The stories we tell

60 years after the worst of the Spanish flu pandemic, we began serving two small congregations in southwest North Dakota. One of the privileges of being a pastor is the opportunity to hear the stories of people’s lives and one of the things that people do in their aging years is to go through the stories of their lives. I have a deeper understanding of the phenomenon these days because I can now tell stories from 60 years ago. I find that I’m quite willing to do so. My grandchildren know a bit of what happens when their grandpa says, “When I was your age. . .” As we did our pastoral work, I heard a lot of stories about the lives of the people we served. I met a survivor of the sinking of the Titanic who couldn’t remember many details of the event. I met a lot of people who could remember the events of World War I. Their stories of the war and its effects on their lives were more frequent than stories of the great flu pandemic. The worldwide death toll from the war was reported to be around 40 million, but counting war casualties is a difficult task. Both civilians and military personnel die in a war and people die over a lot period of time. Some injuries take a long time to result in death. Some people die of disease during a war. Since the pandemic and the war overlapped, it is also hard to count the number who died of the flu. I have seen estimates ranging between 20 million and 50 million. That is a huge range.

As a pastor, however, I didn’t hear statistics. I heard individual stories. I heard stories of soldiers who survived the war and contacted the flue on troop ships coming home. I heard stories of the town changing its burial customs because of the fear of the spread of the flu. I heard stories of family members lost and grief that lingered decades later. I learned that part of the role of a pastor is to listen to the stories.

Now, decades and thousands of stories later, I wonder what stories we will tell of the coronavirus pandemic of 2020-2021. Perhaps it is more accurate to wonder what stories our children and grandchildren will tell.

On the one hand our lives were drastically affected by the pandemic. We had a very different, distanced farewell to the congregation we had served for 25 years. We worshiped outdoors. Some people stayed in their cars. Others listened from the edges of the parking lot. Some, however, came up and embraced us. We wore face masks and we were careful about hand washing and we didn’t encourage embraces or handshakes, but we didn’t refuse, either. Then we went through an extended process of moving that included listing and showing our home, sorting and moving our possessions, multiple trips to transport our belongings, stays in motels, meals on the road, and direct contact with others in certain cases. We made a different decision about our bubble than some families. We were allowed to visit our grandchildren and we sat at the family dinner table with them even after we had been traveling.

We took precautions. We tried to be careful. But we also got on with our lives. We were, I guess, lucky in terms of our personal lives. With one dose of Pfizer vaccine in our bodies and another to come in a couple of weeks, we never contacted the disease. Nor did either of our children or any of our grandchildren. Others weren’t so lucky. I’ve heard stories of the death of loved ones. I’ve heard stories of symptoms that linger. With deaths still running above 1,000 per day in the United States, the tragedy continues to unfold and stories continue to develop.

Millions have plunged into poverty because of the pandemic. Jobs have been lost. Although there have been some restrictions on foreclosures and evictions, millions have lost their homes. I see homeless people nearly every day, but I don’t know their stories. I don’t know which ones lost their homes during the pandemic and which ones have been homeless since before the outbreak. We are still keeping our distance.

There has been a lot going on during the pandemic. It isn’t just us who have made a big change in our lives. Our son and his family sold one home and bought another. They made a move during the pandemic. Our daughter and her family left jobs and assignments in Japan and are settling in South Carolina. They hope to close on a new home next week. We will tell stories of how we went through major life transitions in the midst of a pandemic. And, like all wars, pandemics, natural disasters and other mass casualty events, it is the survivors who get to tell the stories.

I’ve read a few articles comparing various pandemics. I don’t know if the comparisons are fair. the impact of events isn’t measured solely by counting. People who don’t make the casualty lists are the ones who get to tell the stories. And those stories don’t last forever. These days all of the survivors of the 1918 flu pandemic have died. The best you can come are second-hand stories and stories that have been written down. My stories about that time are merely memories of memories. I know a bit of the stories I have heard. I don’t know what it was like to live in those days.

Maybe our computers and social media will give a more accurate record of our time, though I doubt it. More data doesn’t necessarily mean more truth. The ways we tell our stories are different than they were for previous generations. But we will tell our stories and our children and grandchildren will tell theirs. I hope that they will tell more than that we were lucky in these times. I hope that they will remember that we made difficult decisions and that we tried to be careful and wise.

I know my admiration for those who have gone before has increased after hearing their stories. Perhaps some stories of courage and wisdom will remain from our times as well.