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Joe Hoover, S.J.November 14, 2022
branch of tree in late fall early winter with a few leavesPhoto via iStock.

In the matter of the Covid-19-induced death of Jerry Huyett, S.J., I wanted to indict the state of Florida. That would have been the most satisfying storyline, a fine place to locate proper anger and blame. When Jerry died visiting that balmy flamingoed swamp in late July of 2021, Florida was mired in a deadly Covid surge that the state government itself seemed to be doing its best to stir up. Not good, not good at all for my Jesuit brother and housemate.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was by all accounts trying to make himself a hero to the virus community, setting the table invitingly for Covid to come along and do its brutal work. While rightly making a strong push for people to get vaccinated as Florida’s chief weapon in fighting the virus, Mr. DeSantis also passed executive orders that prevented cities and counties from mandating masks. He closed down state-run testing and vaccination sites. He ordered Florida’s Department of Education to freeze funding for school districts that had put in place mask mandates. He limited liability for nursing homes, hospitals and businesses for people getting infected with Covid-19.

In July of that year, Florida recorded nearly 22,000 new cases of Covid-19, breaking its own record. U.S. News and World Report noted that one-fifth of all Covid-19 cases in the United States were from Florida. The daily death count went up from zero deaths on June 10 all the way up to 108 deaths per day by the end of July.

And one of these was Jerry Huyett, a Jesuit priest of the United States East province, who wore big metal glasses, had a careless umber mustache and who, when he answered the phone at midnight in his room said, with abandon, “Yello!” With an emphasis on the “Ye.”

I tried to posit that for a little bit: that Florida and all its government pomp wiped Jerry off the face of the earth.

So I tried in my mind to make Jerry’s death some kind of symptom, or really a result, of a geopolitically aligned, post-Civil War, anti-scientific strain of American Deep South ressentiment. A strain of political rage embodied in its Republican governor and twined up with neoliberal atomization and anti-Castro ferocity extending deep into the bleary reaches of common good loathing. Florida as frozen midway through an eternal paean to rugged American individualism that tends to trample to death those rugged individuals known as “the poor,” and “the sick,” and “the old.”

I tried to posit that for a little bit: that Florida and all its government pomp wiped Jerry off the face of the earth.

But like thin charges against a slippery lawyered-up criminal, I couldn’t make Florida killed Jerry stick.

The other narrative I could have used to put his death into some recognizable category, to manage my takeaway from this event, is that, well before a coronavirus attacked his body, Jerry’s body was strafed by the dust from the World Trade Center in 2001.

I could not stay angry at the state of Florida, or in awe of some kind of 9/11-Covid-Tampa-World Trade matrix.

Jerry had for 30 years taught college readiness skills to new immigrant students at the Borough of Manhattan Community College in downtown New York. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he breathed in the toxic dust and residue that for weeks and months after those attacks on the Twin Towers coated lower Manhattan. He subsequently contracted a condition that required drugs which, by necessity, weakened his immune system.

And a weakened immune system was exactly what the coronavirus loved the most. Couple that with visiting Florida in a surge and it is no surprise that Jerry contracted Covid-19 and died.

And thus he was part of the national zeitgeist, Jerry, a casualty of the two chief insanities that hit this country 20 years apart; horriffic things that came from overseas, terrorists and viruses (both on planes, no less). Jerry was battered by the first and then done away with entirely by the second.

But that storyline did not work either. My observing mind went there, the dramatist in me went there, but my emotions did not. I could not stay angry at the state of Florida, or in awe of some kind of 9/11-Covid-Tampa-World Trade matrix.

When it all came down to it, the storyline that burned the most brightly around Jerry’s death was realizing that he could die at all.

Maybe it is impossible in the end to see someone’s death as a larger event on some sort of national stage. No, when it all came down to it, the only real storyline I could make stick was Jerry went to Florida and he never came back.

And embedded in that story is the fact that eventually all of us will go away and never come back. And this was startling to me. When it all came down to it, the storyline that burned the most brightly around Jerry’s death was realizing that he could die at all.

***

Jerry Huyett, who was 79 when he died, was tall, about six-foot-four, and the glasses, the mustache, “Yello!” I lived next door to Jerry in our Brooklyn Jesuit community. Our walls were made of, I think, cake boxes. I knew “Yello!” I knew it quite well.

Jerry in an untucked button-down, white with thin silver stripes, shuffling around the house, leading with slightly hunched shoulders, the way tall people sometimes do to reduce their towering over other people; making some kind of an involuntary shuddery breathing noise every so often. Striding into the kitchen monologuing to whoever will listen (or even if they are not listening); delightfully raging against the president and the latest investigation that would surely seal his doom. “They’ve got Trump,” he proclaims joyfully. “There’s no getting out of this one.”

Picking up the paper on the table, he’d laugh: “I have to read The New York Times so I can know what I’m supposed to think.” Gushing out his affection for JetBlue, subway escalators, the New York Post and his two favorite gals, Rachel and Stella. (Maddow, Artois).

Whichever type of love it was, at least he said it.

Jerry was in charge, more or less, of the material things in our house. Appliances, stove tops, repairmen, tiny beasts seeking free-will boarding. He learns that a rodent is spied in the kitchen and cries out to the community in an email: “That’s it! No more cake left under cellophane. I’m calling Rodney the exterminator. No more bags of chips left out! A new sheriff is in town. The law is laid down.”

Barking out these instructions almost with glee, so that you begin to think that Jerry actually loves it when rodents come calling. That maybe he even goes out into the alleyways at night to find hungry little mice and bring them into the house so he can sound the alarm about getting rid of these little mice.

During the sign of peace at our house liturgies, Jerry used to say to me, when he would drape a big paw around my shoulder, “Love you, bro.” I honestly never quite knew how to take this. The way he said it existed somewhere between a sincere “I love you,” and a Rat-packish “love ya babe.” Nevertheless, whichever type of love it was, at least he said it.

After he died, a colleague described Jerry as “one of the kindest, gentlest, and most humorous BMCC faculty (or indeed, anyone at all) I ever met.”

Over his lifetime as a Jesuit, Jerry had worked with at-risk youth and young adults, as an addictions counselor, in educational programs for refugees and then as a teacher for the City University of New York. When Covid came, his classes, like everyone else’s, went online. He taught five hours a day, and then he took calls from students deep into the night, sometimes for help with school work, but just as much simply for someone to talk to.

Many of them were new immigrants to the United States, and Jerry was on the phone with them until three in the morning. Night after night. Cakebox walls. Eventually I bought a Lenovo white noise machine to drown out the pastoral empathy sounding from next door. The students on the phone, Jerry told us, shared how incredibly alone they are during Covid, stranded in their small apartments, distanced from everyone else.

Clearly Jerry struck a chord with them, and they would not leave him alone. After he died, a colleague described Jerry as “one of the kindest, gentlest, and most humorous BMCC faculty (or indeed, anyone at all) I ever met…The students that Jerry worked with were inspired and drawn to him, and we valued his work with them enormously.”

This was the real story, what Jerry was like, and the startling fact that it was over. I had known people who died, but never anyone who was living with me at the time they died; let alone lived right next door counseling young people and singing French ballads in his sleep. (No, he really did that once, French ballads, I heard it.)

How could I not have known, O life, that you end?

And so when our Jesuit community was told at lunch by our superior that Jerry had died in Florida, I realized, in a way I never quite had before, a very basic thing; maybe the most basic thing of all: Life ends.

It goes and then it ends. He was here and now he is not.

How could I not have known, O life, that you end?

And it is really not right that you should set us up to fail like that, Life, or God, or Whoever it was that set us up to fail. The living one has been set up to die and wasn’t even clued in on the process at the get go. Hey pal—as you coast down the birth canal—welcome and happy birthday and all that, but know that one day you’re going to have a last birthday.

We do not get told that, unlike philandering American banks, humans are not too big to fail. God is not an enabling capitalist government keeping all of us alive no matter the frauds we have perpetrated, the slithering financial crimes we have committed. God is not going to bail us out after we have tanked our own economies again and again; after we have demonstrated so starkly how fragile the fiscal structures of our very existence are.

God is with us lovingly, but not so actively, so intrusively that he yanks bodies from the grave of complete and utter insolvency.

It too often feels like God sets us up and then, as with Jerry, as with all of us, watches us tilt over. Just watches. Empathetically, kindly, he watches, to be sure; sending bouquets of people and caring nurses and discreet hushed morticians. God is with us lovingly, but not so actively, so intrusively that he yanks bodies from the grave of complete and utter insolvency.

And it is true that our faith is centered on not just the “failure” of the cross and of our own human bodies, but also the glory of the resurrection of Christ. And I believe in the wondrous, stunning reality that we are all bound for eternal life with God. But that theological truth does not always live front and center when you encounter death up close.

I was fundamentally jarred by the notion that we are set up to get to know someone and then have it be that they go down south for a few days and then fully go away. Now you are here, now you are not. The thin hot moment and it’s all gone. Losing by an eyelash. A cry pointing us to the fact that we don’t know, we just do not know how long we have down here. We are reminded of this during All Souls Day and the days after. It can be a gift in itself: Life is short. Why are we wasting any time?

Maybe the most apropo storyline here is that Jerry died not just on any July day, but on July 31: St. Ignatius day, the feast day of the Jesuits’ founder. While Jerry did not tend to regularly sound off with Jesuit mottos like “going to the frontiers” or “finding God in all things” he simply, with little fanfare, did those things. He lived the Jesuit mission. He served the people who don’t always get served, or get served only grudgingly: the immigrants, the addicts, the sick, the poor. And he served them well and with love. There’s your real and final story.

Correction (Feb. 8): A previous version of this article had called Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis “Florida Gov. Rick DeSantis.” This has since been corrected.

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