In the case where families and loved ones must say goodbye virtually, the life of that terrible scene is not so simple.
by Michael Shaw
What a terrible loss for the Arroyos. Our deep respect to the family for sharing this passing with the world, broadcast in March from a hospital in Riverside County. And what a painful assignment for SF Chronicle photographer Scott Strazzante. The images in this post were drawn from The Chronicle’s online news story as well as the print front page.
The pandemic and social media have brought us the most awkward and jarring experience of saying goodbye. At this point, there is nothing more ubiquitous or banal as a video chat. But in this case, it’s the banality of it—the reduction of the person to a window on a screen, one in a checkerboard of boxes—that makes José Jesús’ goodbye that much more excruciating. The screenshot says everything about the inability to touch, to hold, to be in your body.
At least the flatness and the cold deprivation is matter-of-fact. That is, until you see Strazzante’s additional photo of Verónica Hernández holding her phone with her uncle encased, swiping past his final wave. Using her mobile, she has to scroll past José Jesús to see the others on the call, in this case, his son-in-law Nicholas Keegan.
Witnessing the experience on the smaller device, and especially, against the background of the room and the child with a blanket, we acutely appreciate the deprivation of the frame.
On the other hand, the virtual bedside actually wakes up the printed page. The newspaper is flatter than flat, and the contrast of the Chronicle cover makes the screenshot as dynamic and alive as the screen makes it shallow. In a strange way, the cover brings 1918 to mind. In that pandemic, José Jesús’ would have likely died alone in quarantine, his passing marked perhaps by a few lines in an obituary. The virtual goodbye has been widely debated and will continue to be as long as contagions persist. But it’s worth noting that the experience today is something people in the past could have only imagined.