In 1918, my great-grandmother, Frances Pengelski, was married with two babies under two years old, living in relative poverty in Brooklyn. I was fortunate to know my nana well. The year I was studying the flu pandemic in high school I asked her how she functioned every day knowing there was a virus out there killing millions of people.
She scoffed. “What choice did I have? We had to do what we had to do. I got up, fed my husband, made his lunch, fed the babies, went shopping, went to work, made lunch, made dinner, cleaned up, went to bed, and did it all over the next day. Life didn’t stop because there was illness floating around.”
She went on, “Plus, the flu was just another thing. It was a bad thing, but what wasn’t? At any time people might come down with measles, chicken pox, smallpox, polio, mumps, rubella, tuberculosis. We had no vaccines. We had no antibiotics. You caught whatever was going around or you didn’t. If you caught it, you lived or you didn’t. That was just life.”
I went to high school in the 1980’s. The decade started with a terrifying virus sweeping the world, which came to be known as AIDS. It’s hard to remember, now, that there was a time when we knew absolutely nothing about AIDS except that it was a guaranteed death sentence. So when I was asking my nana about the flu pandemic, I was motivated not just by studying history, but by learning how to navigate a world with a deadly virus killing countless people that seemed unstoppable. I continued the conversation by asking, “Did you do anything differently with the flu out there, though? Did you change your life?”
She smiled. “We wore bags of camphor around our necks. They did nothing, but we did it anyway.” She paused. “Here’s the thing with you young people.
You worry about getting sick with this new thing out there. We didn’t worry about those things. Maybe we weren’t educated enough, but maybe we just knew there was no point. Worrying wasn’t going to keep us from coming down with illness. It wasn’t going to put food on the table. It wasn’t going to keep us alive. And for us, life was never guaranteed. We didn’t expect we would live. The healthiest person could get tuberculosis and die. The strongest kid on the block could get polio and be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life . . . if he was lucky. No amount of worry could stop that.”
She continued. “And don’t forget–in 1918 we were also in the middle of a world war. Our men were dying by the thousands far away from home. The ones that came home were psychologically scarred. And those were just Americans. My husband came here from Poland, where he was literally running from the Russian Cossacks. You, in the U.S., with food on the table every night–you’re used to being so sure of things, so confident that you can think your way out of everything. Maybe the problem is you all have too much time to think.”
My nana’s words echo through my brain every day now. Too much time to think. As a writer, I spend most of my time thinking to begin with. Now, all of my non-writing work is gone: the schools are closed. I have no carpool responsibilities. Church is shut down, too, so I’m not doing my usual volunteering. My kids are self-sufficiently schooling at home. All the restaurants are closed for dine-in and we’re not supposed to be within six feet of anyone outside of our household, so there are no more coffee or lunch get togethers. All that’s left to me is time to think.
More and more, I’ve been thinking of my nana. She survived a polio epidemic in 1916, the flu pandemic of 1918-1920, and raised eight kids to adulthood through two world wars and countless other outbreaks of illness. Despite all the world threw at her, my nana’s life went on.
In comparison to her life, how much should I be grateful for? I have lived years, maybe decades, without truly worrying about widespread illness. Though the current virus is new, and ruthless, and terrifying, if we manage to flatten the curve and not overwhelm our hospitals there are medical interventions that people in my nana’s day would never have dreamed of. We don’t have a world war going on amidst this pandemic. We don’t have all that many other contagious illnesses to contend with–and those we do, we have lots of treatments for. Even AIDS, thankfully, is no longer a death sentence.
If massive disease outbreaks have taught us anything, it’s that we adapt, adopt, and improve. We have survived worse than this. We will survive this, too. I know that is somewhat cold comfort, because I can’t say, “You will survive this,” or “I will survive this,” or “the person you love most in the world will survive this.” Then again, I wouldn’t be able to say with any certainty that any of us would have survived the commute home if this was a normal day.
Life is not guaranteed. This is something my nana knew, in her bones, from day one. It was something that played out in her life, time and again. She lost two of her children when they were infants. Then my great-grandfather, who survived polio, the flu, and two world wars was killed when a bucket of cement fell on his head while he was working on building the Battery Tunnel. Could you imagine?
She survived, though, with her sanity intact because she had long ago accepted that life is not guaranteed. This is something we have lost sight of–to our current detriment. We have not been raised to believe that life is a fragile, temporary privilege. To come face-to-face with the reality that there is something out there that could kill us, or rob us of the ones we love, that we cannot forsee or control–that is a lot to deal with for even the most well-adjusted human being (which we all know I am not).
It has helped me to realize that, because of this, we are all now operating in a state of grief. In the Harvard Business Review article “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief,” David Kessler, a researcher who worked with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, explains “The loss of normalcy; the fear of the economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.” For the first time in a long time, the entire planet is being afflicted by the same thing, though not in the same way. How many years has it been since the entire world has become vulnerable, at the same time, to the same affliction?
So we are, all across the planet, grieving the world we used to live in. We are grieving the loss of plans, like senior proms, high school graduations, weddings. And now so many are grieving the loss of loved ones who have been killed by this virus. Kessler says that like all grief, it is coming to us in stages: denial (this isn’t going to come to my town); anger (how dare they cancel my senior prom); bargaining (if I stay in for two weeks everything will go back to the way it was); sadness (will this ever end?); and acceptance (All right. How do I move forward?). These stages, Kessler says, aren’t defined. We can feel all of them at different times. But Kessler says, “acceptance, as you might imagine, is where the power lies.”
My nana had to deal with an almost incomprehensible amount of grief in her life, but she never had to deal with a grief that came from having to adjust to a “new normal.” She was born in 1901, in a United States that pretty much always knew war, always knew sickness, always knew infant mortality, and always knew sudden and unavoidable death. She never felt grief at a loss of the sense of safety because she had never known the level of safety we have known since antibiotics and vaccines became standard in the 1960’s.
But she did understand acceptance. She accepted life’s fragility, that tomorrow is not guaranteed to anyone. If she was alive now she would probably say that we have had it so easy for so long that we fooled ourselves into thinking that we’re untouchable, invincible. Maybe she’d be right. I would argue, though, that having it easy for so long has made us disconnected–from each other, from other countries, and from the inevitable cycle of life. We can no longer feel safe in our cocoon of “herd immunity” and inviolate health. Hopefully, emerging from this crisis, we can create a “new normal” that includes my nana’s acceptance of life’s fragility, but where we do more–so much more than we ever have before–to be prepared to protect it.