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    More Than a Number: Losing Our Greatest Generation During COVID-19

    By Andrea Shorter–

    A few days from today, my maternal grandmother would have been 95 years old. She was not one for celebrating birthdays, but every year, her mindset about living in the present and aging was summed up in her often imparted cheery, wise quip: “Age is nothing but a number.”

    I am now 55, and I believe the first time she told me this was around my 25th birthday, when I was probably having some cringe-worthy, mild anxiety attack, aka whining about getting older. Looking back, I don’t remember anything so bad about my life and times at the ripe old age of 25. In fact, other than my grandmother setting my mind right about aging, I don’t remember much about it all. Apparently, whatever my worries were at the time, my grandmother was as always right, that once I let go of my self-indulgence concerning aging, and just get on with it and have faith, everything was going to be alright.

    A few weeks ago, unexpectedly, my grandmother fell ill with what would turn out to be coronavirus. She was hospitalized on a Monday. On the following Saturday evening, December 5, she would become one of the reported 2,190 lives in the U.S. taken away that day by coronavirus.

    My grandmother was born in 1925, and lived her entire life in Indianapolis, Indiana. She was the daughter of a domestic worker and a janitor at Eli Lily, both up from the South. As a child, she described herself as a “little red-headed one,” a bit of a daddy’s girl as the youngest daughter of 5 children. She would graduate from the best known segregated high school in the city, and hold, from all accounts, one job in her life, as an elevator operator.

    She married my grandfather shortly after his discharge from the Navy after World War II, including service on Treasure Island, way, way out in California somewhere. From my grandfather’s GI benefits, they were eligible to build their own house in a project that built a middle-class neighborhood of other post-WWII African American veterans and their families. Many of the neighborhood dads worked as civil servants, in the auto industry, for the universities, or for big pharmaceutical companies. My grandfather became a firefighter for 30 years, and they raised their eight children together.

    Obviously at aged 94, my grandmother was of the Greatest Generation, living through the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and all wars and conflicts since. She lived through being formally referred to as Negro, Colored, Black, and eventually as African American throughout all manifests of anti-black racial segregation and strife, including the recently declared reckonings with race in America of 2020.

    My grandmother had style, grace, and a great sense of humor. She was quite the homemaker, a conservative and frugal child of the depression, but not cheap. She was always the first to get the new appliances and gadgets, and upgrade to the next when needed. She taught me how to use a good old fashioned pressure cooker—still my favorite cookware item!—and would gladly help me by phone when I wasn’t sure how to cook up the perfect corned beef and cabbage, or stew. She became unusually adept at computers in her 60s. If my technology professional brother was not available to rescue me from a computer meltdown of some sort, I’d call her. She’d know what to do.

    Above all, my grandmother was a woman grounded by and in her faith. She believed in a God greater than and beyond our mortal comprehension. She believed in kindness, fairness, and the golden rule. All of her life, she played by the rules. I sincerely doubt my grandmother even so much as got a parking ticket. If she ever did, I can only imagine it was just once.

    Now, instead of living out her last days, moments, and breaths in the comfort of the home she built with my grandfather and raised her family, as any good woman nearing 95 years old should have, she was taken away by a pandemic that was avoidable but for arrogance, dereliction, and hubris.

    Now, as of this writing, I am awaiting arrangements for a eulogy and celebration of my grandmother from afar, by remote video. This is not at all how anyone would have imagined we would come to gather at the end of my grandmother’s well-lived life.

    As much as I work to accept her passing with the peace, understanding, and grace that she would have expected of me, my anger and outrage are undeniable, ever-present. It didn’t have to be this way, but it is. It is the reality of nearly 300,000 American families, and friends who have lost and continue to lose loved ones to what was clearly avoidable, unnecessary.

    Age might very well be just a number, but like the many other family members and friends, I know that my loved one’s life counted for far more than being just another number of the daily death tolls at the top of the hourly newscast. And, just like the many other family members and friends, I am glad and relieved at the news that a viable vaccine will soon be available to hopefully prevent more deaths. It goes without saying that I desperately wish a vaccine could have been available sooner, in time to protect my aged grandmother.

    My grandmother’s memory and legacy will live on with me, my family, and the legions of her friends and fans. It will. I am working to let her light shine through my heart, and not be clouded by the hurt and anger and pain roiling in me about how or why she left this Earth. I will do my best to honor her life lived in and by faith.

    My faith is shaken, but not broken. Should I live to be 94, I will keep faith (and works) with our generation to do all in our power to never allow such horrific, preventable misery from happening again. Keeping the White House Trump-free is an encouraging start. Eighty million votes is a number we can build on.

    Andrea Shorter is a Commissioner and the former President of the historic San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women. She is a longtime advocate for criminal and juvenile justice reform, voter rights and marriage equality. A Co-Founder of the Bayard Rustin LGBT Coalition, she was a 2009 David Bohnett LGBT Leadership Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

    Published on December 17, 2020