In the Suburbs: Tributes at last to the 400,000-plus COVID-19 angels

On the eve of their inauguration, President-elect Joe Biden and Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris stood in front of the reflecting pool on Washington’s national mall to finally honor and pay tribute to the more than 400,000 victims of this deadly pandemic. This simple, but powerful ceremony surely helped millions of Americans who lost family members, close friends or co-workers feel that these victims were important and must never be forgotten.

Both sides of the reflecting pool were awash with 400 candles (one candle for each 1,000 victims) and the haunting melodies of “Amazing Grace” and “Hallelujah,” performed by gospel singer and nurse Yolanda Adams, reminded all of us about the holiness of these moments and the ongoing sacrifices of caregivers around the world. Thousands of American flags fluttered in the soft breezes of the early evening as I looked toward the Lincoln Memorial.

President-Elect Biden, who was inaugurated Jan. 20 as our 46th president, told a grieving nation that each of those lives lost to COVID mattered and should be remembered.

In a report from CNN, the president-elect told Americans he shared in their grief, with his own understanding deepened by the loss of his first wife and daughter in a car accident as a young man and the loss of his son Beau to cancer at the age of 46.

“It's hard sometimes to remember, but that's how we heal,” Biden added. “It's important to do that as a nation.”

“He and his wife, Jill Biden, watched in silence, alongside Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, as the reflections of the lights glimmered in the water. Hundreds of towns, cities and communities across the country joined in the tribute, lighting up buildings from the Empire State Building in New York to the Space Needle in Seattle. Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, delivered the invocation and Harris spoke briefly at the memorial, noting that ‘for many months, we have grieved by ourselves. Tonight, we grieve and begin healing together,’” CNN reported.

Ironically, as Biden and Harris looked over the reflecting pool, there was only silence. A pre-inaugural night has always been filled with celebrations and parties. But this special night during the ongoing restrictions of the pandemic and pre-inaugural security, truly paralleled the loneliness and isolation that the victims of COVID-19 must have felt as they took their last breaths.

After the memorial, I was particularly touched by comments from distinguished commentators and authors.

For instance, noted author and Professor Eddie Glaude of Princeton University, who had lost a close friend just this past Monday, was interviewed on MSNBC. Glaude said that “sorrow unites us.” And alluding to how long it took to honor these fallen angels, he added, “If people don’t die right, they haunt,” which suggested to me that without proper closure — a last touch, a last kiss or hug — the victims of this illness were not able to be at peace.

Brian Williams, of MSNBC, reminded viewers that these 400,000 deaths were not the end of COVID-19 casualties. He said that we have lost more than 100,000 more Americans just since December. And he hoped that the 400 candles by the reflecting pool on the mall would become a lasting memorial to pandemic victims.

President-elect Biden’s simple gesture to have this brief memorial service should have been a wake-up call to the outgoing administration that these victims deserved recognition from the beginning and never received it. Biden showed compassion throughout his campaign for victims, often speaking to families, sharing his own pain with them and offering support. Those moments, I believe, made him truly presidential.

I had to think back over the past year about whether I had once heard the outgoing president ever show compassion or sympathy toward the families of victims. I hadn’t. With hundreds and eventually thousands dying alone in hospitals across the country, that president kept telling us that the end of the pandemic was just around the corner and offering ineffective Band-Aid fixes. Would it have been so difficult to hold even one short memorial service for victims or even create day of remembrance?

Months ago, I recalled one young woman, who held a position on Vice President Pence’s coronavirus task force, decide to resign after the death of her father from COVID-19. She faulted the president’s cavalier attitude toward the virus as a primary reason and felt she could no longer do her work effectively.

That cavalier attitude, along with never taking responsibility for getting the pandemic under control were the real keys to our nation making significant headway against the virus.

But that’s all in the past now and after noon on Wednesday, we can hope that President Biden will mobilize the vaccine forces and help to bring this pandemic under control. For now, I can only express my gratitude to the new president and vice president for honoring 400,000-plus fallen angels who sadly won’t be there to cheer them in this ongoing battle to overcome an invisible, deadly foe.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at stevengaynes44@gmail.com.