Elsewhere in the world, there are other lives being lived. Behind closed doors, underneath the bed covers, and between white painted walls. Sometimes invisible to the naked eye, these lives carry on, indifferent to other realities. Sometimes no words are spoken, other times, shouting is so loud it pierces the human skull. Public life has been reduced to telephone calls, Zoom parties, email transmissions. Nowhere in the world are we untouched by a sense of fear. It’s hard not to be unmoved by uncertainty.
Recently I re-read my grandmother’s account of the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic. The following is her account which was submitted to the Japanese Canadian Citizens’ Association Short Story Contest in 1958.
At the beginning of October in 1918, people began to say, “The Spanish flu will cause a high fever and spread very fast. We have to be very careful.” Parents, especially many mothers with small children, worried about the disease. Only a few days later, people began to suffer from the sickness. There were more sick people than healthy among my neighbours. Nobody took care of the sick because healthy people were afraid of being infected. Some people offered a lot of money for help, but the money could not buy any.
We were not allowed to go out and all schools were closed. Because the city hospitals were full of patients, other patients could not stay there. There were not enough hospital rooms for sick people, especially Japanese people. Beds for the sick had to be set up in the hallways. If a patient fell off the bed with a high fever, staff were too overwhelmed by the large number of patients to respond to everyone. There was a serious shortage of staff members in the hospital.
Even doctors and nurses began to be infected. Mr. and Mrs. Akagawa (a pastor in the Japanese United Church and his wife) played an important role in the flu epidemic, working with the Canadian Japanese Association. They set up a special hospital for the Japanese. They borrowed Strathcona School (in Vancouver) as a temporary hospital. However, they could only use the classrooms on the main floor. Three doctors, Dr. Shimotakahara, Dr. Takahashi and Dr. Ishihara, started to call for volunteer nurses. Two missionaries, Miss Howe and Mrs. DeWolf, applied for the work. Some church friends, teachers from a language school, and others voluntarily came to help the sick. Thanks to their help, the hospital could begin operation.
At that time, hospital patients came not only from Vancouver but from outside the city. Within a few days of the opening of the hospital, the main floor became full of patients. We had to ask the school to allow us to use additional classrooms upstairs. Once people entered the school building, it was like a different world. For instance, there was the terrible smell of disinfectant, many nurses dressed in white, and the screaming of patients. I was very moved to watch many volunteer nurses working diligently with the patients. They looked divine. Many people died each day. I saw a husband and a wife who both were suffering from the flu. They died while calling each other’s names. I could not help but feel sorry for them
We spent every day with a lot of anxiety. I had two daughters, 3 and 4 years old. I left my daughters in the care of my next-door neighbour, to help the staff in the hospital. I thanked God for giving me the health to help many people. I prayed to God for comfort and energy to help the patients and staff. One week later, I was told that I should not be working with patients because I had two small children. They wanted me to stay away from the patients, and to work in the kitchen. I felt gratitude for their kindness. After that, I worked in the kitchen until the hospital closed. Many of the volunteer nurses became infected and died.
The passing days were sad and lonely. After about a month, some patients began to recover and left the hospital. The number of patients decreased, and we were told that the situation was about to improve. People who were still sick were moved to the city hospital. The hospital at Strathcona School closed on November 11th. Three doctors and 34 staff members held a farewell party and took photographs.
The flu became weaker, but other hospitals were still busy and short of staff. Then the flu once again intensified. I will never forget this terrible time. After several calm days, my neighbour and church friend Mrs… was first infected, then our next-door neighbour fell sick.
I became anxious as my four-year-old daughter became sick. Two days later, the other daughter was infected. Then I also became sick. My husband was the only family member who did not become sick. He had to take care of us and did all the housework. Because the flu was contagious, we had no visitors. I felt sorry for my husband, as he had to work very hard on our behalf, all by himself. All I could hear was the sound of his breaking ice to cool us down.
When I was caring for my children in the middle of the night, I thought of God. God says, “Don’t worry about anything. Keep praying. Believe in God. Fortunately, two doctors, Dr. Shimotakahara and Dr. … , who was the children’s doctor, came every day. They encouraged me and I appreciated their kindness.
A nurse came to Ms. N’s house, but Ms. N died, leaving her two-year-old son. We were in deep grief. Then Miss… came to my house to help, and I was relieved. However, a half-day later, my elder daughter developed meningitis and passed away. She was with me for only four years and 3 months. My younger daughter was also in critical condition. I was desperate. I did not have enough time to mourn my elder daughter, because I had to arrange her funeral. I stood up and prayed for help from God for my younger daughter.
What happens in this world does not depend on blind fate but is in the hands of our Father. There is comfort in tragedy, we need to suffer to atone for our sins and not forget Jesus. This was what I had been told, but I lost hope and could not keep my faith. I was ashamed of myself. Because I was not allowed to go out of the house, I could not attend my daughter’s funeral. I could not stop crying. I asked my late daughter for forgiveness.
There were three funerals on that day. Fortunately, my younger daughter was in the excellent care of Japanese nurses. They knew it would be a great tragedy if I lost two daughters. So they worked very hard to avoid such a catastrophe. Thanks to them, my daughter recovered. Then I took care of the two-year-old boy whose mother had died. A month ago, the tragedy was someone else’s problem, but then it had come to me.
I learned a lesson from this experience – that I should not think of anything as someone else’s problem.
We have to go through many difficulties in our journey. On the way, I learned to not give up hope and to keep my belief in God. As my younger daughter was told about the Spanish flu many times, she eventually studied nursing at the Vancouver General Hospital and she became one of the first Japanese Canadian nurses. She studied at the University of British Columbia, then attended the University of Toronto. She worked as a nurse, caring for sick people.
I kept my belief for 40 years and always prayed for my elder daughter in the morning and evening, every day, every year. Even now, many years after her death, I still keep track of the time since her death and pray for her.
October 9th, 1958
Translation by Kazue Kitamura
Some edits by Susan Yatabe
Posted April 1, 2020