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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

What a fire and a virus could not kill

A man wearing a face mask walks past

A man wearing a face mask walks past Notre Dame Cathedral, which stands crippled and alone, one year after the cataclysmic fire that gutted its interior and toppled its iconic spire. Credit: AP/Christophe Ena

One year ago, a fire in Paris engulfed Notre Dame. It was mesmerizing, in a horrifying way. The flames felled the cathedral's famous steeple on April 15, and collapsed its iconic roof. It was hard not to feel a sense of helplessness as the destruction unfolded, in slow motion and yet quickly, too. By morning, the fire was gone.

But it left behind a lingering sense of loss. You knew the old church was never going to be the same again and that was profoundly saddening, whether you had witnessed in person or merely through photos the magical nighttime sight of Notre Dame swaddled in light. More than that, though, was the fire's unnerving attack on our sense of permanence. This massive church, which took 100 years to build beginning in 1160, has stood on that spot seemingly forever.

Now we're confronting a whole different sense of loss, and it turns out that what happened to Notre Dame, as much as that shook some of us at the time, was no preparation for the coronavirus.

This is burning through us in a different kind of way. It is not to be quelled in a day, its appetite vanquished. It is not to be confined in one location, as it restlessly circles the globe. It is not to be seen in garish color, nor seen at all. It is silent and stealthy. We are not helpless before it; we can contribute to stopping its spread. But truly stopping it requires the concerted effort of billions.

Our sense of loss, too, is different, even more profound. We have lost people — parents and grandparents, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives, nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends, employees and employers. We've lost jobs and ways of life and ways to celebrate and essential companionship. It's not just our love and appreciation for an iconic church, a masterpiece of art and architecture, a testament to the human imagination, that's taken a beating. The coronavirus is throwing off-kilter our very psyches, our sense of ourselves and our society.

Eventually, the recovery will begin.

In France, engineers, architects and laborers in various crafts are working hard to rebuild and repair Notre Dame. There are fire-blackened relics and art work to be restored, lead contamination to be cleaned, those vaulted ceilings to be shored up, a roof to be rebuilt, and more, all of it fraught and challenging our ingenuity, with no guarantee of success at the end.

Rebuilding and repairing our lives, our society and our economy will be more difficult. The restoration will be of our spirit, the re-creation will be of our jobs, the revamping will be of the way we get things done, the rediscovery will be of our relationships with all of those we love but cannot now see. This, too, will challenge our ingenuity and our imagination and our resolve, with no guarantee of success at the end.

Notre Dame's immense size was purposeful, to instill a lesson of humility in the worshippers who came to it to pray, to give them the sense that they were part of something much greater than themselves. Each of us needs some of that humility now and to realize that, in the war against this pandemic and in the reconstruction to come, we, too, are part of something much greater than ourselves.

Notre Dame will return, in some form, still some eight centuries old, now different but still there. With luck and hard work, we will do the same.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.