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Safe at home during coronavirus pandemic, remember blessings don’t always roar

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday April 5, 2020

A recurring bonus years’ theme is the idea that with age comes perspective and balance, virtues born of knowledge and experience.

Sometimes we flaunt it.  Think of the comment, “I’ve seen this movie before” – as a know-it-all flashes his or her familiarity with what’s going on and how it’s going to end.

More often, I would hope, we use our perspective to build trust or confidence.  Think of the TV ad where the handsome, aging and still engaging actor Tom Selleck, now the spokesman for AAG says “This isn’t my first rodeo…” This line opens AAG’s “reverse your thinking” series of messages to make older Americans more comfortable with the idea of using a reverse mortgage.

I’ve had this second kind of experience around the current coronavirus crisis.  It happens as I connect with  the authority, knowledge and self-confidence exuded daily by the nation’s coronavirus quarterback, Dr. Anthony Fauci, 79, and his protégé, Dr. Deborah Birx, 63, both of whom stick to the facts, shun the razzle-dazzle so common among today’s leaders and commentators and, so , seem to have persuaded our elected decisionmakers to do the right thing.

Except for America’s 80,000 or so centenarians, none of us living today has ever experienced a pandemic, since the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 is our nation’s most recent.  Still, I can add some color to our current woes because I, too, have seen this movie before. Sort of.

I can trace a direct link to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic because my maternal grandmother, living in Chestertown, Maryland, was one of the 650,000 or so Americans who died in the flu pandemic.

I didn’t know about my connection to Maryland and the 1918 flu pandemic until 1993, shortly after our move from Denver, Colorado to Annapolis.  My mother, age 76 at the time, was on her first visit to Annapolis, telling us the story of how she was born across the Bay in Chestertown and how, a year after her 1917 birth, her 23-year-old mother died from the Spanish flu.

I knew my grandmother had passed as a young woman; I didn’t know it was from the Spanish flu; and I didn’t know my mother had been born in Maryland.

So, the next day we jumped in the car and drove over to Chestertown to see if we could find my grandmother’s grave marker.  We drove into town on Highway 213.  After stopping at a few church cemeteries, we found her gravestone at the Chester Cemetery on High Street.

As we walked the line of grave markers, I found a gravestone with the words, “Mary A. wife of W.C. Copper, 1895 – 1918”. 

“Here it is,” I called to the others.  I knew it because I worked summers in my grandfather’s home appliances store in Indiana,  and he always signed my check “Walter C. Copper”.  Otherwise, he was “Pampa”.

That experience led to several days of learning more about the 1918 pandemic, gaining knowledge and insights that have helped me better understand why “social distancing” and other directives are being handed down in the current situation.

I recently shared these thoughts with my good friend, Annapolitan and Bay Woods resident Parker Williamson, a retired pastor and once editor of the Presbyterian’s national magazine, “The Layman”.  Williamson reminded me of an essay by C.S. Lewis after WWII, when so many people around the world were (rightly) fearful of dying from a nuclear holocaust.

In his 1948 essay “On Living in the Atomic Age,” Lewis wrote:

“In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb.  How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: ‘Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.’­

“In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me…you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us are going to die in unpleasant ways [with] one very great advantage over our ancestors – anesthetics.

“It is perfectly ridiculous to go about…drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself is not a chance at all, but a certainty.”

Lewis concludes by saying it’s important for us to continue to do “sensible and human things – praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children…” 

Lewis included some activities such as “chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts” which I’m sure he would not recommend in the face of a coronavirus, but he probably would recommend calling relatives on the phone and chatting with friends on the Internet while honoring social distancing and other directives applied to the current pandemic.

So, difficult as it is, let’s not, as Lewis suggests, exaggerate the novelty of our situation nor our hardships. Let’s not, for example, consider we are “stuck at home”.  Instead, we are “safe at home” – always remembering that some among us don’t have a home.

Along those lines, another has noted, “When you have a place to go at the end of the day, that’s home.  When you have people to love, that’s family.  When you have both, that’s a blessing – and one for which we should be grateful.”

To paraphrase Lewis’s close friend J.R.R. Tolkien, author of “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit”, “Blessings don’t always roar.”

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  1. Gary Ames on April 6, 2020 at 6:22 pm


    I always enjoy your perspective!

    I hope this finds you well!


    Gary Ames

  2. Lorraine Drake on April 6, 2020 at 6:35 pm

    What a wonderful writing. Thank you. You are right: we are safe at home. I look out of my window and I see the sunshine. It makes me feel so good, so happy.

    • Molly Roberts on April 6, 2020 at 6:53 pm

      CS Lewis is on to something (yet again!). Thanks for the reminder!

      Love to you and family – stay well!
      Molly Roberts

    • Terry Minger on April 7, 2020 at 1:09 am

      We are blessed at this difficult time to have home and family together. We are grateful. We are committed to helping create a more loving and sustainable world. Best to you and all.

  3. Alida Widner on April 6, 2020 at 7:19 pm

    Thanks Phil,
    Great article
    I will take it to heart. No more saying “I hate being stuck at home”.
    Thank you God. I am safe at home with the man I love.

  4. Christyjo Wilson on April 6, 2020 at 7:52 pm

    I lost 2 great aunts and a great uncle in Northern California from Spanish flu. None had reached age of 13 and all died within 10 days of each other! Cannot imagine the loss and anguish my great grandmother felt, losing 3 children to that terrible flu!

  5. Lisa McKnight on April 7, 2020 at 11:20 am

    A wonderful column – thank you!

  6. Alan Nicewander on April 7, 2020 at 4:06 pm

    Nicely said, Phil. Thanks for posting.

  7. Anne Ryan Neary on April 7, 2020 at 4:29 pm

    On point, and beautifully, as always, Phil. Please continue to inspire and comfort us all, as Mary Sue and you please continue to be safe. Virtual hugs!

  8. Yvette Middleton on April 8, 2020 at 3:44 am

    Very true. There are many things to enjoy in being at home with my family and dogs. We are very fortunate to be safe.

  9. Bill Whitehead on April 9, 2020 at 8:03 pm

    Phil, You continue to share bits of wisdom, and we are all grateful for the wonderful way in which you do. The attitude of gratitude is not always easy, but none of us yet know the blessings and benefits to come from this tragedy. As many wise men has said before; “This too shall pass” and when it does there will be a new normal.

  10. Craig Wanggaard on April 13, 2020 at 5:26 pm

    Dr. Phil,
    Thank you for a terrific piece. I am very happy Know included a link to it.
    My grandfather was a victim of the Spanish flu. He had returned to Denmark with his family.
    He contracted the disease and died in Copenhagen, 1920. He is buried there.
    His widow, my grandmother, brought her four children back to the USA.
    My father was the oldest.
    A tradition in Denmark is to reuse grave sites. However, grandma continued to pay
    the annual fee to keep his grave site open.
    To this day his grandchildren have continued this family tradition and memorial.
    Be well,

  11. Karen Kuhfuss Koch on April 13, 2020 at 7:16 pm

    Written with skill, honesty and thoughtfulness. Didn’t remember that you were a writer, but I’ve just subscribed! Looking forward to more.

  12. Susan Shea Worthington on April 13, 2020 at 9:53 pm

    Hi Phil – Enjoyed reading your thoughts, and “Safe at Home instead of Stuck at Home” is a concept I will share often. Also It was interesting to read the sad story of your maternal grandmother’s death from Spanish Flu at such a young age. During my own quarantine, I often reflect on past flu epidemics and plagues that have visited mankind through the ages and wondered how past generations dealt with them. My grandparents and my parents lived through the Spanish Flu epidemic, yet I don’t remember hearing any family discussions about what must have been such a frightening time. My own parents were only age 4 and 5 at the time. Yet I remember WWII at the same age. What happens? Once the danger is past, do we dismiss it from our minds and simply pick up from where we left off? Obviously it happened in your family as well. Our social mores will undergo a permanent change I think. How about a follow up on that? Best regards from a safe distance! Susan