To 2016: An open letter and elegy

Pope Francis closes his eyes as he reacts to a mention of the June 12 massacre in Orlando, Fla., from Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service Rome bureau chief, aboard his flight from Yerevan, Armenia, to Rome June 26. (CNS/Paul Haring)

I once dated a man who professed to know a little something about numerology, and he told me the number nine symbolized finality and judgment. I add your digits together and find that you are nine.

You were the final year for Prince, Muhammad Ali, David Bowie, Sharon Jones, George Michael, Leonard Cohen, Gwen Ifill, Janet Reno, Natalie Cole, Antonin Scalia, John Glenn, Pat Summitt, Fidel Castro, even Miss Cleo.

You were the final year for 49 people in an Orlando nightclub, dancing like they didn’t know a gunman was watching their pride and wishing them death for it. For 36 people, most of them young like the nightclub shooting victims, enjoying a concert at a warehouse in Oakland. (Some people priced out of a rental market that has risen 70 percent over the past five years called the warehouse’s maze of makeshift lofts home. None of them knew a fire would make ghosts out of them.)

You were the final year for two people killed during a shootout at a community football game on Thanksgiving Day in Louisville, Ky. — a city experiencing a record number of homicides under your watch. For 1,045 people in the U.S. killed by police (as of this writing). For a sixty-year-old woman my mom knew and who leaves behind an identical twin. For the mother of several now-adults I went to grade school with. For a Louisville man who overcame drugs and prison to own a multimillion-dollar business, raise a family, help other men reintegrate into society and do random acts of kindness. For some marriages. For Diane Rehm's dog.

And how, 2016, have you judged the people you left in this world? How did you judge the ones you took away?

I fear you took the ones you took because you found them righteous and worthy of a life free from what’s coming. I think about other finalities — the end of civil public discourse, the end of the assumption that everyone appreciates facts — and wonder if those you left behind will reflect on the 525,600 minutes you spent with us and think, "The ones who died in 2016, they were lucky."

You judged some of those who survived you, and that angel of death you carried with you from the start, foolish for their optimism or for their belief in a post-racial America. You laughed at some of them missing the irony in mourning David Bowie, Prince, and George Michael and murdering LGBTQ people with guns, hands and, more slowly, with laws and rhetoric. You showed some of us the power of fear to paralyze our creativity. You galvanized some of us to define what we believe in and fight for it.

I will not be sad to see you go, though I think I’ll be processing you for a long time (provided you let me stay around; we never know with you). You took me to Portugal and Miami, sat me in front of literary agents, and then left me questioning whether my social justice mission is worth pursuing, if it will ever be possible to thrive in a world that continually tells me that my gifts, talent, labor, energy, and sometimes intellect are wanted, but the rest of me is not. You brought deep sadness and deep debt back into my life.

I tip my hat to you, 2016, for making yourself unforgettable, for cloaking your nine so stealthily, no one could have predicted anything you wrought. Thanks to you, I don't know if I should look at 2017 as seven, the number of perfection/completion, or 10. A one and a zero. Which is simply a new start.

[Mariam Williams is a Kentucky writer living in Philadelphia and pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Rutgers University-Camden. She is a contributor to the anthology Faithfully Feminist and blogs at Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.]

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