You were faced with your own mor­tal­i­ty at a deli in Enci­no on a Tues­day evening in Jan­u­ary 2020. It is 9,451 days after your saba Zvi died, 7,000 days after your grand­ma Ron­na died, 5,687 days after your grand­pa Jer­ry died, 4,811 days after your aba Uri died, 4,648 days after your sav­ta Hele­na died, and fifty-sev­en days before you made your first deci­sion to stay put because of what would, nine days after that, be declared a pan­dem­ic, whose death toll, as you fin­ish writ­ing this twen­ty days lat­er, stands at 33,257.

(Num­bers are mean­ing­less when they reach a cer­tain crit­i­cal mass. You can pic­ture your aba’s face, but only a frac­tion of the 4,894 days since he died. You’ve seen the faces of some who have died dur­ing the pan­dem­ic — a gay nurse in New York City, a young Black woman in New Orleans whose pic­ture was going viral on Twit­ter, a jour­nal­ist whose obit­u­ary was shared in your free­lance group. But how can you, or any­one, begin to con­jure up the faces of 33,257 peo­ple? It’s impos­si­ble. Maybe num­bers help you to abstract, to glance at and then away from, as a way of coping.)

Mor­tal­i­ty faced you as a ques­tion, a fit­ting form when three gen­er­a­tions of a Jew­ish fam­i­ly, plus two guests, sit around a large cir­cu­lar wood­en table for a meal.

(You liked the two guests who were there that night, nei­ther of whom you’d ever met before. One, Jon’s friend, you devel­oped a near­ly instan­ta­neous crush on: the way she smiled, how she jumped into your family’s easy ban­ter with gus­to, her long, curly, dark hair. The oth­er, Peter’s girl­friend — he hasn’t called her that, but cryp­tic texts he’s sent you indi­cate this is the case — you liked for her man­ner­isms, brisk­ness, and chutz­pah when she asked, after see­ing your tat­toos, So you can’t be buried in a Jew­ish ceme­tery, right? Or?” Strange, how often you notice desire and death in close prox­im­i­ty. You’ve yet to fig­ure out whether this is due to their essen­tial­ly exis­ten­tial natures, or whether it says some­thing about you.)

It’s true, tat­toos are express­ly for­bid­den in the Torah, and var­i­ous schol­ars have weighed in on why and how mark­ing the skin is pro­hib­it­ed. But, as you dis­cov­er research­ing this piece of writ­ing, you and the woman who asked you the ques­tion have both been duped by the same false­hood. It is a myth that any Jew­ish law or cus­tom for­bids the bur­ial of those with tat­toos. In your research, you find fran­tic queries regard­ing whether tat­toos should be cut from the bod­ies of the recent­ly dead, accom­pa­nied by qui­et­ly appalled answers from rab­bis who declare that even though the deceased may have sinned in mark­ing them­selves, that is no rea­son to des­e­crate the holi­ness and whole­ness of their flesh.

But how can you, or any­one, begin to con­jure up the faces of 33,257 peo­ple? It’s impossible.

You learn, too, that like all myths and rumors, this one did not spring out of thin air: indi­vid­ual com­mu­ni­ties and ceme­ter­ies may choose to ban buri­als of those peo­ple who have vio­lat­ed the pro­hi­bi­tion against tattooing.

(The cru­el­ty of exclu­sion is a human instinct, regard­less of how often humans blame gods for it.)

Your aba died when you were six­teen years old, and was not buried in a Jew­ish ceme­tery, even though he was, accord­ing to his father, your saba Zvi, a kohen—an ele­vat­ed ancient sta­tus that your aba both shared with you, proud­ly and sheep­ish­ly, but also turned away from, along with the rest of his reli­gious cus­toms when he lost his faith years before, to Zvi’s deep dis­ap­point­ment. Self­ish­ly, you are relieved that your father is buried in a ceme­tery run by a kib­butz, where trees buzz with life in the hot, mug­gy air, and where the graves are as strange, zany, and unique as the peo­ple remem­ber­ing those interred beneath them. Some are tacky, like the heart-shaped one marked with the Hebrew equiv­a­lent of a com­ic sans font, and oth­ers mys­te­ri­ous, like the chess­board with real, over­sized pieces on its top. You like this odd place you’ve been to so infre­quent­ly much bet­ter than the bleak mar­ble-filled Jew­ish ceme­ter­ies run by the Chevra Kadisha, places that fill you with a kind of ter­ror that, you sup­pose, is tied to your ear­li­est expe­ri­ences of them, when your saba Zvi died and your father was proven fal­li­ble, a man who could cry. It’s hard to believe ceme­ter­ies mat­ter much at all, in the grand scheme of your life and all its dead loved ones, espe­cial­ly when you are so far from any of them. Your aba would be the first to say that the dead do not dwell in their bod­ies anyway.

When your aba was alive, he didn’t want you to get tat­tooed, to incise marks on your body, but admit­ted that once you turned eigh­teen it would be your deci­sion. You had cho­sen the first tat­too you’d get when you were thir­teen, a rose design from the cov­er of a thick fan­ta­sy nov­el that you read over and over again, its mass-mar­ket paper­back pages leak­ing ink onto your fin­gers, so you’d get up from bed and won­der why your hands were so dirty.

(You got that rose design when you turned eigh­teen. In the nov­el, the main char­ac­ter has her entire back tat­tooed with a far more intri­cate ver­sion of it — a mar­que, it is called, and it sym­bol­izes a sacred kind of sex work and, for her, the twin­ning of desire and pain. You learned about desire through her world’s mythol­o­gy — you didn’t need it to learn about pain — and although you vowed nev­er to tat­too words on your­self, the rose sit­ting at the top and cen­ter of your spine sym­bol­izes, for you, that mythology’s cen­tral tenet: Love as thou wilt.)

In Port­land, Ore­gon, the first boy you ever kissed is now a man with pink hair and a hus­band and they have just had a child with a sur­ro­gate, but they’re strug­gling to take the baby back home to the coun­try where your aba is buried. In New York City, one of your mother’s best friends is mild­ly ill and her hus­band is iso­lat­ed in a hotel room because he is at much high­er risk than she is to die if he becomes sick, too. In France, a writer you know on social media has doc­u­ment­ed the ago­niz­ing two weeks of breath­less­ness and exhaus­tion as her lungs fought off infec­tion. You and your friends mes­sage one anoth­er on a dai­ly basis, shar­ing pic­tures of your cats, gar­dens, food, advice about teach­ing online, and poems.

Your aba would be the first to say that the dead do not dwell in their bod­ies anyway.

You are faced with your own mor­tal­i­ty on a dai­ly basis, which is noth­ing new, not when you have tan­gled with the mor­tal­i­ty of those you love, griev­ed for them, and still lived on and in and through that grief to desire anoth­er day and anoth­er and anoth­er. It’s the dread that’s dif­fi­cult now, the buzzing, hov­er­ing grief which might — will — turn sharply painful at any moment, mark­ing you, once again, irrevocably.

(And — because you must remem­ber this, because it is the only way you believe that you have sur­vived before and will again — you will love your way through, marks and all, and tell sto­ries about the ones you have all lost, so they will dwell in lan­guage and laugh­ter and mem­o­ry, regard­less of where their mor­tal bod­ies are interred.)

The num­bers keep climb­ing. By the end of this twen­ti­eth day — an arbi­trary met­ric; peo­ple were dying before the pan­dem­ic was declared one — the death toll on the World Health Organization’s Sit­u­a­tion Dash­board” is 36,571, and those are only the ones count­ed, updat­ed into this hasti­ly-designed sys­tem. You are tex­ting with a heart­bro­ken friend, her grief long pre­dat­ing this moment. You wor­ry about a stu­dent who is still work­ing despite their job being nonessen­tial. You refresh the Sit­u­a­tion Dash­board” again. It doesn’t load. You are telling the truth. You do it again. A third time. Noth­ing. You can­not hold the num­bers in your head. You decide to leave the key­board, the screen, the words, and go hold some­one in the oth­er room, some­one who is alive, and who loves you, and who is now.

Ilana Masad is a fic­tion writer, essay­ist, and book crit­ic whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Ange­les Times, The Wash­ing­ton Post, The Paris Review, NPR, Buz­zFeed, Cat­a­pult, Sto­ryQuar­ter­ly, McSweeney’s Inter­net Ten­den­cy, as well as sev­er­al oth­ers. All My Moth­er’s Lovers is Masad’s debut novel.