mad in pursuit journal


Love in the Time of Fever

I was going to write more about the Barretts yesterday, but cataloging the catastrophes took too long. For Mary Gardiner and Patrick Barrett, their passage from childhood in Ireland to adulthood in America was five years of hell. They lost their homes and their families. In Ireland, on their ship, in New Orleans, and in St Louis, everywhere they looked, someone was dying. At any moment, they themselves might run out of food again or succumb to the latest fever.

How do people endure? (I'm thinking of modern day examples — Iraqis or the Sudanese at Darfur.) What give some people the power to get through it all? Not only get through it, but fall in love and eventually find safety, stability, and a new community.

Is it religion? Belief that you are in the hands of God? I've heard that the Great Hunger scared the Irish out of their sacrilegious ways. But here's a fact: the Barretts' son John was born within 4 months of their marriage [1]. So apparently Patrick and Mary didn't spend all their time at church praying for their lives. Or maybe God implanted in them that impulse to face death with new life. The civil formalities get taken care of when they may. It's probably no accident that a favorite saying in my mother's family is "God helps those who help themselves."

Is it dumb luck that some survive year after year of famine and pestilence? Or do survivors have a certain kind of grit? A certain kind of savvy that pushes them to the head of the bread line? A certain kind of energy that makes them seek out the clean drinking water?

I imagine that one thing you don't do is stand still, musing about the terrible times you live in and the imminent end of the world. I think that survivors live in the moment, concentrating on getting one foot in front of another. Like long-distance swimmers they have to raise their heads once in a while to make sure they're moving in the right direction, but 99.99% of their energy goes into keeping their arms and legs in motion. Don't philosophize, don't ponder, just get going! Grab your loved ones and go — Mayo to Cobh, across the Atlantic, up the Mississippi, enough of cities, out to Catawissa; plant a potato and start a new life.


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[1] Marriage certificate and 1850 census