Like many of you, I have been cleaning and organizing everything from family photographs to professional files during this isolation period. I think it’s Providence that I came across a folder long forgotten and tucked away to be studied on a future rainy day. The rainy day had come. My godmother, Mary Louise Hiller, whom I admired for her service as an Army nurse in World War II, had given me a manuscript which she had begun writing in 1983 and which she wanted me to critique. Because she died not long after giving me the manuscript, I never felt an urgency to examine it until now. She had typed it on a very faulty typewriter, and, along with the efforts of her diminishing eyesight, the manuscript is difficult to decipher. Her stories cover only her childhood and early training in nursing school. She never got to the war stories and her nursing teaching career following her military discharge.
As I opened the manuscript, brittle and yellow with age, my eyes fell on a narrative of when Mary Lou was only about five years old. It is a story some children today might tell their children about COVID-19.
In the story, Mary Lou is living in Lawrenceville, a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and is frightened because she hears her parents talking about an awful World War I of 1918. She fears the war but she realizes that “…we had to defend our honor and our citizens. Father didn’t get to war because he had a wife and children.” But her father suddenly becomes ill and she detects a fear and sadness in her mother, a behavior she attributes to the growing shadow of the war. Further I read that she runs to the window when she hears the noise of trucks going down her street. “I could not understand why trucks were going up and down the streets taking sick and even dead people away. I didn’t see the enemies of the war!” In her child’s mind, she has conflated the war with the ravaging Spanish Flu, something she did not know about, a pandemic which had now found a way into her family. She writes, “Father had become very ill and the house was quiet and sad. “Aunt Ann and Uncle Mart (my grandparents) told me that a germ was all around and people were getting sick and dying.” That was the pall, the insidious pall covering the household; her beloved father was sick with the flu. I learned from my grandparents that Mary Lou’s father nearly died of the flu and his little girl often stood in the doorway of his bedroom, crying, as her mother ministered to him. “He lost a lot weight,” she writes and “remained very thin and unhealthy the rest of his life.” My grandfather, a Pittsburgh firefighter at the time, once told us that fire trucks picked up bodies wrapped in canvas and sheets and placed by families on tree lawns to deliver to morgues.
Almost immediately after nursing school, Mary Lou enlisted to serve in the following World War as an army nurse and was one of the first to land in the Middle East. Later she served in North Africa and France. When she returned to the U.S., she continued to suffer from malaria and extreme migraine headaches for the rest of her life, despite a satisfying career as a college instructor in nursing. I believe her experience with her father’s illness inspired her chosen career as a nurse in what we would call trauma or triage nursing today. She told me that nothing gave her more satisfaction than helping those GIs who lay helpless in battlefield hospitals.
I suggest you secure the movie, Contagion starring Matt Damon. It was produced 11 years ago and is a riveting, almost scary likeness of today’s pandemic. Several epidemiologists and doctors were consultants for the movie. It predicts the inevitable, which we know has now happened even beginning with the origin of the pandemic in China and the wet market bats. Indeed, “art imitates life.” A must see! My housemates saw it and had a community discussion afterward.
Anderson Cooper’s report on the documentary about the Spanish Flu is another must see. I cried during that film recalling my godmother’s story and the actual pictures of the time. It is a CNN production.
I also suggest the article, “The Plague Year: The Mistakes and Struggles Behind an American Tragedy” by Lawrence Wright in The New Yorker, January 4 & 11, 2021. A very long article but it will become a prize-winner in journalism for its comprehensive treatment, history and analysis of the subject. I consider it a MUST read. (The New Yorker is in most public libraries.)
Do you know anyone who has lived through the Spanish Flu era? Share that with us, please.
Take time in your prayer and reflection to be mindful of medical professionals who are giving so much to help the victims of COVID-19.
Most of all, ask for the grace to be open to learn how your faith and your prayer life can guide you to understand and face this pandemic.
What can you or I do to provide help for others?