The Thursday morning traffic on Front Street was ripping along, not too worried about the speed limit or the impending Main Street traffic light. It was a typical Butte passing show, lots of newish Suburbans and F150s and 4-Runners, a few elderly sedans and more than a few Montana millennials rolling loud in lifted pickups, their stereos and exhaust pipes competing for decibel dominance.
A few of the passing drivers must have wondered about the little clump of people standing in the parking lot in front of the modest brick building that houses the Butte-Silver Bow Health Department.
It wasn't a big crowd, maybe 50 or 60 all told, all masked up. You couldn't tell from the road, but they were straining to hear over the engine noise and the every-three-minutes squeal of brakes as the traffic light lost its sense of humor and glowed red.
They were listening to Patrick Beretta, and somehow the priest's words, enunciated perfectly at shouting volume, managed to project calm. The words were plump, like sofa cushions, filled with comfort.
"Human beings heal hurt not by forgetting. We heal by remembering," he said. "This morning we remember the people whom we loved and lost. We are a small community, so their loss is a personal journey for all of us."
Behind him, on the Health Department's lawn, was a swath of small white flags. More flags on the lawn than people in the parking lot.
"The memories of our beloved deceased will forever be a blessing to us," Beretta said. "Butte practices compassion better than anywhere else."
Ninety white flags had been placed with care, one for each COVID death in the county — although the number of flags may be lagging behind reality. Four more deaths are being investigated and may be classified as flag-eligible — COVID-caused.
The parking-lot cluster — a few each of bereaved relatives, friends of the deceased, health-care workers consumed with the slow-motion tragedy they battle every day, and just plain citizens come to show respect — stood quiet, in stark contrast to the noisy hundreds zooming past, unconcerned.
COVID? That was last year, wasn't it?
That's the way these days are going: People going about their lives, crowding into bars, grocery stores, the occasional concert. Summer weddings and backyard barbecues giving way to kids heading back to school. Busy people this Thursday morning, heading to the office, the dentist, the store.
They pass the little observance on Front Street without much of a thought. In the next block or two, perhaps, they'll yield to an ambulance headed up to make the left turn on Porphyry toward St. James. A few blocks further south, they might run into a short funeral cortege.
As we live our lives (mostly maskless — that was last year, wasn't it?), people are getting sick and dying, all around us.
Hospitals are filling, and case numbers — a thousand new ones a day in the state, most days — are approaching the grievous peaks of last winter. Our state government, instead of taking measures to protect us, is telling us not to worry, condemning the President's words of caution, officially telling us to fight against mask mandates, even in our schools, where our unvaccinated little children go every day.
"Soon, when the fog of confusion eventually begins to dissipate, more and more stories of the heroes of this COVID pandemic will emerge and be told and retold," Beretta says. "The memorable stories of admirable caregivers, in the nursing homes, our hospital, Community Health Center.
"We honor all the caregivers."
Yet in fact we dishonor them, too, zipping past their weary entreaties to vaccinate ourselves. To mask up. To shed the denial and do the responsible thing. To take this accursed disease seriously.
Beretta is concluding with a prayer:
"Almighty God, bless the memory of our beloved deceased, may they rest in an eternity of peace.
"Mend the hearts of those who mourn.
"Give strength, comfort and energy to those still on the front line of this pandemic battle," he continues.
I'm not much of a pray-er, but I add, to myself: Wake these people up, the ones driving by through life, the ones who think they know more than the doctors, who think getting the vaccine is a sign of weakness. Wake them before they kill more of us. How many more white flags?
The voice of Father Beretta, somehow not yet hoarse, rides over my thoughts. He is, of course, much more generous of spirit than I am.
"Inspire all of us to be voices of healing. The future is always bright for people who have the courage to reconcile with others and reconcile with the past, especially the painful past.
"And may God forever bless Butte-Silver Bow."
The light turned green, and as the priest turned to hug Karen Sullivan, the traffic roared anew.
David McCumber is the editor and general manager of the Montana Standard in Butte and a regional editor for Lee Enterprises.