Missouri Gov. Mike Parson said on a radio talk show last week that school children need to go back to school and parents’ fears about the idea were overblown. “They are at the lowest possible risk,” Parson told the radio host. “If they get COVID-19, what they’re going to… they’re not going to hospitals. They won’t have to sit in doctors’ offices. They will go home and they will get over it. Rational people everywhere opened their windows and shouted, “This is a contagious disease! on the streets, and again, William Maxwell’s 1937 flu novel They came like swallows stolen, intrusive, in my mind.
This unbearably sad book is inspired by Maxwell’s experience of the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic. Maxwell, who was 10 when the flu hit, experienced his own battle with the disease with his aunt and uncle, as his mother gave birth in a hospital in a nearby town. She died of the flu (caught on the train to the hospital, maybe? They never knew for sure.) Three days later. Maxwell, later a writer for The New Yorker, said the experience had completely changed his life. “My mother was wonderful,” Maxwell wrote, “and when she died it was all gone. “
The flu of 1918-1919 hit a different population than our current pandemic, mostly people in their prime. For this reason, it was a pandemic that generated many orphans. As of the first week of November 1918, in New York City alone, 31,000 children were orphaned or lost a parent because of it, researcher Elizabeth Outka wrote in her book. Viral modernism: the influenza pandemic and the literature of the interwar period. Outka maintains that They came like swallows is one of the stories from 1918 that best shows the intense impact of the pandemic on young families: “The intangible loss of structure and meaning the death of a parent leaves in its wake, creating a deep sense of unreality. . (Or, as Maxwell later described, “It happened too suddenly, without warning, and we neither of us could believe it or take it… the nightmare went on and on… the beautiful, imaginative and protege of my childhood was swept away a way. ”)
The news changes perspective between family members: two elementary school-aged brothers, Bunny and Robert, and a father, James, who all contract the flu and survive, and mother, Bess, who dies right after. have given birth to a third brother. . The story opens with Bunny, the youngest son in the family, imagining what would happen if his mother suddenly disappeared. “If his mother wasn’t there to protect him from all that was nasty – the weather, Robert and his father – what would he do?” What would become of him in a world where there was no warmth, comfort, or love?
Robert, the older brother, much more daring and adventurous than his brother, loves his mother for other reasons. He lost a leg in a childhood accident, and it’s her one of the family who never pity him – who expects him to be able to do whatever others can. “As far as his mother is concerned,” he thinks, “there was nothing wrong with him. “
As Bunny, the first in the family to be struck, begins to recover from his flu, the two brothers are taken to their aunt’s house to stay, while their parents travel by train to Decatur for their brother’s birth. . Although Robert tries to be brave, when his mother and father leave, he hears the train whistle from his aunt’s house and senses a finality there: “He knew in a miserable second that his father and mother were in this train; that they had gone and left him in this house which was not a comfortable house, with people who were not the kind of people he loved; and that he wouldn’t see them again for a long time, if ever. At least when it comes to his mother, his intuition turns out to be correct.
Elizabeth Outka describes what happens to surviving family members They came like swallows as ‘contagion guilt’, and it’s that part of the story that strikes most deeply when I think about what might happen to the children who will inevitably bring the coronavirus back to their family members this fall. Each member of the family feels this guilt in a different way. At the beginning of the story, Bunny tries to tell his family at the dinner table that a friend fell ill the previous week, while they were playing at school (“he ran around the circle twice without tagging nobody… he stopped playing and said I feel funny … He then went through the bike racks and sat down ”), but is too afraid of his father to do so. He later berates himself for it. Robert would have had no problem, he said to himself.
Bess blames herself for Bunny’s disease: “If I had only taken Bunny out of school when the epidemic started!” Robert blames himself that his mother got the flu, because his father told him it was everyone’s job to keep her out of Bunny’s room when he was sick. (The flu of 1918-1919 particularly affected pregnant women.) But when a sparrow enters the sick room, its mother sends it to fetch a broom to sweep it out the window. When he comes home, his mother is in the bedroom – “on the edge of Bunny’s bed, holding him.” How on earth, I wonder, could I keep my own sick child away from my husband, in our relatively small house? How would he keep her away from me?
And James, the father, is mad with guilt. He focuses on the fact that he pushed to get on a crowded train, as they were on their way to the hospital for childbirth, instead of waiting for an empty train. After Bess died, he dwells on when he chose that crowded train “whenever he relaxed, when he sat too long in one place.” Unlike any other type of death, this contagion death causes everyone in the family to question themselves – their judgment, their will, their resolution – a process that only worsens their grief.
This is a situation that we should not wish a child to have to go through, if it can be helped. But the governor of Missouri is not alone in being indifferent to this consideration. One of the lines that Donald Trump’s allies have used in recent weeks in an attempt to reopen schools with or without security measures is that children must learn to “manage.” Brian Kilmeade said on Fox and friends earlier this month the kids should be in school because “life is full of risk, kids should learn that early on… life is full of obstacles, you have to find a way to overcome them. Apparently our desire to save children from the experience of inflicting COVID-19 on their households is just another manifestation of the “culture of safety”.
This week, The New York Times published an obituary for Samantha Diaz, 29, a medical assistant who died of COVID-19 in Palm Beach, Florida on July 10. Her children, both young children, have also contracted the virus and are crying. inconsolable – they are sick and they have lost their mother. Their grandparents, who are now their parents, are afraid to take them: “We can’t love over them when they cry,” their grandmother told The Times. Some experiences, like this, children should be spared.
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