Join the conversation
Subscribe to Our Emails
Boston Review is a public space for the discussion of ideas and culture. Sign up for our newsletters and don’t miss a thing.
Despite the myth that deaths of the elderly are never untimely, the author mourns a friend, fifty years his senior, who succumbed to COVID-19. She taught him that a moral life entails wanting those rewards not only for yourself but for everyone.
Early on the morning of Saturday, May 9, a close friend died of COVID-19. Her name was Fran Morrill Schlitt. She was eighty-four years old.
Fran contracted the virus at her assisted-living facility in Boston, across from Symphony Hall. She died nearby at Beth Israel Hospital. I am in Austin, Texas, 1,700 miles away. I was not able to attend the small, brief funeral. I could not be there with her son, David, for the shiva, the seven days of mourning that are traditional in Jewish households. For that week, the community gathers around the bereaved to provide food, conversation, presence.
If I could have joined Fran’s community to memorialize her, I would have had a lot to say. Fran and her husband Jacob, who died in 2018, shaped the person I am now. They eased me into adulthood, with all its gravity and mundanity. Fran taught me how to use a dishwasher. She and Jacob taught me about the politics of our city and our nation. They weren’t didactic and didn’t play the know-it all. They encouraged me to recognize that I wasn’t alone on the earth and that the others here with me thought differently, had different needs, and were no less entitled to those thoughts and needs. Later I would come to see this way of thinking in terms of public reason: the idea that political choices should be based on principles acceptable to diverse people with infinitely varied ideas about how the world works.
Fran and Jacob were leftists, which, in the contemporary United States, means that the principles on which they reasoned included not just personal freedom but also equality. Equality before the law, equality in treatment by police and public officials, equality of opportunity, and equality in welfare. The policy conclusions recommended by their principles included universal access to mass transit, which confused me because I assumed that everyone, everywhere, rode the subway. They made sure I knew otherwise. Fran introduced me to the idea of single-payer health care when my checkups still came with lollipops.
Fran helped shape the person I am now. She and her husband were leftists, which means today that principles on which they reasoned included not just personal freedom but also equality.
Although Fran was fifty years my senior, she never gave the impression of believing that she was wiser. She readily asked for help. Sometime in the late 1990s, she called up my mother and asked if I could come to the house to do a little job. It turned out that her computer, always a mysterious object, had become that much more exotic and forbidding. She and Jacob had received an AOL installation CD, and they wanted me to set up email and show them how to use it. They also weren’t sure how to use the Web or run their printer. David probably could have shown them, but it was my help they wanted. So for a couple months, I visited regularly, got them online, and helped them stay that way. Although I fooled around with computers, I didn’t really know what I was doing. But the idea that two adults might rely on me, a mere bar mitzvah–age kid, was thrilling, and I wanted to make sure I earned their confidence.
At our synagogue I worked with Fran on the kiddush. That’s a misnomer; our community didn’t have a synagogue. We worshipped in a rented church basement until we moved upstairs to the small chapel, where we draped a white cloth over the cross on the wall. Anyway, every week, after the service, the community gathered for a light snack. The two of us, and usually one or two other kids who had gotten bored of the week’s Torah portion, cut up carrots and celery and arranged the chopped vegetables on silvery plastic platters with a container of hummus in the middle. We sliced cheese and filled tiny plastic cups, not much larger than a thimble, with grape juice for the kids and pungent kosher wine for the adults. One small challah was left intact for the prayer over the bread, and Fran showed me how to cut the large one into artfully symmetrical slices. Sometimes there were bagels and other good things. When everyone was finished, she made sure we kids separated the trash from the recyclables. Then we washed the dishes.
Fran and Jacob were not, throughout their lives, motivated to go to synagogue or eat kosher food. From what I came to understand, it was their son’s interest that drove them to attend weekly. David and I, and my brother Cobi, all attended the Solomon Schechter Day School in Newton, a Boston suburb. We learned to embody someone’s notion of Jewishness, and our parents paid extravagant tuition for an A-plus education in a town that already offered one via the public schools. We came home in the afternoons with Judaically inspired ideas about life and learning, and David imparted these on his parents. This was a feature of being Fran and Jacob. They learned from the young.
Later, after college, after I’d moved back to Boston, I resumed my friendship with them. Both had grown frail, and Jacob a little short-tempered, especially with Fran. They moved slowly and were often sick. In 2014 Jacob—who had spent his life as a labor organizer, civil rights activist, and public servant—won an award from the Democratic Socialists of America. I didn’t attend the ceremony, but my brother did. Bernie Sanders had not yet made the DSA hip, but Cobi wasn’t the only member of his generation in attendance. Jacob had many friends many decades younger than he. They coalesced around him, and he was galvanized by them.
Jacob’s magnetism lay not only in his politics but also his passion for Yiddish. He spoke it and read it and sang in it. Yiddish makes everyone—Fran and Jacob, no less than their young friends—a seedling. To dig up that ancient coiled root would take more days than we are given. Some of the young people who gathered around Jacob were engaged in this same joyful and humbling pursuit. Although Yiddishists spend much of their time looking into the past, their object is always the future—the blossoming, season after season, of the bulbs at the surface end of the root.
Did they believe that cultivating the young—the future—was a way to live the politics to which they committed so much of themselves? Many of us who ascribe to leftist politics don’t ask such questions enough.
The future was Fran’s work as much as Jacob’s. Fran spent decades practicing and teaching social work. She tried to make better futures for the dispossessed, and she mentored others in that craft. I was never present when Fran was teaching, but I imagine she instructed her students not only in the person-to-person engagement of social work but also in the public good of it. To say that we want to live in a better world is to say that we want to live in a world where people lead better lives—lives that blossom, season after season.
In her later years, Fran took advantage of what she had helped to build. She and Jacob spent days on end at a local senior center, taking part in the activities and the community and receiving support from the social workers there. They attended concerts and received tax abatements, joined memoir-writing workshops and got help arranging in-home care. They would not have needed the validation, but perhaps they were nonetheless gratified. Their lives, spent envisioning and working to realize the future, were now in the hands of the future they had shepherded into being.
I don’t know if Fran and Jacob ever thought systematically about their relationships with young people. Did they believe that cultivating the young—the future—was a way to live the politics to which they committed so much of themselves? Was it obvious that working toward a world of freedom, equality, and respect meant taking an interest in the young people who would one day live in and maintain that world? I never asked them these questions. I think a lot of us who ascribe to leftist politics don’t ask these questions enough. The young are not really part of the theory, which instead focuses on workers and bosses, capital and labor; colonialism, sometimes; and increasingly racism, sexism, and gender inequity. The big-box media talk about the youth vote in their characteristically emptyheaded way, but a more sophisticated talk of the future doesn’t course through the left as it should. Whether we speak abstractly or concretely, it is of philosophies, policies, and histories. We might in addition talk more of futures.
To many Americans, the socialist future that Fran and Jacob pursued seems hellish. A cold and brutal landscape of gray, broken only by blank-faced peasants at toil. If their shackles are not too heavy, they will produce something, also gray, maybe brown. The thing isn’t their own. It belongs to a state at once defiantly aloof and always in their heads, their space, their books, their wills, poisoning them with smiling lies about the people.
And yet I can think of hardly anyone who more fully defies this dystopic logic than Fran. Fran toiled, but she did not lose sight of her reward. I hesitate to say that she insisted on it, but I know she took it with pleasure.
In the winter of 2019, she and I spent time in a place as gray and cold as a Soviet mining town, although it was laid low by capitalism rather than anything resembling socialism. I speak of Rochester, New York, an easterly outpost of the Rust Belt. My partner and I had moved there for her job. (We have since moved to Austin for her next job.) Fran had family in Rochester and had come to see them, and me. It was hard for her. By then she had survived lung cancer. She could barely hear under the best of circumstances, and, arched over her walker, she moved with plodding deliberation. One night, we went to a restaurant. It took her fifteen minutes to cover the eighty feet of sidewalk from my car to the restaurant. Then we descended a few steps to the basement-level front door, another labor. Rochester hasn’t yet seen its urban comeback, but in contrast to its downtown surroundings, the restaurant was peopled and noisy—so much so that we were often overwhelmed and reduced to silence.
Fran loved her meal. She ate half a chicken on her own, plus potatoes, served on a metal cafeteria tray covered in paper fat-slickened to translucence. She drank two beers, ample pours into glass steins. She leaned in to hear us shout above the racket, and she spoke when she could. She told me how she adored me. She squeezed my partner, whom she had just met.
Throughout her life as I knew it, Fran enjoyed food. Especially in her later years, she was voracious and ate diversely. She cooked and gulped Jewish favorites, to say nothing of a transcendent pea soup loaded with thyme. She also ate the fish in mango chutney, steak, a little bit of everything from the dessert tray. Her mouth would relax into a ring of crumbs.
Last fall my parents and I took her out for her eighty-fourth birthday. We drove to her apartment to pick her up, but half an hour later she still wasn’t answering her phone or buzzing us up. I followed another resident into her building, went upstairs, and found her door with its colorful mezuzah on the upper right. Many knocks later, she hadn’t stirred. I called her cell phone and her landline, left messages on both. We kept waiting, then gave up. We were halfway home when she called to tell us she had fallen asleep. Would we come back and get her? She could have begged off. She was depressed at the time, struggling alone but still devoted to loneliness. Hardly anyone except the home health aide saw her in those days. Something moved Fran to be with us. So we turned around, and I went up to the third floor again to get her.
Her gloom receded that night as we sat in the pleather-lined booth of a chain restaurant that aspired to outdo the Cheesecake Factory. Fran had the surf and turf and the dessert and some kind of artichoke dish and the breadsticks, too. We talked about David and how he was getting along in his new home on the other side of the country. We talked about my recent move to Texas. She announced that she would sell her apartment and move into the assisted living facility across from Symphony Hall. This was a decision years in the making, a decision she had resisted, for she demanded independence. When she made her choice, our fears were greatly eased.
A few months later, her refuge proved to be the incubator of the disease that ended her life. But my mother did get chances to visit her there. They had lunch in the dining room. I have a photo of Fran, working intently on a bowl of chicken soup. How I wish I could have sat with her there, surrounded by Ediths and Irvings, Esthers and Evelyns, old and placid with canes and soft hair.
The future was what she had always wanted, which must be why she loved fiercely its citizens: the young.
Were we not beset by a pandemic, I would have seen Fran in late April. I feel confident that she would have lived a while longer—maybe six months, maybe a year. Maybe even two. After many health problems, she was doing better. She was evidence that form follows function: by living more happily, beyond the hermitage of her apartment, she had willed herself toward physical recuperation. Surrounded by others, under care and ministration, she had a little more time to look forward to, in which to receive visits from her friends near and far, from her son and his wife, and from the baby they’ll soon have.
There was a brief future remaining for Fran, but I don’t doubt that she wanted every minute of it. The future was what she had always wanted, which must be why she loved fiercely its citizens: the young. No, like I said, I never asked her this. I just believe it. I believed we would cross Massachusetts Avenue together, I would help her up the marble steps on the other side, and we would go to the symphony.
Fran had a very distinctive voice. I have kept a phone message she left me a few years ago, after her eightieth birthday. She didn’t have any big news for me. She insisted that I make rugelach for her eighty-first. She said, “I just wanted you to know that I think you’re terrific.”
There is a widespread myth, a powerful myth, that the deaths of the aged are never untimely. It is the young who die tragically—their potential unfulfilled and with so many still counting on them. This is true, as far as it goes. Were my brother to suffer some dreadful accident, or fall to a virus, the depth of my pain would be not matched but exceeded by that of his wife and his young children, given all the immediacy and materiality of his gift to their lives. They would have more pieces to pick up than I.
There is a widespread myth, a powerful myth, that the deaths of the aged are never untimely.
Yet, while no one relied on old Fran like my brother’s family relies on him, her death registers as a great loss that arrived much sooner than it should have. Because she was old, every remaining opportunity to be with her was a thing of inordinate value. Our one or two or five occasions to gather again would have been the most central to our friendship. They would have been loadbearing timbers in the temple of memory. Meaning comes to us when we are near the end of something important. Think of your favorite story. The end itself is nothing, a period followed by blank pages. The feeling of the approaching end is everything.
My partner’s eighty-eight-year-old grandfather recently died in his sleep. He was one of her closest friends. I don’t mean only that their lives were precious to each other. I mean they had more than a past together. They also had a future together, a future whose anticipation made the present gleam. When Grandpa Ralph was struck by a heart attack, their future ended and with it the vitalizing anticipation of more to come. Nothing attainable in life can adequately substitute for that.
About the same time that Ralph passed, about the same time as the virus was finding its way into Fran’s home, the lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, asserted to a Fox News host that old people would be happy to die from COVID-19 so that the economy might be restored to health on behalf of their grandchildren. Setting aside the fact that the health of the economy is not self-evidently good for children—while the stock market was smashing records last year, almost one in four Texas children was living in poverty—what vision of the future is this? I’m sure it is not a carefully considered one. Patrick is not a careful person. He is a former talk-radio host playing unconvincingly the part of a public servant. He is moved not by a judicious engagement with the problem of the public good but by an instinct for publicity, seeking out the TV camera as a lizard might a sun-heated stone. The lizard needs that heat to live, and some politicians need those cameras to feel righteous and loved.
But even if Patrick doesn’t believe what he said, it was thinkable to him, and that tells us something. Though I’m sure he would not say it again today, and though I am confident that even in Texas senicide would never be implemented as policy, I am equally confident that Patrick and the rest of the state leadership do not care about Fran and people like her, and not just because she lived elsewhere. I live here, and I’m sure they don’t care about me, either. I’m a Jew from Boston, probably a liberal, certainly suspect. A foreigner and a virus in the body politic. Patrick would also at least joke about sacrificing me for the good of the young.
Fran Morrill Schlitt
That is a claim on behalf of the future. Maybe it is a perverse one, and unserious. But the underlying gesture is real. There is some world apart from our own in which radio blabbers want to live.
I would submit nonetheless that this politics, unlike Fran’s and Jacob’s, is not a politics of the future. It is a politics of the self. The opposite of the politics of the future is not the politics of the past, although it can seem that way, with the word Again so prominent on red hats and in red mouths. But to call this the politics of the past would be unduly charitable. The U.S. right wing calls itself conservative, but it doesn’t know the past. It presses the false historical claim that the United States was created to give people freedom from any sort of state-imposed constraint, an idea starkly at odds with the many competing visions of the founding generation. In the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, freedom meant self-rule: law created through fair democratic procedure was legitimate and no offense to liberty, though it might constrain the individual in countless significant ways. It was later that counterrevolutionaries who feared democracy demanded a bill of rights to protect the people from the laws the people wrote. We need not pay even the least intellectual fealty to founding ideals, but we might at least know what they were if we are going to call them our own. Today’s right wing is doing something new, as we all must. Something that responds to the world as it is now, not as it was then.
No, the opposite of the politics of the future is not the politics of the past. It is the politics of the self. It’s the politics that says damn everything, tomorrow included, unless it brings only what I want. I must get what I want, no matter what you want, and nothing more need be said on the matter.
The opposite of the politics of the future is the refusal of public reason. The unwillingness to think about accommodating the wants and needs of others. What is unthinkable to Patrick, and to at least some of the people who vote for officials such as him, is that anyone could reasonably want something different from what they want, and that these others might even be permitted to have what they want—up to and including their own lives. What is thinkable, if not necessarily desirable, is that people like Fran should piously go off and die so that Patrick and Governor Greg Abbot and the Texas legislature can kick people off the unemployment rolls.
A know-nothing might accuse me of politicizing the death of my friend. But Fran and Jacob knew that everything in life is political. We cannot help, with each passing minute, building the future.
That is not to say that Fran and Jacob spent every waking hour in agitation. This is a caricature of leftists that the contemporary right, with its “funny” memes and its lighten-up strand of anti-PC rhetoric, celebrates. Like most people who share their politics, Fran and Jacob had plenty of festive moments. They joined in a community of worship and kinship. Jacob was a jazz aficionado. Fran had a flair for interesting-yet-unassuming art and fashion. People who constantly protest, who are unable to find pleasure in anything because they understand that everything is compromised by capitalism, are a bore and a chore. I have known some, and though I share their critical perspective, I avoid them.
I take pleasure. I took pleasure in my meals with Fran, even though I knew that the food we ate was provided to us by immigrant farm and restaurant workers demeaned and rejected by the very politics that ensures they labor for the benefit of better-off Americans. The illegal immigrant is enslaved. Denied rights so that her effort is easier to exploit, working for nothing of her own because bosses demand it. Still I took pleasure in those meals.
As Fran reminded us at Jacob’s funeral, he desired for all the people, including the despised but essential immigrant, to have not just bread but also roses. The future Fran and Jacob worked toward is anything but gray drudgery. It is full of hard work. But it is also full of rewards. Fran believed that work should pay, which is why she was willing to walk the eighty agonizing feet on a cold night in a city that became an externality, an unwilling sacrifice in the creative destruction of Kodak and Xerox, its bones picked over by Paychex and Wegmans and the United States itself.
Rochester, like the politicians who run Texas and the United States itself, expresses the unremarkable truth that capitalists don’t care about people. Fran cared about people. She wanted the chicken and beer in that restaurant because she cared about people.
Does that not make sense to you? Do you not see that everyone’s genuine effort—whether traversing eighty feet or a vast south-of-the-border desert—should bring rewards? Do you not see that a moral life entails wanting those rewards not only for yourself but for everyone, for every life is a matter of effort?
Fran wanted pleasure for herself because bread and roses for everyone meant bread and roses for her, too. Her pleasure was the pleasure everyone deserves just for being, because being is hard. She did not believe that people should live austere, gray lives under the thumb of a state that wanted her only to labor and die or maybe just die. She cared about people because she cared about herself. She knew there was enough to go around, and that everyone deserves to have it.
Admit that there is enough for everyone. More than enough. We can have all the bread and roses to satisfy, and so can everyone else, forever, as long as we don’t take from others more than we need for ourselves. As long as we don’t ask others to toil so that we may hoard the rewards they created—or to die so that the state doesn’t have to raise taxes—we can all have chicken and beer. We can all have a livable and beautiful city. We can all have jazz and the future.
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox
Readers Also Liked
Printing Note: For best printing results try turning on any options your web browser's print dialog makes available for printing backgrounds and background graphics.