s aimed at.

I’m fascinated by money partly because my maternal grandmother inherited a lot of money from her father, a Chicago stockbroker and real estate developer — and spent it so fast and so freely you would think it burned her fingers. She lived a life of opulence: homes designed by the city’s top decorators, limousines everywhere, custom-made silk muumuus and matching turbans and enormous jewels. It was quite something!

She also never bothered to pay any taxes to anyone — so when she died there was little left after paying off the Ontario, Canadian and American governments.

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Our weekly indulgence, fresh flowers

So I’ve seen the effects of both privilege and profligacy.

 

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Don’t end up in trouble!

Living in the United States for decades — without doubt the meanest and most punitive developed nation when you are poor, ill, vulnerable and struggling — has also really opened my eyes and taught me to be extra cautious about what I earn and how much to save. It’s not a place you ever want to be in trouble with no lifelines or savings, reliant on charity or the shards of government help potentially available to you.

We were offered a huge break this year, a tax credit that has saved us $1,000/month (!) on our health insurance. But we’re also now required to account for every penny of our income and expenses to bureaucrats who have no understanding that — as full-time freelancers — we do not have an employer, yet keep hounding us for more and more paperwork.

That’s when I get libertarian in a hurry and would rather just pay for things myself.

I’ve stayed put in the same one-bedroom apartment for decades; our housing cost is $2,000 month, (half of it the maintenance fee we owe to the co-op,) fairly cheap for New York (suburbs.)

But we don’t have children or pets or dependent relatives, when so many others bear the costs of all of these. So we’re usually able to save money and that gives us some breathing room — helpful when we lost $27,000 worth of anticipated income overnight thanks to the pandemic.

We were also lucky to each graduate college with no debt, (Jose had full scholarships and I attended university in Canada), another enormous burden for so many Americans, even into their 30s or far beyond.

So much of the money we have access to, and how we manage it, is circumstance and luck: where we were born and raised, what resources were made available to us and when. The job market.

Good health — or its lack.

This year has, oddly, been a busy one for us. We have both had steady work and found new and appreciative repeat clients.

But we both really know how fragile it all is.

My husband grew up in a wholly different way, his father a small-city Baptist minister living in church housing. So Jose tends to be very risk-averse and I tend to be bolder when it comes to spending and investing. It makes for some challenging moments!

We work really hard, splurge when we can, and pray for ongoing good health.

Does handling your finances cause you stress?

Do you enjoy it?

Did anyone teach you money management skills?

How do you self-soothe?

 

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Baby Elephant was a gift after my tonsils were removed — age five or six. Sawgy is a stuffed green crocodile my husband brought back from a golf tournament.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

The ability to moderate one’s emotions — especially sadness, fear, anxiety — is one of the skills we all learn to acquire. It’s essential to our mental health, especially in times of trouble, like right now!

It’s called self-soothing.

When we’re little, we might have a favorite blanket or stuffed animal. We might also (as I did for many years) suck our thumb or obsessively twirl a lock of our hair, as I once saw a Big Name writer do in the audience of a writing conference.

This recent post by a therapist is extremely detailed and helpful, with lots of great suggestions.

The reason this interests me is that what we choose is so individual — and this recent story for HuffPost by writer Aileen Weintraub about sleeping with a stuffed animal very quickly drew negative comments:

I can’t remember the magic age when I felt it became taboo to sleep with a soft toy. It may have been after college or perhaps when I landed a job on Wall Street and began wearing business suits. When I ask close friends if they sleep with a stuffy, they scoff, wondering if I’m serious. So I open up the conversation to find out how they self-soothe when they can’t sleep. One confesses to sneaking down to the fridge and eating ice cream out of the container, another obsessively reads medical mysteries, and another says she pets her real dog more than she feels is normal by other people’s standards, whatever those are.

Stuffed toys are “transitional objects,” meaning they provide stability and comfort for children when their caregivers aren’t there. But maybe we are always transitioning. Becoming a parent is a transition. Heading into middle age is a transition. Right now, we are collectively transitioning through a pandemic. Admitting this can be hard. We keep these secrets to ourselves, letting only a select few witness our vulnerabilities. It goes against every cultural norm we have learned to honestly discuss our need for softness and comfort because perhaps by acknowledging it, we are acknowledging our deepest insecurities.

In the light of day, I might consider myself a confident, successful woman, but at night I’m reminded that I run on anxiety and self-doubt, and George makes it better. Sometimes I sleep with him on top of my chest like a weighted blanket.

I’ve long had a collection of stuffed animals and have no shame or embarrassment about it as an adult.

I don’t use drugs — while others do.

I don’t drink a lot of alcohol — as others do.

Both are perfectly acceptable ways, publicly, to self-soothe as an adult.

rhiney

Yay, Rhiny!

 

Not a stuffy!

I want to wake up and go to sleep feeling calm and happy — and if the faces of a collection of small furry friends is helpful — who is there to criticize that choice?

 

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This little guy traveled across six European countries with me in the summer of 2017, no doubt amusing many hotel chambermaids.

 

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Soldiering on

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By Caitlin Kelly

One of my favorite films is Dr. Zhivago, with an unforgettable scene of a long line of exhausted, worn-out soldiers trudging forward.

To “soldier on” means to keep going, doing something that’s difficult, not giving up when you’re tired and discouraged and just fed up.

(It’s also a non-profit group dedicated to ending homelessness for veterans.)

It’s now been five months since COVID began to dominate our lives — with more than 137,000 Americans dead, thousands more soon to join them.

It’s been a long time to readjust, albeit immediately, to a world we never wanted: terrified of catching a disease that, if it doesn’t kill you, can radically damage your health for years to come. A world where parents, somehow, have had to school their own children or supervise their online learning in addition to earning an income in a full-time job.

And there’s no end in sight.

I live in New York, now one of the few states that flattened the curve because we listened early to the directions of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Is it fun to isolate?

To stay home most of the time?

To avoid all social gatherings?

To postpone medical, dental and grooming appointments?

Let alone to miss culture-in-person — dance,  music, museums theater, movies.

Hell, no!

And the single greatest problem with being a soldier right now is the stunning lack of leadership, of a general with a clue, with a strategy and tactics. We’re fighting the virus with very few weapons — masks, social distancing, ventilators, proning, remdesivir — and losing what feels like an endless battle.

Still.

I often deeply wish that the veterans of WWII were not so old, the few left alive, to share more widely and consistently the shared sense of sacrifice and solidarity that somehow got them through it all.

The enemy, Nazism and genocide, was clear(er) then and the fight, however long and expensive and bloody, was one most people agreed was essential to win, no matter the personal sacrifices. It was a matter of pride, then, to share the sacrifice, to know what you were doing to help really mattered and your colleagues, friends, family and neighbors largely agreed.

Not to whine that a mask contravenes your liberty — just like blackout curtains or rationing once did as well.

Today, somehow, a lethal virus is still not as clear an enemy — and thousands refuse to believe it even exists, like the 30-year-old whose last regretful words were: “I thought it was a hoax.”

 

But soldier on we must.