When I was 20, I received word that my friend from high school summer camp had died. For weeks, I struggled to resolve the cognitive dissonance of a loved one materially gone forever, when my life had not materially changed at all. I struggled to feel his absence. Because I lived across the country, everything was the same for me in my Texas dorm room. But the universe had changed. As Arundhati Roy has so aptly put it in The God of Small Things, there was now a friend-“shaped-hole in the universe.”
I’ve felt much the same as I struggle to reckon with daily global death tolls in the thousands as the novel coronavirus wreaks havoc on the world as we knew it.
Taking a cue from the many traditions that liken human life to fabric, I started knitting a COVID-19 death-toll blanket.
As a scholar of infectious disease outbreaks and their impact on society, my general workload has increased a great deal since March. I’ve written several pieces online, done tons of interviews for local TV, news, and radio stations, joined various local ethics boards to help. It’s been the usual professorial work and then some.
Yet, somehow, even though my life’s work has prepared me to understand precisely this moment in history, I’m finding scholarly mechanisms too abstract in the face of material loss. There is an ever-growing, gaping maw of a “people-shaped hole in the universe” that I cannot feel.
I have not known anyone who has died. I do not know anyone from Italy, from Spain, from Wuhan. But I know the fabric of the world—the gossamer texture of shared community that ripples outward from one life—is rent asunder irrevocably.
Textiles have had specific uses in death for many cultures. In Ancient Greece, the fates were said to cut the strings of those who died, the individual life just one of so many in a larger weaving. I’ve always loved the idea of the Jewish ritual of tearing one’s clothing after a death to signify just this immense loss.
After his best friend Arthur Henry Hallam died, Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote:
“in words like weeds, I’ll wrap me over,
Like coarsest clothes against the cold;
But that large grief which these enfold
Is given in outline and no more.”
With his typical poetic poignancy, Tennyson likens his act of processing grief through poetry to the Victorian practice of wearing “weeds”—a particular type of mourning clothing. Like me, he felt that words somehow fell short in the face of tremendous loss: they can convey “an outline,” and no more.
Modern-day America has no set mourning practices. We do not have funeral weeds or mourning rituals, and I find myself groping, as I did after my friend’s death, for a way to make myself understand—to feel, physically—the enormity of the loss to the whole fabric of human existence.
I’m not sure at any given moment whether any grown-ups are in charge.
Taking a cue from the many traditions that liken human life to fabric, and from this gut-wrenching embroidery sampler that laments abuse through needlework, I started knitting a COVID-19 death-toll blanket—a modification of temperature blankets like this one. Here I’ve found some way for the body to feel the weight of the mind, to render tangible the transition of embodied life into nothingness. Feeling the weight of the blanket as it grows, the exhaustion of my fingers as I cannot keep up with the death toll, even at a scale of 1 stitch per 10 deaths, helps me to wrap my mind around the magnitude of loss.
I originally planned for each stitch to represent ten deaths, and I treated this as a meditative practice, like beads of prayer on a rosary. For each stitch, my mind could comprehend: 10 individual, unique, and never-to-be-had-again lives are gone. I could feel, wish well, and visualize the grief of a family, the unique offerings this person brought to our world. I also used different colors for the scale of the death toll in groups of about 500. First white for 0-500 global deaths in a given day, then green, blue, red, charcoal, pitch, and finally, purple.
In ancient times, purple was the color of royalty because the dye was made at great expense, requiring the blood of thousands of mollusks. As the highest marker of COVID-19 deaths on my blanket, I imagine ancient world leaders, draped in fabric dyed in rare animal blood, while people around them toiled and starved. It feels fitting while living in an America where our president mourns the loss of visiting privileges to Mar a Lago while migrant laborers continue to work in fields, unable to quarantine at home, lest we in the middle class wake up to find mandarin oranges unavailable.
I haven’t used the white thread in weeks. It is delicately packaged away, like a fine Champagne awaiting a celebration, for the end of these horrors—the return of comprehensible numbers of loss.
Now, I can’t keep up with the deaths. I run out of yarn for my appointed colors. But that gives me a sense of validation: it’s not just me. Nothing can keep up with the enormity of this. Not the Fates themselves if they were weaving with Walmart yarn.
The blanket is a mess now, with colors substituted haphazardly for one another according to what’s available. This, too, feels right—this mess. This chaos where I’m not sure at any given moment whether any grown-ups are in charge. I no longer feel in charge of this blanket, either. I’ve given up careful stewardship of its disciplined form.
This helps me to cope. It allows me to see a concrete version of that which I feel tossed in the melee: a body larger than any of us where no one seems to be holding the reins. I’m furious at times, but I am not brave. I am not a revolutionary.
We are not algorithms. We contain multitudes.
I believe there is real value in democracy, in ousting unjust leaders, in protesting for change, in developing ethics boards to manage hospital loads, in being there for my students who are in crisis right now. But I also believe there is power to leaning in to lament, to simply cry out for what perhaps need not have happened if we had better leadership, for the unavoidable loss we all experience at some point as human beings.
Perhaps we in America—so accustomed to having our mandarin oranges and our Walmart yarn at our fingertips—have lost touch with the value of lament without recourse, lament for lament’s sake. I find my solace in the lament of this messy, undisciplined blanket. It screams of the chaos of grief.
I always intended for the row lengths to vary, like a demented bar graph, as the death toll ebbed and flowed, but somewhere I lost track of the scale. But accuracy was never the point—organic fluidity was. Human life is messy, dangerous, and dirty, but God, it’s beautiful at its best. We are not algorithms. We contain multitudes, and a record of uncontainable grief seems the only response to the uncontainable beauty of the humans we have lost.
Kari Nixon is an assistant professor at Whitworth University, where she teaches medical humanities, Victorian literature, and the impact of disease upon social norms.