Before the year 2020 and the arrival of Covid-19, I don't think many Americans spent a lot of time thinking about the global pandemic of 1918. But I did. Since childhood I have always been drawn to dark stories. Wars, plagues, natural disasters and worse. So imagine my excitement when my father told me about his grandmother and what she suffered during the pandemic of 1918. The first time he mentioned it I was little, maybe 10. He told me that his grandmother, though very religious, lived a secular life. A "normal" life. But this woman experienced what my father believed to be the harshest blow that God can deliver to a human being: the death of a child. When the deadly Spanish flu tore through her neighborhood and her life she lost more than a child. She lost two of her children. I would beg my father for more details, as only a morbid creepy little kid like me would. "How old were they?" "Did they suffer?" "Had they" (like other people that died in his neighborhood when he was young) "been laid out on a table in a room at the front of the house" (surrounded by grief and pungent flowers) "so that people could come and pay their respects?” "What did the children wear...” I demanded “...when they were laid out?" He hadn't even been born in 1918 but I wanted details. On and on I would go, harassing him endlessly, desperate to know every gory detail about the tragedy. I never asked about the joys and triumphs in our family history. And there are many. Nope, not me. Focus on the negative I say, and you'll never be disappointed.
I forgot about this great grandmother of mine for years...until I had children of my own. And then I became obsessed with her once again. I would imagine having something like that happen to me and I would work myself into a state of pure terror and real tears. And then, of course, because I’d never be able to suffer a loss so great, I would start planning my suicide, scheduling it for the day after my own children's funerals.
Finally, I went back to my dad with the question that had been pestering me for years. "Why didn't your grandmother just kill herself, then and there. At the end, after her babies’ funerals, why didn't she just march over to the Verrazzano bridge and hurl herself off? Anyone would - and it would be justified!" My father would look at me and gently shake his head. "Oh, she wasn't like that, Dear. She was different. She had a gift. Despite her pain she led a full life with her surviving children, and she went on to have more after that. Her children are my aunts and uncles." And that's when my head exploded. "What? What do you mean she had kids after that? She actually opened herself up to the possibility of having that happen again? Of losing yet another child? She must have been nuts!" "No,” my father replied, "she wasn't “nuts”, she was wonderful. She ended up living a beautiful life, a life of service.” "I don't believe it" I would counter. "No one in their right mind could go through that and willingly have more children. That’s just insane." And that's when my father said the words that I will never forget "Well you see" he said to me "my grandmother had faith. That was her gift. She possessed a faith that could not be broken."
So what about my own faith? Some days I have no idea where it is. Knowing me it's probably drying out in my sock drawer or under the sofa collecting dust bunnies. But if there were ever a reason to try and tap into that faith it is the story of my great grandmother. Imagine living a life like that. I can recite affirmations and prayers left, right, forward, and backward. But do I believe them? Do I believe that everything, absolutely everything, happens for a reason? And that we can take every experience, no matter how devastating, no matter how unfair, and learn from it? Grow from it? Craft our pain and our experience into something that we can use to help others? There was that one guy, Jesus, who did just that, but what about the rest of us? What about people like me, with my minor grievances about my life, past, present and future? In A.A. we are asked to seek some form of faith. Faith in a higher power. Faith that we are on the right path and that things will always work out the way they are meant to. Whether we like it or not.
Relaxing into that faith is a tall order. Especially for a cynical and jaded ex-drunkard like me. But I can try. I can try to find the light and to tap into the faith that everything happens for a reason. And I can always remember that I am a descendant of a long lost relative who had a true gift. Maybe there is a flicker of her faith in my DNA. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? I do have faith but it can still get a little wobbly. It doesn't feel totally indestructible...yet. My hope is that possibly, maybe, a tiny spark of my great grandmother's gift was passed down to me through my father. The gift of a faith that cannot be broken.
Postscript - I was recently alerted to the fact that my great grandmother's two children did not die during the Pandemic of 1918, but several years earlier. So memory is a funny thing. And gets funnier with time. Although not in the year 1918 my great grandmother did lose two of her children in rapid succesion and according to my father, she did posses, "a faith that could not be broken."