Some might say Sister Patricia McGowan was quite fortunate. She led a solid life of 80 years, seemingly accomplishing everything she wanted while making a direct impact on hundreds, if not thousands, of lives as both an educator and volunteer.
But like so many the coronavirus stole from this world, neither friends nor family were allowed into Sister McGowan’s isolated room at St. John’s Riverside Hospital. Yet, as she drew her final breaths on that somber April day, Sister McGowan was not alone.
God was there, of course, a constant companion in a life so rich, there just isn’t enough ink and newsprint to capture it all. But there was someone else at the nun’s side. A nurse who worked at the Yonkers hospital.
We might not know her name, but Sister McGowan did. She never forgot the name of any of her students, according to one profile published a few weeks later. And this nurse had indeed been one of her students.
In just a few days, New York City is expected to emerge for the first time on what many of us hope is the other side of this pandemic. Some of us got sick. Many of us didn’t. Yet, it would be hard to find anyone who didn’t know at least someone the coronavirus claimed.
This single edition of the newspaper alone profiles three of them. We have Sister McGowan, who taught for more than six decades — most of them at the College of Mount Saint Vincent.
Then there’s Antonio Pepenella Jr., a high school guidance counselor who spent much of his life in Riverdale, raising both of his children here. Not only had he just turned 82, but his first grandchild — Alessia Valentina — was born just a couple weeks before.
Mr. Pep, as his students called him at Aviation High School in Long Island City, never had a chance to hold the beautiful baby in his arms. Instead, he had to settle for a videochat through FaceTime, forced to remain isolated from nearly everyone he loved until he was taken from them.
And then, of course, there’s Walter Watson, who never strayed too far from his Marble Hill community, and would get behind the wheel of his Brooklyn bus each and every day to ensure our “essential” workers reached their jobs. He even drove on May 4, the last day of his life, despite a persistent cough.
When he got home that evening, Walter laid down for a much-deserved nap, and never woke up.
These are just three of the more than 100,000 people we have lost to SARS-CoV-2 since the beginning of March. Over the weekend, with that death toll reaching 103,000, the coronavirus officially claimed more American lives than every lost soldier from the Korean War all the way up to today, including more than two dozen smaller military actions in between.
And we did all of that in a little more than three months.
Yet there are millions who refuse to take this pandemic seriously. They lash out against measures designed to save not just their lives, but the lives of those around them.
Staying home for months is hard, especially if it costs us a paycheck. Having our entire society as we know it turned upside down can be devastating. No one is denying any of that.
But that’s nothing compared to losing someone you love, while you can only watch from a distance. Or dying alone ourselves.
Wearing a mask isn’t a sacrifice. Staying home and waiting out the virus isn’t a sacrifice.
Paul Cary represents true sacrifice. Even before Gov. Cuomo pleaded for anyone outside the state to come help New York with its out-of-control outbreak, Cary drove an ambulance 1,800 miles from Colorado to offer his services as a paramedic.
He worked the front line for weeks, until he himself got sick. He died April 30 from the very virus he tried to save others from.
In a matter of weeks, our lives will start to go back to normal. Over time, especially after a vaccine is finalized, we’ll even begin to forget, as society often does as a way to cope.
But we can’t allow ourselves to forget. We can’t allow ourselves to dismiss.
Never again should we be caught so unprepared. If we do, the human cost will once again be unbearable. It’s a price far too high to pay.