Grief in the Age of Coronavirus

According to Mayan lore, I have already been to the Underworld. While the quickest path to Xibalba is usually death, ancient Mayans believed that there were gateways to this realm in the cenotes of Mesoamerica. Cenotes were created by the meteor that killed the dinosaurs, which cracked open the limestone, creating a whole network of underground caves with rivers running through them. In the modern day Mexican resort town of Tulum, those underground pools of mineral water still exist.

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During a recent vacation, one of my sisters-in-law arranged a private visit and we swam into one in complete darkness, with only the light of our flashlights to illuminate the stalactites interwoven with the roots of the tree systems above. There is an entire eco-system that exists just below the surface that has found its equilibrium. We heard the bats beginning to stir, preparing to fly up to the surface to feed on the local fruit trees once the sun finished its descent. And upon their return to the underground habitat, the food that passed through them would go on to sustain the fish that spend their entire lives in darkness.

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When we emerged from the cave at dusk, we learned that Covid-19 had become a pandemic and that the NBA had cancelled its season. As the magnitude of those facts sunk in, it was a sobering reminder that as a species, we have forgotten our place within the larger eco-system. Like the bats and the fish we encountered, our fates are likewise intertwined.

It is now 52 days into the coronavirus lockdown, and it is clear that Covid-19 is another gateway to the Underworld. Contrary to what we were told back in March, the virus has proven to be lethal to people of all ages. The death toll in the US continues to climb, and has already claimed more than 70,000 lives. While it is an unfathomable number, it can be hard to process until it includes someone you know, someone who died before their time. On April 21st, 2020, that reality came into devastating focus when I learned that my old friend Matteo De Cosmo had just succumbed to the virus. Matteo was from Bari, Italy, he was a talented Art Director, and he was 52 years old.

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Matteo in Beacon, NY,  2015

Matteo was one of those rare people who was truly one-of-a-kind. While we lived in completely different orbits, every few years, our paths would intersect and over dinner, we would catch up and it was as if no time had passed. When we met, he was already fully formed at 35 years old, while I was 20 and had barely lived. In 2003, I had just returned from my study abroad program in Florence, and it was my last summer as a college student. I was a film major at Syracuse and I landed an internship on the set of the indie film “The Orphan King.” If you’ve never heard of it, it’s because it was never released, and it starred Alexis Bledel and Chris Evans of pre Captain America fame. It was on that film set that I met Brian Urbina from the Art Department, and when production wrapped mid-summer, Brian hired me as his assistant on another film that was about to go into pre-production. The only caveat was that I would have to live in Utica, NY. Since the production company would be paying for the apartment, I agreed and that’s how I ended up living with two 35 year old men – Brian and Matteo.

This film was called “Come Away With Me” and like “The Orphan King,” was never released, and that was my first lesson in real life film production – you can get the green light on your script, assemble a good cast and crew, have a great working environment on set, and that is no guarantee that your film will ever see the light of day. Matteo was the Production Designer and Brian was the Prop Master so while they were both technically my bosses, they behaved more like protective older brothers. On my first day of work, Matteo was waiting for me to emerge from my bedroom so we could all go to the production office together, when he mused aloud to Brian “where is the Little Bird?” Since he was from Italy, there was a melodic timbre to his speech and the nickname stuck. When Matteo got to know me better and realized that I’m not a morning person, he would sometimes call me “Little Monster” instead, and would then laugh in my grumpy face. Even that unflattering name was a term of endearment when he said it, and I suddenly wasn’t so grumpy anymore. His favorite word was “beautiful” and he used it often. Being around him, one had the feeling of being surrounded by beauty. A film set is its own eco-system and for me, Matteo and Brian were the heart and soul of that production. Their laughter was infectious and even though I was low in the hierarchy, I felt equally valuable to manifesting our shared goal.

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Matteo on the set of “Come Away With Me,” Utica, NY,  2003

On our days off, we would hang out with various members of the cast and crew, and if I lingered too long in conversation with the actors who were closer to my age, Brian and Matteo would signal to the boys that they were watching. I was the little bird, and they were protective hawks.

When I graduated from Syracuse a year later, Matteo joined my sister in taking me out to dinner to celebrate, and thus began our tradition of meeting up every few years. While I decided not to pursue a career in film, his authenticity inspired me to develop my own creative gifts, and it was always a delight to update him on my latest projects. He continued to work in film and television, and his resume includes “The Chappelle Show,” “Precious,” “The Affair,” “Luke Cage,” and “The Punisher.” From my own experience on “Come Away With Me,” I understood how demanding production schedules are, and so our meetups usually happened when there was a break in his work schedule.

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When I returned from Tulum on March 15th, we were long overdue for one of these reunions. I was settling into my first full day of quarantine when Matteo posted a drawing he had done of his hometown of Bari, Italy. Early in our friendship, we had bonded over our mutual love for his home country and at the time, Italy was deep in the throes of its own battle with Covid-19. I said that I hoped his family were all okay. He replied “so far….thank you!” He added that the week before, he was planning to call me and to come up to the Hudson Valley for a visit.

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I responded privately that since I was travelling, I would be isolating but that we should get together when the threat of the virus had passed. I didn’t know it at the time, but shortly after this exchange, he started to feel ill, and battled the virus for a month before it took him.

While death is an ending, it is also the beginning of an endless period of grief. In the age of coronavirus lockdown, that grief is compounded by feelings of fear, isolation, helplessness and anger. Robbed of the normal rituals we have as a society to expiate these emotions, how do we move onto the acceptance phase while still existing in limbo ourselves? I found out about Matteo’s passing from FaceBook, where Brian posted about the death of our friend with shock. There was no obituary to be found, just comments from grieving friends on Matteo’s social media accounts. It would take another week for his death to surface in the mainstream news media. Writing this has helped his memory come alive in my imagination, and I started watching “Emergence,” which is the last project listed on his IMDB page.

Without giving away too much, “Emergence” is like a modern day Frankenstein, but for our technological age. New York police chief Jo Evans is faced with a reality in which a cutting edge technology takes on a life of its own, and has far reaching implications for the future of civilization. But despite having an element of science fiction, Matteo’s art direction and deliberate use of color helps the show remain grounded in the actors’ humanity. And despite the superior technology depicted in the show, the characters are no closer to understanding the fundamental mysteries of the universe. In the final episode, Jo’s adopted daughter Piper asks about what happens after death. It is a question that adults still struggle with, especially with the current Covid-19 pandemic. The technology in “Emergence” may not exist yet, but we’ve already created a civilization that is so out of sync with nature, a single virus has already exposed so many of its weaknesses. The one aspect of life that technology cannot duplicate is the soul, and Matteo’s contribution to film and television demonstrates what is truly essential about us as a species – our creativity, intelligence and compassion.

In retrospect, Matteo has had an impressive career, but I know that his journey was not without its challenges. When I saw Matteo in NYC in the winter of 2003, he had been out of work for months. Despite his talent and experience, he was not immune to the dry spells that can occur in such a fickle industry. Realizing that I was getting a rare window into my own possible future, I wondered if I was passionate enough about being a filmmaker to make the inevitable hardships and sacrifices worth it. I ultimately decided that I was not, and then went to spend the next seventeen years exploring my own creative journey, which has been focused on writing and design. Now that our normal routines have all been upended, I am so grateful to have known Matteo and to have been influenced by his generous spirit. Being an artist is not always easy, but in difficult times, it is that intuition that helps guide us through to the other side.