"I light a candle in your name
"Long past midnight, memories bright in the freeze frame
"I know that love don't end."
-- Eliza Gilkyson
The young doctor knew all about death. At age 39, he had been practicing long enough to see it in all its awful truth. It comes for the elderly, it can come for babies, it can strike without mercy or it can come gently in the night. But when it comes to your home, decisions have to be made. Consequences have to be dealt with.
The epidemic was spreading fast in the small towns in and around Raleigh, N.C. Local officials estimated there was a 10% chance of death if you contracted the disease. There was no vaccine. The only remedy was to quarantine the unfortunate soul and hope he could ride it out. The symptoms were headache, then high fever, and if it didn't break, typically it would be pneumonia that would kill you.
Her name was Rosaline, but everyone called her Rosie. She was 10 years old and was the apple of her father's eye. The first daughter in a family of four, she claimed her handsome father's heart from the start. Rosie basked in the attention. At 10, she was surrounded in the protective embrace of a loving family, still full of adolescent dreams and wishes upon stars. That was about to change forever.
Rosie didn't go to school that early September day, complaining of a headache. Her mother kept her home that day, then the next. When the fever hit, the young doctor knew exactly what it was. The epidemic was now reaching inside his home. He was swift with the treatment. Rosie would be in quarantine from the family, and the young doctor could only pray she would endure.
The high fever and isolation made Rosie frantic. "Papa," she cried out one night, "I'm scared! Will you please sleep with me?" The young doctor didn't hesitate. He knew the risks better than anyone. He would help his little girl. With his arms wrapped around her, Rosie drifted off to sleep. No harm could come to her now. Within a few days, the fever broke, and the entire family drew a deep breath of gratitude. But the road taken cannot be undone, and the young doctor would have to face the balance at the end.
As the little girl regained her health, just as quickly the young doctor lost his. This time it was her turn to hold her father. On Sept. 25, the great typhoid epidemic of 1904 claimed another victim.
"I killed my father," the elderly lady calmly told me as she handed me a cup of coffee in her dimly lit Raleigh home way back in 1980. She went through the narrative as I listened in rapt attention. Her father, Dr. William Dorsey Young, was my great-grandfather. Thinking back, it occurred to me how many times she must have told that story in her life, how many years she had carried the guilt. But what she thought was her fault was to me a tender story of a father's love answering a daughter's call.
Life changed for my descendants in 1904, but they adapted. It has changed for us in 2020, and we will adapt, too. Rosaline grew up, fell in love, had a devoted daughter and kept the memory of her dad burning bright. Her older brother became my grandfather. A typhoid vaccine was developed in 1909, and people moved on to other issues, other diseases. We will too. We all have fears that we at some point must come face to face with, and when we do, hopefully, we'll remember there is comfort in the voices and memories that remind us of all we hold dear. That we will be all right. And that those loving arms will, for a little while, hold us close in the night. We are not alone.
NAN Our Town on 04/16/2020