Thursday, May 14, 2020

The Real Heroes

It suddenly dawned on me (Donis) that it's time for my Type M entry. I'm amazed I remembered, because as far as I know, the date is Thronday, Maprilune the twenty-oneteenth. I was wondering whether to muse on the pandemic yet again. Have we all heard enough? Then I read Barbara Fradkin's excellent entry, below. "As artists, we document the emotional reality of our times," she said, and I couldn't agree more. The great Barbara Kingsolver notes that “a novel works its magic by putting a reader inside another person’s life ... The power of fiction is to create empathy.” As an example, she says that a newspaper will give you the facts of a situation, say a plane crash, but a novel will show you just how it felt to be one of those hundreds of people who were killed in the crash.

We will convey to future generations what it felt like to live through this pandemic. Many times I've been reminded of the absolute indispensability of nurses at times like this. Doctors may get all the glory, but it's nurses who really do the work, especially when science doesn't know the answer and tender loving care is all that keeps people alive. That's the way it was during the 1918 pandemic and that's the way it is now. In 1918 there was a war going on and the government censored the pandemic news because nothing could be allowed to interfere with war production. There was no cure, anyway. No one knew why this strain of flu was so bad. A person could be well in the morning and dead by sundown. The great heroes of that time were the Red Cross volunteer nurses. When I did the research for The Return of the Raven Mocker, my historical mystery set in Oklahoma during the pandemic, I didn't have to make up any stories about the heroism of the women who took on the job of helping the sick. I just used the stories I read about in the papers and heard from family members who lived through it. Here's an excerpt from the book:

“There are fifteen of us left,” Martha said, as she showed the doctor around the makeshift command post. “Eight other volunteers have either come down with the flu themselves or decided they don’t want to risk it. We all meet up here at dawn and make our plans for the day. Usually somebody stays here at the school to make soup and deliver messages. We have tried to let folks know that they should telephone here or send a message if they need help. We have access to a telephone in the school office. We divide up house calls. We go to anybody who asks for us, but lately a couple of us will ride or walk up and down the streets looking for a red ‘X’ on the doors. That is the signal the town council decided that everyone should use to let folks know that there is influenza in the house.”

"What do your nurses do for their patients when they call on them, Mrs. McCoy?”

“Whatever we can. Try to see that they are clean and fed, that the house is clean and the air in the sick room is not too warm or too stale. I carry aspirin in my kit, and menthol rub, and lemons, when I can get them. My mother and some other ladies in the area make useful tonics and medicines for fever, the cough, nausea, and for diarrhea. Sometimes the best thing we can do is stay with the patients for a while, especially folks who have nobody else to look after them.”

“How many in the vicinity have died?”

Hattie and Martha exchanged a glance. Often when they knocked at houses with the sign, no one would come to the door. Sometimes someone inside would yell at her through the door, or gesture to her from behind a closed window. Go away. We’re better. Don’t bring more illness to this house.

Other times no one would come to the door because no one could. Martha could tell the difference by the smell. Her nose had become acutely sensitive to the odor of sickness. In that case she would simply open the door and walk in, praying that she would find everyone ill but still alive. She wasn’t always so lucky.

On the day that she and Cousin Hattie revved up Scott’s touring car and made the circuit of nearby farms, they found that both Fosters and their five children had all succumbed during the night. The women wrapped the bodies in blankets, dragged them into the parlor, and laid them on the floor in a row for the convenience of the gravediggers. Then they filled a washtub with well water, washed themselves with carbolic soap as best as they could, took another dose of garlic honey, and drove to the next farm.

“I don’t believe any of us have wanted to take a count. There have been several,” Martha said.

If they lived through it, the women (and it was mostly women then) who voluntarily put themselves in danger in 1918 suffered shell-shock afterwards just like soldiers who had done battle. So here it is 2020 and we're living through our own version of a little-understood plague. Screw the politicians and protestors. We know who the real heroes are here.

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