On May 24, 2020, I saw the front page of The New York Times: “U.S. NEARS 100,000 DEATHS, AN INCALCULABLE LOSS” followed by a rolling list of names. I was moved, especially by the word incalculable, as if this senseless death toll was beyond what we could comprehend. In some macabre sense, it felt like a milestone: incalculable, the peak of loss before the valley.
My twin brother, Leo, and I received a call from our family friend, Sarah Bryce. She had an idea to pitch to us. The Times’ entire front page could fit only so many names on it, meaning the layout could only partially capture the sheer number of deaths. She suggested we create a mural of the front page which would fill a whole wall to show what incalculable really looks like. So Leo and I made it happen. We went to a local FedEx store in Durham and copied a few hundred of the newspaper print covers, made some wheat paste on the stove, bought some rollers, put on our overalls, and went down to the Free Expression Wall at Duke University. Within a few hours, with masks covered with wheat-watery glue and glasses all fogged up in the sticky spring evening, the mural was done. Leo climbed up the wall and wrote in black spray paint: “100,000 LIVES.” Then we took a picture with Sarah standing in front of it—but six feet away from us, socially distanced.
As the days passed, some press followed and the image was posted and reposted across Twitter. We were on the local news channel, we were written about in the local paper, a few New York Times writers reposted it, and then it was over. We expected the covers to peel off into the road and that it would be painted over by another artist.
But instead, the mural has become almost an interactive art space for the moment. I remember after George Floyd was murdered on May 25, my brother and I biked to a protest in Downtown Durham. We swung by the mural and saw gold-dripping graffiti written across the pages: “POLICE STATE BURN.” Then a month later: “THE BLOOD IS ON HIS HANDS.” And then, as more months passed and the death count mounted, someone came and crossed the “1” and replaced it with a “2,” then the “2” with a “3,” and then the “3” with a “4.” Just this past week, the “4” was crossed through and now there is a “5”. Maybe the “5” will even become a “6”—I hope not, but who really knows?
It is true—a new future may be coming. With more hope and more joy. Perhaps we can sit together at a table, enjoy a meal, and smile when, 15 years from now, our children will ask, “How did you do it? How did you keep going?” I want to be able to answer that we did it through the expression of art, or through family, or through love, or through something that fits nicely in a narrative. And while that is all, of course, true, I think fundamentally it is something a bit more simple and sad: we were forced to look at this unfathomable loss of life directly in the face because to turn away from it would be a disservice to more than half a million Americans (and still counting) who died, and to ourselves. We read the names, we hear the voices, and we cry about the artists and family members and long-time lovers who will never make art again or sit at a table again or love again. It is mourning what we have personally lost: perhaps a friend, perhaps a family member, evenings of lightness, meals with grandparents, the college or high school experience, holidays we will never get back, days and months we won’t regain. It is staring into the darkness of what we have learned from this time: we live in a system that doesn’t serve or protect most people, especially people of color. We are servants of nature—no matter what, we cannot crush it into submission—and we are mortal: dying, breathing, and scared. I am proud of you. You should be proud of yourself. You haven’t survived this nightmare yet but you are surviving now. You are surviving. And you are in mourning.
Today, the pages we posted close to a year ago are now covered in red paint and peeling off the wall.
You can still read a few of the names:
Alan Finder, 72, Ridgewood, N.J., unflappable New York Times journalist.
Eastern Steward Jr., 71, Annapolis, Md., veteran with a gift for peacemaking.
Donald Raymond Haws, 88, Jacksonville, Fla., administered Holy Eucharist to hospital patients.
The mural would be five times as big as it was back in May of last year. Lots of stories and lives lost since then. Incalculable: then and now.
Oliver Egger is a sophomore at Wesleyan University currently studying remotely in Brooklyn. He is from Durham.
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