Everybody in the house is sick again. My 4-year-old, Madeline, packages every virus in Indiana and totes it home from preschool to share with us. Last week Madeline gave her cough and pink eye to our infant, Lincoln, whom we call Smiley, since grins through even the most miserable flu symptoms. He infected my wife, who now boasts a sinus infection, sore throat, wheezing cough and two pink eyes.
Thanks to the flu vaccine scarcity this past year, none of us had shots. Instead we fanatically wash our hands, marching to the sink the minute we get home and counting to at least 30 before turning off the faucet. Our doctor says we should disinfect the door knobs and telephones and TV remotes. It’s a good idea, but I wonder if it’s a little too neurotic, like some of my more colorful relatives.
My Great-Aunt Mary and Great-Uncle John were furious cold warriors. Like professional hypochondriacs everywhere, they hated to travel, especially if they had to stay the night at a motel. The white sanitized strip bisecting the toilet seat meant nothing to them. They knew motel rooms were filthy. If they had to tempt disaster and spend the night in one of them, they carried in from their car rubber gloves, buckets, mops, bottles of disinfectant, and their own set of sheets. They stripped the beds and scoured the doorknobs, disinfecting every protuberance. Only then—maybe—could they get a good night’s sleep.
Since Aunt Mary and Uncle John had no children, they celebrated our annual visits to their farm with gusto. The moment our station wagon rolled in their driveway, they’d burst out of the house like Labrador retrievers.
“Hi kids!” they’d yell from the porch, their smiles enormous, their entire bodies wagging. But when my sisters and I trundled across the grass to hug and kiss them, my aunt and uncle did neat and graceful veronicas, pivoting like matadors to usher us through the doors without a single embrace.
“Not before we wash our hands!” they’d laugh loudly, almost hysterically. “You know the rules! We must wash our hands!”
Germs. My aunt and uncle waged perpetual war against them. So did many of their generation. Penicillin was the great magic bullet that separated them from us. It arrived with other antibiotics in the 1940s and rendered the old folk laughable, paranoid and fearfully un-hip.
Hardly any of my generation knows or remembers the greatest single killer in recorded history: the Influenza of 1918. Anywhere from 40 million to 100 million people died, including 675,000 Americans. So many perished in the United States that funerals were often limited to 15 minutes. There were extreme shortages of coffins and gravediggers. Strangers couldn’t enter some towns without a signed certificate. Flu struck down people on the streets in the morning, and they often died before nightfall.
Mysteriously, nobody knows the origins of this pandemic or why it was so deadly for men and women in their 20s and 30s. Most flu epidemics kill the old and infirm, but this one struck down the young and hale, creating thousands of orphans.
The writer Mary McCarthy lost both of her parents to the Influenza when she was 6, and raged at the world ever after. Another writer, William Maxwell, lost his mother to the same pandemic, and the effects were devastating. “It happened too suddenly,” he said, “with no warning, and none of us could believe it or bear it . . . the beautiful, imaginative, protected world of my childhood swept away.” When asked later in his life what he would say to his mother if she were alive again, he said, “Here are these beautiful books that I made for you,” and then he wept.
My wife’s grandfather lost both of his parents to the Influenza of 1918. Now Grampy is 87 and one of the healthiest people I know. He looks like a handsome Scandinavian warlock, with white hair and sharp blue eyes. He calls himself a Druid. He’s always ready to laugh, especially at himself. His goal is to live to 120. He might do it. His stash of vitamins and supplements fill entire rooms of his spacious Connecticut house. It’s a full-time job just consuming the pills—shark oil, colostrums, kudzu extract—every day and at all hours.
One morning while Grampy was taking his pills, I asked him about his parents. Grampy said he’d been orphaned when he was just a child, his family destroyed before he hardly knew his mother or father. He and his sister went off to live with aunts and uncles until he entered college. When Grampy had finished talking, his eyes misted over and he squeezed away tears with his fist.
Fear. We know almost nothing about it today. Not collective fear, not the kind of fear and pain that infected human societies before 1950. We’ve had AIDS and Vietnam and other terrible wars. We tragically lost more than 3,000 lives to 9/11. And last year’s Christmas tsunami killed thousands of people in minutes. But we’ve never really experienced whole towns dying off. Every single infant perishing in winter. It’s easier for us to deny this stuff ever happened. History’s so boring.
Many doctors and scientists warn that another plague is coming. They don’t talk of if but of when. At least three deadly strains of bird flu are already poised to attack humans, and these are the ones we know about. What’s worse is that antibiotics are losing their punch. It often takes several prescriptions to lick a bad bug. Madeline is on her third drill of antibiotics this month. What happens if this wonder drug strikes out?
I thought of this last night as I comforted Lincoln, who was coughing and crying in the early morning darkness. Four months old and already so good-natured, so happy to laugh at the world and have the world laugh with him. Not this time, though. His cough rumbled with phlegm, and he began wailing with both his lungs. I wondered how I’d cope with his death. Or Madeline’s. People say grief of this nature is unimaginable. But they’re wrong. Last night I imagined exactly this. I do it more often than I’d like to admit, although these thoughts are so unbearable that I quickly shiver and shake them away.
My friend Wayne says this kind of gruesome thinking is genetic for parents. Tragedy is hard-wired into our brains, just in case the unthinkable does happen. Then we can cope. Sort of like people ingesting tiny quantities of poison to inure themselves against potentially larger—and deadlier—doses later on.
I’m not a religious person, but I still have relapses of faith. I no longer bemoan the sadness of my own death or beg God to let me live forever. Instead, I try to make light of our common fate.
“We’re all going to end up there sooner or later,” I say whenever death is mentioned in conversation. Sometimes I’ll quote the old acid king Timothy Leary, who said he was thrilled to learn that he had inoperable cancer. “I’m looking forward to the most fascinating experience in life,” Leary rhapsodized, “which is dying,” the ultimate trip.
But it’s harder to be lighthearted once you have kids. Now when I find myself up alone at night, listening to Lincoln’s cough, snatching imaginary glimpses of my children’s deaths, I sometimes pray. “God, protect them,” I whisper. “Please, God. Please protect them.”
Peter Graham teaches creative writing at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana.