Behind the Numbers

Behind the Numbers
That morning,
I was scrutinizing the statistics,
on my iPad, tracking trends,
new cases and new deaths,
suddenly the screen began to shiver,
broke into fragments, showing many faces.
My eyes refused to focus—
it pulsed again, images multiplied
into a vast array of portraits
too numerous to count. I tried to fix on one,
perhaps succeeded, for a new explosion
revealed a video. The précis of a life.
Frame after frame in madcap succession
reviewed the stages—childhood, youth, and marriage—
presto agitato. Then confusion lessened,
a slower tempo and a change of light,
the harsh hygienic luminescence
of hospitals. It rested on a bed,
recording first the coughs, the wheezing,
then gasps, a desperate clutching
for air. Until the blackness came
and lingered, underscoring
the grim finality.
Another followed,
tuned to the same trajectory, early scenes
compressed to offer leisure for the ending,
caressing details of the closing hours.

I cannot tell the number of the lives
I witnessed in this fashion. But I know
I had not thought death would disclose so many.

A few of them were children. Brief beginnings
allowed luxuriant unfolding
of suffocation, past young understanding.
Thankfully, those were few. Most were older,
lives having run their course—but not expecting
so agonizing a conclusion.

All of them died bereft of friends—alone.

Of course I overlooked
the usual warnings—that the battery
was almost spent. But before
everything ceased, I heard the swelling
chorus of voices, raised in lamentation,
a long crescendo, all the friends, the partners,
long-married spouses, children of all ages,
parents—grandparents bitterly regretting
that they had not instead been taken.
It reached a forte
before the screen went dead.

The next morning
I turned the iPad on with trepidation,
wondering what might appear.
Only figures
greeted me. I studied the statistics,
but, as I did so, I heard, very faintly,
the swelling of that sea of mourning
behind the numbers . . .
Out of that dizzying kaleidoscope
two images endure.
A white-haired woman,
propped against pillows, watches from her bed.
The doorway frames a nurse. She’s poised to leave,
but hesitates—she stands transfixed
by a beseeching stare. Her shift is over.

Exhaustion sags her body, yet she knows
this woman will not occupy this bed tomorrow.
She could remain, take that frail hand in hers,
whisper some words of comfort, try to ease
the final struggle. The gaze will not release.
She can’t escape the plea of dying eyes.

But he’s still young.
Two weeks ago his fitness was a joke
among his friends. Now he can barely breathe.
Around him are assembling
medics in battle dress, they guide machines
into the room. His thoughts are elsewhere.
His gaze is fastened to a single picture—
it serves him as the background on his phone—
showing his infant son in his wife’s arms,
his firstborn, never seen and never touched.
Over him hangs the haunting question . . .
They’re coming now, they stretch to intubate,
reach to anesthetize—and all can read
the fearful sadness in his eyes.

Two images,
two tiny fragments of the scenes I saw,
themselves just minute pieces of a world,
extended in a cruel chiaroscuro
behind the numbers . . .