It was only a matter of time. I woke up with a stuffy nose. I have been sneezing all morning and using mountains of Kleenex. My poor reddened schnoz looks like it belongs on the face of Jimmy Durante.
I keep reminding myself, “Don’t freak out, don’t freak out, it’s just a sniffle [ACHOO!], I’m gonna be fine. I’m gonna be [ACHOO!] dandy.”
I mean, come on, it’s just runny nasal passages, which is harmless, right? I’ve had hundreds of sniffles in my lifetime. No, millions. In fact I pretty much spent ages 1 through 25 with a drippy nose and a full diaper. So what’s the big deal?
The big deal is that for eight months I’ve been reading internet news and watching network headlines about COVID, that’s the big deal. On many of these news channels they display odometer-style counters on the screen which represent death tolls. And you don’t forget things like mortality rates when you get a sniffle, believe me.
The irony here is that I’ve never been remotely concerned about catching a cold before. After all, the common cold only lasts two weeks, although thanks to modern medications the duration has been cut down to 14 days. This nose issue could be mere allergies for all I know.
But it’s not allergies or common colds that concern me. What I’m worried about is, what if this sniffle isn’t a cold? What if it’s…?
I cannot bear to think about it.
“Be reasonable,” I’m saying to myself while wiping sneeze spray from my keyboard. After all, people in my family have survived COVID. Several of my friends have recovered from it. I even interviewed an 80-year-old lady who survived it.
So I’m trying to relax. But this is a pandemic, you don’t sneeze until your eyeballs dislodge then simply shrug it off.
There is a lot of fear swimming around in the universe right now. LOTS of fear. It makes me wonder how our great-great-grandparents survived this kind of bone-snapping fear, because heaven knows they certainly had it much worse than we do. And yet somehow they managed to keep on living. They kept having families and kept making memories. I’ve never admired my ancestors more than I do during this horrible year.
My grandparents were born just before the Spanish flu epidemic. They lost family members to infectious diseases like consumption, polio, and malaria. Not to mention wars that were so bad they had to start numbering them. When I think of all they endured, it seems pathetic to be worried about snotty sinuses.
Take the scarlet fever outbreaks of the 1800s. Scarlatina was not only horrific, it was a Victorian-era death sentence. There were no vaccines, no treatments, nobody knew what the heck it was. And even though the subject of scarlet fever is rarely discussed today except within “Little House on the Prairie” reruns, it caused devastating epidemics.
Here’s something you might not know. When Abraham Lincoln stood to deliver his Gettysburg Address he was sick as a dog. At the time he believed he was suffering from scarlet fever he’d caught from his son. But his doc soon discovered that it was much worse than the fever.
Lincoln’s doctor found menacing red lesions covering his body. It was smallpox. And during the next few days Lincoln’s condition became dire. The disease was spreading all over Washington. Lincoln wrote in his memoirs, “the White House has suddenly been turned into a smallpox hospital…”
And how about yellow fever? You want to talk scary? Let’s talk Philadelphia, 1793, nearly 50,000 died within four months in what would become one of the worst outbreaks in American history.
There were 25 major yellow fever outbreaks in the Americas during the 18th and 19th centuries. And during the New Orleans yellow fever endemic, 40,000 residents got so terrified they hopped trains and evacuated forever.
Even though today’s modern American school kid could go an entire academic career without hearing the words “yellow fever,” consider this: each year, yellow fever still infects about 200,000 people.
But nothing matches the Spanish flu of 1918, which infected one third of the globe’s population. My grandfather would have been a grade-schooler when influenza hit. The number of deaths was estimated to be 50 million worldwide. There were over 675,000 fatalities in the U.S. alone.
A few months ago I received a letter from an elderly woman in Chicago whose mother survived the Spanish flu epidemic. She wrote that her mother lost dozens of family members, and most people in her apartment building died. It got so bad that people were tying white scarves to their doors to alert the rest of the community. If the scarves remained on doorknobs long enough, the undertaker paid a visit.
How, I ask. How did they endure this anxiety?
What I’m getting at here is that this world has had misery before, and we will certainly have it again. Ours is not the first society to know the hell of uncertainty. So even though this has been the longest eight months I’ve ever known, I’m going to make a vow with myself, stuffy nose notwithstanding.
I hereby refuse to let fear of the future kill me before old age does. I refuse to become a pessimist. And even if the worst were to happen to me; even if my body should fail; even if the unthinkable were to befall me; I will do my best to be brave, and I will remember the words of Lincoln who once said:
“The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.”