The first sign appeared on the door of the priests’ retirement residence where I live. It was March 10 and the sign read: “No Visitors Until Further Notice.” Of the approximately thirty residents, perhaps only six or seven get out with any frequency, helping in parishes and attending an occasional concert. But all follow the news closely and were aware of the increasing threat from the insidious virus that had made its way from China to Europe and was now reaching New York. So the posted sign, though unwelcome, did not come as a complete surprise.
A second sign was the decision to reduce the “density” at the evening meal. We changed from one sitting to two so that, instead of four men at a table, there would be only two—one across from the other. Though this meant extra work for the staff, they accommodated themselves to the new arrangement with generosity and kindness.
A third sign appeared on March 21, and this more foreboding. Our usual custom is to celebrate Mass together in the late morning, with those attending seated along the chapel’s walls, some in wheelchairs, others with walkers. Only the main celebrant would stand at the altar. It became apparent that we were physically much too close and that, even without an actual exchange of peace, our proximity could be a risk. And so the sign posted on the chapel door declared: “Mass Suspended.” Of course, some continue to celebrate Mass in their rooms, but others have joined the dolorous Eucharistic fast suffered by the immense majority of God’s people.
I have lived here since the residence opened about three and a half years ago. In that time close to twenty men have died of causes ranging from Alzheimer’s to cancer. Most have been older than myself, but a few younger. As I would sit in the chapel, the words of the “Benedictus” about those “who dwell in the shadow of death” took on new significance. They seemed not morbid but actual and pertinent. In a culture in which death denial is so prevalent, any reminder of death’s inevitability can be salutary. It can help one appreciate the present moment, its grace and possibilities. It can focus attention on what is truly important.
Then on Saturday, March 28, a yet more ominous sign appeared. An ambulance drove up to the entrance of our residence and two EMS workers in protective gear emerged and wheeled a gurney into the building. After a brief time they came out, bearing one of our retired priests. The following day a sad notice on the bulletin board reported his death. It was only the following Tuesday that the news came that he had tested positive for the virus.
Four men, who by then showed symptoms that caused concern, were taken either to the hospital or to a nursing facility. A new protocol was instituted for the remaining residents. All meals would be delivered to the rooms and left on a chair outside the door. Masks were to be worn during any necessary interaction. We were in effect quarantined within our rooms.
Since then two men who had been transferred from the residence have died. To my knowledge neither was tested, though one surmises that the virus was a contributing factor. Our experience here only reinforces the general impression that the number of deaths attributable to the virus far surpasses the officially announced total.