If you walk past a child napping on a sofa, you’ll smile indulgently, step more lightly, and lower your voice to a whisper, even though you know that eventually someone or something will disturb the child’s slumber. That will hardly matter, and, as you know, your care is unnecessary because nothing can trouble the child’s progress, not even waking.
The sleeping child I gazed at was not on a sofa in my living room but in a hospital bed, and I wasn’t present but looking at a photo in an article. He was a boy, not simply sleeping but unconscious, according to the article about the war in Ukraine. A year ago, when it was new, the war was on everyone’s tongue. It is now a few days shy of a year old, a babe in human years, and as warfare goes, young. But I hardly speak of it, and my students report that they also rarely talk about the war, either at home or at school or with friends. Except for a scare when a stray missile hit Poland, no one I know has raised the subject of the war in months. I was reading about it not out of duty or interest but because the article, which was published last March, before the war was even a month old, was next up in my reading. I’m that far behind.
According to the article, experts predicted that Ukraine would not long withstand Russia’s attack and would have to negotiate an end to the conflict. That hasn’t happened, and even while reading the year-old report, I wondered how, even back then, before so much loss of life and so much destruction, anyone could have pictured it: Would not hundreds and thousands, thinking of all that had already been lost, moan that it was too late? Too late to save this battalion, this town, this family. Two days in, and it was already too late for the boy in the bed: before turning a page and first seeing the photo, I had learned his name, what had befallen him, and that he had died. No disturbing him.
But I was plenty disturbed. First, to think of what had happened to him while riding in the family car with his two sisters and his parents one frigid day in late February of last year, two days after Russia invaded Ukraine. A shell exploded near them, and shrapnel destroyed the car. The parents and one of the sisters were killed instantly. The fate of the other sister I do not know because it wasn’t reported, so I presume the reporter didn’t know it either. I do not wish to know it. Nor whether his grandmother arrived at the boy’s bedside before he died. Nor if such a visit could assuage any pain. Nor if she herself has survived.
I was also disturbed to look at his photo. Just seeing him in the bed seemed invasive. Even knowing his name seemed so. His face and name, like a severed finger found in the road, belong to the cadaver and should be left with it to be buried. We shouldn’t possess these any more than we should any other body part retrieved from the debris. He is not a relic.
I’m not even sure his story should be used, though of course a reporter must tell stories. Generic stories will do, though, or stories where identities are protected by pseudonyms, as is often done, especially for children. Baby Doe and Baby Jane Doe are two unnamed children whose legal cases were reported on in the 1980s. The author of the Ukraine article used a pseudonym for a Ukrainian who wished not to be identified, perhaps out of concern about reprisal. Even for the boy in the bed who cannot be harmed and has nothing to fear, respectful circumspection is wanted, both for the name and for the body. To report his death, the journalist might well have adopted the original identifier that was used in the hospital: Patient Unknown No. 1.
When a woman disappeared in Asturias in early November, her name and photo were publicized for two months in the hope that someone had seen her. But after DNA testing confirmed that a body found two days before Christmas at the bottom of a cliff at Cabo Peñas was hers, there was no longer any need to show her photo or repeat her name. In its article about the end of the search, the newspaper did not include the last picture of her. But it did provide two earlier photos showing the woman smiling and beautiful, in contrast to the reported deteriorated state of the body.
To pass over the particulars of a tragedy and neglect to remind readers that the victims have a name and face and all the particulars of a real person, might simply turn a person into a statistic. In one sense, that’s okay. Statistics help, and to obtain the compelling ones for their tales is why some people might risk their lives, as the reporter of the article I read must have risked his in shell-shaken Ukraine.
But to mourn the missing and the dead, do we need names? Standing with your back to the lighthouse at Cabo Peñas, you look out onto a vast sea. You’re not likely to see even distant boats. Just gray and blue, some white, except on cloudy overcast days when it’s only gray. A sea of human misery lies to the south in Africa, and the waters people routinely drown in trying to cross from there to Europe. Another distant sea of suffering is in Latin America, where fear or need drives people from their homes. Behind me to the northeast is Ukraine. All around me I see the broadest landscape where lives unfold and grow thin, then dissolve, and untold tragedies occur and fade and cease to exist. “All that is solid melts into the air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life.” Karl Marx. A boy lay on a bed while a photographer aimed a camera, no permission asked. A woman ended up at the bottom of a cliff, her image on dozens of webpages. I picture victims not as a number nor as a spectacle to gawk at, as if they were forever on a stretcher, being carried past us, but instead as wafting clouds, floating, forming, dissipating. “Thou thy worldly task hast done, / Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages: / Golden lads and girls all must, / As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.” Shakespeare. To mourn a boy in a bed or a woman on a cliff, who suffered such different circumstances and causes, no need for their names, but for the poets’ names, yes, to pass on their hard truths that must do for comfort. Walter de la Mare: “Life with death / Brings all to an issue; / None will long mourn for you, / Pray for you, miss you, / Your place left vacant, / You not there.” The news is not new, but it is never old news either, as long as people are swept away in the winds of time.
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