Op-Ed: Visiting the COVID-19 memorial in DC brought closure for UC student mourning grandmother’s passing

The memorial for Cindy McCaw, who passed from COVID-19 in February.

Brayden McCaw

The memorial for Cindy McCaw, who passed from COVID-19 in February.

Brayden McCaw, Contributing Writer

On Oct. 3, I visited the “In America: Remember” COVID-19 memorial. Located on the base of the Washington Monument in the National Mall, the memorial consisted of more than 700,000 white flags, each one an American life lost to COVID-19. 

The only word to describe the feeling of walking across the National Mall and seeing the true scale of this tribute would be awe. In each direction was an endless sea of white. There were hundreds of people visiting at the time, but all throughout the exhibit there remained a quiet sense of understanding. The exhibit was arranged in 149 squares on the north side of the Washington Monument, with walkways and benches between each square.

On the opening day, Sept. 17, there were around 660,000 flags placed. After roughly two weeks, on the final day of the exhibit, there were 701,133. As Americans continued to lose their lives to the virus, hundreds of volunteers spent each day placing new flags and assisting visitors in customizing and/or finding flags.

Over 700,000 white flags have been placed at the COVID-19 memorial to honor those who have lost their lives to the coronavirus. (Brayden McCaw)

This was artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg’s second tribute to the victims of the coronavirus pandemic. Her first installation, titled “In America: How Could This Happen?” was located outside of the RFK stadium in DC from late October through the end of November 2020. Months after its deinstallation, its flags were added to a special section of “In America: Remember.”

My grandmother, Cindy McCaw, lost her battle with COVID-19 on Feb. 10. Nana, as her grandchildren called her, valued her family above all else. She lived in Ilion, where she and my grandpa raised my father and his siblings. Nana worked from home for over 18 years, answering calls for United Healthcare. She loved to bake creative desserts, buy coupon books and play slot games on her computer. She was also a cancer survivor who saw the beauty in every single day. 

With my family, I customized a flag for the exhibit. Seeing her name on a flag among hundreds of thousands of others gave me the chance to mourn with the others in attendance. Each flag represents a family whose loved one was taken from them as well. I met a woman there who was unable to locate her family member’s flag. After helping her find it, we shared a special moment and gave each other our condolences.

I think this was the most special part of the memorial. For people mourning someone lost to COVID-19, it isn’t easy to discuss that loss without discussing the politics of it. At the “In America: Remember” memorial, it was an open place to grieve and talk to others going through the same thing. 

I want to thank the artist and organizer Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg for this opportunity. I want you to know that you brought many families closer to closure with your art. 

Brayden McCaw is a freshman majoring in Health Sciences. He is from Middleville.