Last week, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson said on a talk radio show that schoolchildren needed to go back to school and that parental fears about the idea were overblown. “They’re at the lowest risk possible,” Parson told the radio host. “If they do get COVID-19, which they will … they’re not going to the hospitals. They’re not going to have to sit in doctors’ offices. They’re going to go home and they’re going to get over it.” Rational people everywhere opened up their windows and screamed, “It’s a contagious disease!” into the street, and once again, William Maxwell’s 1937 influenza novella They Came Like Swallows flew, unwelcome, into my mind.
This unbearably sad book draws from Maxwell’s experience of the 1918–19 flu pandemic. Maxwell, who was 10 years old when the flu hit, went through his own bout with the sickness at his aunt and uncle’s house, while his mother was giving birth in a hospital in a nearby city. She died of the flu (caught on the train to the hospital, maybe? They never knew for sure.) three days later. Maxwell, later an editor at the New Yorker, said that the experience changed his life completely. “My mother was marvelous,” Maxwell wrote, “and when she died the shine went out of everything.”
The 1918–19 flu hit a different population than our current pandemic—mostly those in the prime of life. Because of that, it was a pandemic that generated many orphans. By the first week of November 1918, in New York City alone, 31,000 children were orphaned or lost a parent because of it, scholar Elizabeth Outka wrote in her book Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature. Outka argues that They Came Like Swallows is one of the 1918 narratives that best shows the intense impact the pandemic had on young families: “The impalpable 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, “It happened too suddenly, with no warning, and we none of us could believe it or bear it … the nightmare went on and on … the beautiful, imaginative, protected world of my childhood was swept away.”)
The novella shifts perspectives between family members: two elementary school–aged brothers, Bunny and Robert, and a father, James, all of whom get the flu and survive, and the mother, Bess, who dies right after giving birth to a third brother. The story opens with Bunny, the family’s younger son, imagining to himself what would happen if his mother were to suddenly vanish. “If his mother were not there to protect him from whatever was unpleasant—from the weather and from Robert and from his father—what would he do? Whatever would become of him in a world where there was neither warmth nor comfort nor love?”
Robert, the older brother, much bolder and more adventuresome than his sibling, loves his mother for other reasons. He lost a leg in a childhood accident, and she’s the one in the family who never pities him—who expects him to be able to do everything others can. “So far as his mother was concerned,” he thinks, “there wasn’t anything the matter with him.”
Just as Bunny, the first in the family to be stricken, begins to recover from his bout with the flu, the two brothers are taken to their aunt’s house to stay, while their parents go by train to Decatur for the birth of their sibling. Although Robert tries hard to be brave, when his mother and father leave, he hears the whistle of the train from his aunt’s house and feels a finality to it: “He knew all in one miserable second that his father and mother were on that train; that they had gone away and left him in this house which was not a comfortable kind of house, with people who were not the kind of people he liked; and that he would not 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 the surviving family members in They Came Like Swallows as “contagion guilt,” and it’s this part of the story that hits deepest when I think about what might happen to the kids who will inevitably bring the coronavirus home to their family members this fall. Each family member feels this guilt a different way. Early in the story, Bunny tries to tell his family at the dinner table that a friend got sick the week before, while they were playing at school (“he ran twice around the circle without tagging anybody … he stopped playing and said I feel funny … he went over by the bicycle racks then, and sat down”), but feels too afraid of his father to do it. Later, he berates himself for it. “Robert would not have had any trouble,” he thinks to himself.
Bess blames herself for Bunny’s illness: “If I’d only taken Bunny out of school when the epidemic first started!” Robert blames himself for his mother catching 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 1918–19 flu hit pregnant women particularly hard.) But when a sparrow gets in the sickroom, his mother sends him for a broom to sweep it out the window. When he gets back, his mother is in the room—“on the edge of Bunny’s bed, holding him.” How in the world, I wonder, would 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 crazy with guilt. His centers on the fact that he pushed to get on a crowded train, when they were on their way to the hospital for the birth, instead of waiting for an emptier one. After Bess dies, he dwells on the moment when he chose that crowded train “whenever he relaxed, when he sat too long in one place.” Unlike any other kind of death, this death from contagion makes everyone in the family question themselves—their judgment, their will, their resolve—a process that only compounds their grief.
This is a situation we shouldn’t want any child to have to live through, if it can be helped. But the governor of Missouri is not alone in being unmoved by this consideration. One of the lines Donald Trump’s allies have used in recent weeks, in the push to reopen schools with or without safety measures, has been that kids need to learn to “handle it.” Brian Kilmeade said on Fox and Friends earlier this month that kids should be in school because “life is full of risks, kids should learn that early … life is full of hurdles, you’ve got to find a way to overcome.” Apparently, our desire to save kids from the experience of inflicting COVID-19 on their households is just another manifestation of “safety culture.”
This week, the New York Times ran an obituary for Samantha Diaz, 29, a medical assistant who died of COVID-19 in Palm Beach, Florida, on July 10. Her children, both toddlers, got the virus, too, and they cry inconsolably—they are sick, and they lost their mother. Their grandparents, who are their parents now, fear picking them up: “We can’t love on them when they cry,” their grandmother told the Times. Some experiences, like this one, kids should be spared.