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Sunday, November 26, 2017

Love in the Time of Cholera


Increasingly I believe that coming to terms with death
is the beginning of wisdom.

— Mary Catherine Bateson

The incivility rampant today in our politics, public spaces, schools and workplaces stems from the remoteness of death. 

We have postponed, sanitized and hidden death sufficiently to ignore it completely; as a result, we behave toward one another like petulant gods on Olympus.

People in earlier centuries behaved with a grace and humility unknown to us, because they were rooted by constant loss.

A case in point. 

The land where my home sits in Washington, DC, was owned in the early 19th century by a then-famous winemaker named John Adlum

Despite his mastery of farming and business, Adlum couldn't prevent disease from thinning his household every few years.

Just around the corner from me is his daughter's Georgian country manor house, where five of Adlum's grandchildren died from cholera.

Widespread cholera epidemics in fact broke out five times in 19th century America: in 1817, 1826, 1832, 1849 and 1866.

The symptoms would onset suddenly: nausea and vomiting, followed by a high fever and explosive diarrhea. Within only hours, the victim's face, hands and feet would turn cold and blue, and she'd die suddenly from dehydration. Medical records of the time frequently reported victims' dead bodies "twitching" for hours, so families usually forbade burial sooner than a day. In cities like Washington, daily wagons were dispatched during epidemics to collect the corpses. The drivers would pass by homes shouting, “Bring out your dead," and haul them to mass grave sites.

The 1832 cholera epidemic alone killed 459 Washingtonians.

And cholera wasn't the only deadly household guest at the time; there was also typhus, typhoid, tuberculosis, scarlet fever, yellow fever, smallpox, malaria, influenza, diphtheria, dysentery and measles to remind you the Grim Reaper never slept.

In contrast, death in our day is a secret hospital procedure concluded by the quiet cessation of care.

And we behave without dignity and timor mortis. We act with civility only when there's a a videotaped incident like 9/11—and then only for a handful of days.

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