If you’re feeling threatened by disease, I want you to know that many people the world over have felt that way for many centuries and they nonetheless held fast, carried on as best they were able, and rejoiced whenever they could. So, here’s what I think of the current COVID-19 situation: Be mentally, emotionally, and spiritually prepared.
I was born and grew up primarily in the Middle East, India, and Africa—surrounded by dysentery, Cholera, Tuberculosis, Typhoid, Hepatitis, and more.
I’ve had life-threatening pneumonia, suffered more gastrointestinal issues than I can count—including parasites—and when I was living in East Africa I nearly died of what the doctor called one of the most severe cases of Malaria she’d ever seen.
Even as I was taking Quinine daily and using mosquito netting to combat contracting Malaria, I was infected after spending time at a particularly infested beach along the coast of the Indian Ocean; from what I’ve been told, it was only after massive doses of Quinine that I survived.
I don’t remember anything from those malarial days except suddenly feeling increasingly drowsy one afternoon, drifting into oblivion, and then experiencing the wild hallucinations that extremely high fevers bring . . . some of those, I recall with a mixture of wonder and in a strange way, yearning—the colors were so vibrant, the images so vivid.
I’ve had so many vaccinations, and been exposed to so many diseases, that sometimes I’m surprised I survived my youth. For example, apart from the diseases I myself have had, I’ve known people who had TB, Tetanus, Cholera, and dangerous parasitical infections like Bilharzia.
It’s not surprising that as an adult I battle autoimmune issues. My immune system, as well as my mental and emotional states, have been put through their paces.
I’ve also lived through what might be viewed as several forms of restrictive social isolation. I grew up in Iran, surrounded by walls that shut me in and kept everybody else out. That was the norm.
My breath was taken away the first time I noticed that homes in America were not surrounded by walls and high fences, and that it really was okay if a stranger walked across your front lawn.
I wasn’t allowed on a street alone. I wasn’t allowed to leave the house and yard without an adult. Well into my teens I was utterly dependent upon others to go anywhere or do anything. My whole world essentially consisted of going to school and staying at home, with some exceptions to visit with friends.
There are a few, rare memories of going “out” with family to restaurants, to the local market up on the corner, to the bustling downtown Tehran bazaar, browsing a bookstore . . . but mostly, I remember being at home.
Until I was much older and in the U.S., I have zero memories of riding a bike down a residential street, going to the movies just with friends, or walking comfortably around a neighborhood as though I belonged to it.
My first exposure to the freedom of leaving a building and simply going where I wanted to go was when I attended a boarding school in northern India. I was blown away by that liberty. The concept of just taking off and going out to buy something or to grab something to eat floored me.
Yet even there, our community was essentially confined to a mountainous school campus and a small Indian town set high in the Himalayas; a few shops, some restaurants, and a movie theater that featured Indian films were my whole world.
During the Islamic Revolution in Iran, I was also seriously confined. When my family went anywhere, different routes were taken and we’d check our vehicle every time we used it to avoid ambush attacks and to detect explosives.
Most of the time, I remained at home where my parents felt I’d be safest.
There was a curfew. The electricity was turned off every night. No lights. No TV (which was minimal to begin with). Radio use was limited to conserve battery power. Without lights, for weeks on end we spent hours playing games like Scrabble by candlelight.
Despite the machine gun battles that raged outside our home—tracers visible in the night sky, conflicts that at times drove us to take cover—my memories of the endless Scrabble games with my parents and family friends are some of my most precious ones.
I was raised by Depression-era parents. My father was deployed in WWII. My mother was a war bride, married in a simple ceremony before my father left.
There were a few formal photographs, with my father in his military uniform. My mother once told me that the brief reception consisted of lemonade and cucumber sandwiches. It was a far cry from most weddings in America today.
My parents moved to Iran in the early 1950s and stayed there over thirty years.
My childhood was strongly influenced by the experiences they had growing up during economic devastation, through war, and living in a country in which material goods were minimal and medical care could be scarce and somewhat unreliable . . . one of my older brothers died as a toddler in a Tehran hospital, of pneumonia.
In our house, we saved every scrap of wrapping paper and ironed it over and over again each Christmas until it was no longer usable. We scraped the bottom of every pan, my mother not wanting to waste the least bit of food. As a child I was encouraged to use the smallest amounts of toilet paper I could manage, and I cannot recall a time, ever, when we had tissues in our home.
One of the first luxuries I allowed myself when I moved to the U.S., on a meagre paycheck as a college student, was to buy a box of Kleenex.
I can recall washing my hair with bar soap, because there was no shampoo. It was sometimes a treat to wash hair with egg yolks and rinse with lemon juice. Those were pretty much the extent of hair products in our household.
We rarely bought anything new; I wore hand-me-downs for most of my elementary years—and considering I was the youngest sibling of several brothers, that meant my outfits had belonged to my brothers . . . and to a few of them in sequence; it was not the most feminine, or becoming, of attires.
After leaving Iran, my family lived on a shoestring for a short time in the United States; my parents’ entire careers, and all they had built over thirty years in Iran, had virtually gone up in smoke.
I lived through a cold winter with my mother, before my father returned from Iran, in a cabin in the mountains of Arizona. We had a single fireplace for heat.
She taught herself how to drive (she had never learned overseas), and then she taught me. We lived on hominy soup and Grape-Nut cereal.
Single-handedly, she repaneled most of the cabin. I remember coming home from school and seeing her precariously balanced on a ladder, holding pine ceiling boards up with her head while she hammered. Saw dust was everywhere.
For entertainment we had a small black and white TV that inadequately received one or two channels with an antenna.
When we moved to Tanzania, we experienced firsthand the effects of socialism. What we here in America consider basics (toilet paper, toothpaste, food staples) were difficult to come by; there was a thriving black market to supply these things to those who could afford them.
I can remember learning that a single egg cost about 60 cents. The flour one could buy was so infested with weevils that we baked it in the oven to kill the larvae before we used it in cooking. Even though the larvae were killed, they left a definite, unpleasant taste in whatever the flour was used to make.
We would purchase expensive raw milk (it was difficult to raise milk cows, which often died of pestilence) and pasteurize it ourselves, conserving the cream as though it was gold to make butter or use on special occasions.
I’ve also been lost more than a few times in my life. As a young child in Iran, my father lost track of me at the airport. I was found, sitting in the bed of a truck, chatting in Farsi with some local sheiks. My life would definitely have taken a very different turn had I not been discovered.
When I was in fourth grade, a best friend and I who were chaffing against our limited mobility and freedom decided to take a walk in downtown Tehran. We packed some snacks and water and took off, her younger brother in tow.
Of course, we got lost. I can’t remember who tracked us down and found us, but my mother was so angry that she forbade me to have any contact with my best friend again.
At fourteen, I found myself stranded in New Delhi, India with no real adult supervision, waiting for a flight to Tehran. The year had ended at my boarding school and up until the last minute I had no idea where or when I was to go; for weeks there had been no communication from my parents, who were in Iran in the midst of the revolution.
I wandered the city in rickshaws and through the street-side bazaars. I connected with a friend who was in the area, but other than that, I was pretty much on my own until I was picked up and delivered to the airport to catch a flight to Tehran.
Most of that time in New Delhi I was essentially lost, relying on the rickshaw and taxi drivers to take me where I told them I wanted to be.
To my knowledge, I flew alone—I’ve no recollection of any adult accompanying me from India into the upheaval of revolution in Iran.
When my flight landed and I deplaned, the first thing my mother did was to throw a chador (a head and body covering) over me. Since I had been there last, a handful of months earlier during the height of the revolution, it had become anathema and dangerous for a woman to be in public without one.
At sixteen, I took a trip via Ethiopia to Greece. Although I was supposed to stay with a friend, unexpected events—she neglected to let me know she was moving back to Sweden—led to me spending most of that time alone. By myself, I took tours of sites such as the Agora, Acropolis, and Parthenon, Delphi, and Mycenae.
I made my hotel reservations, searching out the cheapest places, and lived on Greek salad, bread, and feta cheese.
I got stuck in a storm in the Aegean traveling back from the islands to the port of Piraeus and nearly missed my flight from Athens, via Addis Ababa, to Tanzania—a connection only made once a week.
I had no money left and knew not a single soul in Athens at that time.
I recall an intense night of very little sleep in Addis Ababa on that trip listening to the occupant of the room next to mine rant and rave in loud, violent drunkenness.
Later that same year, a friend and I got lost one night on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, somewhere between about 10,000- and 14,000-feet above sea level. We waited too long to head back to camp and in the deep African darkness, with no ambient light, for several hours we had no idea where we were or which direction we should be heading. As all wild places can, Kilimanjaro became ominous and threatening in the night.
It was only by the grace of God, to be honest, that I was found in that pick-up truck; that I was discovered wandering downtown Tehran; that I ever made it back to Tehran from New Delhi or to Tanzania from Athens; it was only by the grace of God that my friend and I heard the distant sounds of someone cooking over a fire and found our way back to camp that night on Mount Kilimanjaro.
My mother used to say, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
She knew from her own life that this was a powerful truth.
She was raised by a single mother through the Great Depression. Her father, a doctor who had served as an army field surgeon in WWI, came down with appendicitis on a family vacation to Atlantic City, New Jersey two weeks before my mother was born. He died.
As a girl, her home did not have electricity. Nor did her home have indoor plumbing. Eventually, these were installed, but her earliest memories were of gas lighting, outhouses, and an ice man who came to deliver for the “ice box” in the basement.
My mother watched her grandmother die of the flu in an upstairs bedroom of her childhood home.
My mother lived through the World War II.
As a young, college-educated wife and mother she moved to Iran, thousands of miles away from her country and family. She carved out a life for herself and her own family. She learned the Persian language fluently. She loved the customs and the cuisine and the people.
She labored hard. She had six children.
I remember her washing the family laundry in our bathtub, putting the clothes through a wringer, then hanging them outside to dry.
In Africa, we did have a washing machine—something she’d insisted on taking with us—but every single item of clothing hung outside to dry had to be ironed with a hot iron to kill the larvae of the mango flies. If you did not iron, the larvae could burrow into your skin to feed on your tissue until the insects emerged.
I can recall the huge pots of food she would make to feed us all as well as the frequent guests she had at her table.
I can still see her on her knees on the hard, cold stone floors, scrubbing dirt out of the grout.
I can picture her spending hours tending her garden.
She was a music teacher, and I’ll never forget watching her tirelessly prepare to work with her students—the hours she spent dedicated to rehearsing for choir concerts and musicals, and the countless efforts she expended on the first music curriculum for the International Baccalaureate.
She lived through several miscarriages and the deaths of two sons.
She survived two revolutions in Iran, the White Revolution in the 1950s and the Islamic Revolution in the 1970s.
She had Hepatitis that so severely debilitated her she was told she would never walk again. She defied these prognostications, as she defied so many others in her life through many trials and illnesses.
My mother nursed her children through more diseases and injuries than I can count. She followed her husband into mission work, supported him in establishing what is now a worldwide educational curriculum, and cared for him when he had cholera.
She almost died from childbirth fever.
That’s just scratching the surface of what she went through.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Much as I didn’t appreciate what sometimes seemed to me a dismissive remark, she was right: Most of what we encounter, just like most of what I experienced growing up, toughens us.
Yes, it causes stress. Yes, for several years after the revolution in Iran I would flinch—and sometimes dive for cover—when I heard a loud bang because of the mines that so often had exploded near our home in Tehran.
Yes, the habits of caution and isolation I was ingrained with growing up came with a mental, emotional, and physical price.
But in the end, those experiences prepared me for what life would bring—for sicknesses; for financial uncertainties; for isolation and cultural alienation; for challenging work situations; for loss, miscarriages, and deaths; for buckling down and squaring my shoulders and battling the stings of fortune . . . for service to others in my family and in my communities.
My mother knew how to be prepared. When a revolutionary threw a Molotov Cocktail through her classroom window in Tehran in 1979, she was ready. She threw it right back out the window.
Whenever I was sick, she knew when to tell me to suck it up and when it was warranted to take me to a doctor. One thing she almost always did was isolate me right away—off to my room into bed, even when I mostly felt fine. There I would read books, daydream, and read some more books.
When you live surrounded by some of nature’s most lethal darts and arrows, you learn that the first line of defense is not to spread calamity.
In the sixth grade, I accidentally cut my wrist open when I put my hand through a glass door at school. It was because my mother raised me that I was able to walk, alone, down three flights of steps, cross an alley, and wander over my school compound to the nurse—all the while holding my hand high above me as the blood pumped exuberantly out of my veins.
The nurse gave me a tourniquet. My father took me to the hospital where they stopped the bleeding. They stitched me up without waiting for anesthetics.
I went back to school and sat in class for the rest of the day.
I don’t recall anyone giving me any painkillers. Once the shock wore off, it hurt like nothing I’d ever felt before.
I don’t think I saw my mother until the end of the day.
It was hard. It was painful. I didn’t feel especially nurtured in the midst of my personal drama and pain. But it didn’t kill me. And it did make me stronger.
My mother knew how to stock her home with essentials. She knew how to stretch those essentials. She knew how to keep us safe and provided for, to the best of her abilities.
I remember as a kid helping her clean the vegetables and fruits we’d purchased at the market by soaking them in huge sinks filled with a solution of bleach water . . . and then rinsing, and rinsing, and rinsing. Yes, the bleach wasn’t good for us, but it was a far cry better than getting dysentery.
When she unexpectedly had extra people to feed, she always had the staples at home to cook not only a large, but a nutritious, meal.
I helped her pluck chickens; shell walnuts; meticulously peel oranges so that not a speck of the white could be seen to be used in delicious Persian food; cook the apple cores and apple peels in order to make jelly.
Among other things, she made homemade breads, jams and relishes, cheeses, and yes, even homemade wine.
My mother also knew the value of things and all through my childhood I watched her purchase items that she knew would last.
At one point, I remember lobbying to buy a small overnight case for travel. It wasn’t cheap, at least not for our family’s tight budget. Finally, she agreed, but told me that the purchase should last me a lifetime. And it did—I had that Samsonite overnight case for more than thirty years and it traveled much of the world with me.
We never made a big deal out of birthdays—a cake and a favorite meal, usually. At Christmas, stockings were filled with nuts and oranges, not toys and candy. Even Christmas presents were sometimes rare, and most often were books. Trips to shopping centers, movie theaters, or other entertainments were minimal. If we did go anywhere, it was probably to a concert, a play, or a museum.
The idea that I would one day pay about $5 for a cup of coffee from Starbucks would have, and quite honestly did, appall my Depression era, war bride, missionary mother.
Here in the United States, for the most part I’ve trained myself out of the frugality, cautions, and remnants of the fears of my childhood. For the most part, I’ve trained myself out of the anxiety over once again being lost.
The idea that I can simply go out and replace something that’s a little worn, or that I’m a little tired of, has never really taken root in my life.
The idea that I could simply pick up and walk out of my house without feeling somewhat nervous about disease, crime, or simply losing my way irretrievably, is a novel one—even after several decades.
Because of the shortage of supply of medications as I was growing up, the idea that I should automatically take a pill for whatever is ailing me has always been a strange thought.
I was expected by a strong and toughened mother to ride it out, to make do, to be realistic about my situation.
That’s one of the reasons I think I survived being lost and alone, especially when I moved continents into new cultures, knowing no one, understanding very little, and feeling like I might as well be from Mars.
My mother’s unrelenting message to me was: Keep your head, keep your feet planted on the ground, muster courage in the face of the ambiguous and the unknown, do what is in front of you, and by all means possible take care of your responsibilities.
That has prepared me for an adult life of self-employment; for caring for relatives in our home through illness, hospice care, and death; for home educating my children before it was really “acceptable” to homeschool; for living in isolating and limiting conditions; for making do with less.
So, here’s what I think of the current COVID-19 situation: Be mentally, emotionally, and spiritually prepared.
Be prepared for disruption—and the causes of disruption are probably going to be many.
Be prepared to take care of yourself and your family whether it be through sickness, through fearfulness, or through economic hardship.
Be prepared to help your neighbors.
Be prepared to be frugal and make sacrifices.
Be prepared to not feel particularly healthy or particularly happy.
Be prepared to get a handle on being outside your comfort zone.
Be prepared to face a force of nature with the equal force of your best human nature.
I don’t know if the Coronavirus situation is as dire as it seems. I don’t know what the future will bring. I don’t know how tough we’ll need to be. But I do know that whatever the reasons and whatever the situation, I want to be prepared.
Preparing is not panicking.
For much of my later growing up years and for much of my adult life, perhaps, I’ve at times resented how strong my mother was and expected me to be. As I admired her tough resilience, I simultaneously wished many times that she’d been softer.
My mother passed away about two years ago. She was in her nineties.
Many people wrote tributes to her. One recalled how fiercely she had lived.
Someone wrote that she was a force of nature.
I did not speak at her memorial service. This moment, however, with a very real force of nature bearing down upon us seems a fitting time for tribute.
I’ve tried to be a somewhat softer mother, a softer person, because I saw how tough being tough can be on a person and on those around them.
Yet I always remember that I had the luxury to be softer, raising my family in the U.S. in a society filled with so much to meet every need in comfort and safety and which required—all things considered—little sacrifice from me.
I’ve had hard times. I know that most—though not all—have not been as hard as my mother’s times. And though I’ve often wished through my life that she’d been less tough, and less tough on me, I’m also grateful to her for having equipped me to be prepared.
In this moment, as COVID-19 spreads over the world, I’m grateful to reflect on my Mom, to lean into the memories of her strength and endurance.
I wish she were still here, so that I might thank her.
I can just hear her telling me, “Put a brick under your chin, kid.”
If you’re feeling threatened by disease, if the thought of social distancing—perhaps even quarantine and isolation—makes you anxious, if you’re feeling a little lost because our bubble of safety seems to have been breached, I want you to know that many people the world over have felt that way for many centuries and they nonetheless held fast, carried on as best they were able, and rejoiced whenever they could.
Because they did so, we’ve been able to be here to live our lives, resting on their hard work and the fruits of their strength.
My husband often has said to me, “Take your triumphs where you may”; our spirits flourish in being steadfast in the face of dangers, trials, and fears.
When I was growing up, it meant weeks waiting for a letter to bring news of loved ones and friends. You didn’t make a phone call unless someone had a baby or died. It was either wonderful, or terrible, news.
Now, social distancing can be overcome by instantaneously reaching out to family, friends, and neighbors and we have never before lived in a time in which we could reach out to one another to give and receive comfort and encouragement—and even more tangible things like food—more easily.
And in all the times that I’ve been lost—whether literally as in the cases I described above or in the ways in which I felt about my circumstances—I’ve invariably been comforted, and in some cases saved, by people who have been kind, helpful, generous, and sacrificial.
Someone told my father a little blonde, blue-eyed girl was conversing with sheiks in a pick-up truck at an airport in a faraway desert long ago.
Someone went looking for me, my best friend, and her little brother, when we went upon our ill-advised adventure through Tehran.
All the rickshaw drivers, the shop keepers, the manager of the hotel I was staying in, and all those who saw me home to Tehran from New Delhi looked after my welfare in their own ways.
When I was terrified I had missed my flight from Greece to Tanzania via Ethiopia—once I had managed to explain my situation through broken Greek, scattered English, and various frantic charades—my cab driver in Athens eschewed picking up other passengers (at financial cost to himself) and ran red lights for me as he sped me to the airport.
Ethiopian Airline personnel went out of their way to make sure I did in fact make my international flight—which for some inexplicable reason was still on the airport tarmac—by waiving all security protocols and rushing me out to the plane on a baggage cart.
I was the last person to board that plane, over an hour after it was supposed to have taken off.
I’d prayed unceasingly for five hours, all the way to Piraeus through the storm on the Aegean, for a miracle.
It was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that my prayers were answered.
We have strength in our common human bonds. So many of us can, do, and will help each other whenever we are able.
The fact that we exist is a tribute to our ancestors who were strong, tough, and yes, often hard; they were prepared.
Like my mother, they were magnificent.
As the Latin saying goes, nanos gigantum humeris insidente: We stand on the shoulders of giants.
No matter the darkness and trials which are in the world, the triumphs of the good so often overshadow them.
In the face of disease, isolation, and uncertainty, have faith in those bonds: We all, to some degree, know illness, loneliness, and insecurity—though we often go to great lengths to hide it.
Above all, have faith in God who wants us to look to Him for all our daily needs and who wants us to love our neighbors.
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The featured image is “Saint Rosalie Interceding for the Plague-stricken of Palermo” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.