I have never lived through a pandemic before, but my first-grade teacher Audrene Boeve was disabled by the polio she had endured in the epidemic of the 1950s. The first adult I loved outside of my family, she walked with a constant limp and with a bright smile. It was a too-short life; a few months after giving birth to a son, she died in her late 20s, probably due to long-term effects of the disease.
Years later, one Sunday evening at Saguaro Evangelical Free Church, my friend and I watched Corrie Ten Boom’s life story, The Hiding Place. Heidi told me when they were changing out the film reel, “I don’t feel well; I think I’m coming down with a cold.”
Two days later, after the projectile vomiting started, her parents rushed her to the hospital, where doctors barely had time to diagnose her bacterial meningitis before saying, “We’ve done all we can, but we don’t think she’ll make it, so you should say good-bye to her now.” Like Ridley Scott’s Alien, the infection had exploded from the inside out, shutting down her kidneys and lungs and bursting out through her arms and legs, forming weeping sores from the side of her neck down to her feet.
After their phone call sharing this horrific news, I went to school where I sat through six high school classes in a stupor of shock and prayer. But Heidi, somehow, was kept alive. A few days later, I was granted permission to see her. Still unconscious, she was breathing on a ventilator, a violating machine that epitomizes Shakespeare’s line, “cruel, only to be kind.” I could barely breathe myself, watching her breath rise and fall in the tubing. Witnessing her survival of that alien encounter was the first miracle I had seen in my life. Soon after her victory lap on a gurney from ICU to a regular recovery room, I went to visit her again; overcome, I stood silent in the doorway for a good three or four minutes before she joked, “Aren’t you going to say something?”
Yet, like any tale of good versus evil, the story took a harsh turn. Heidi’s father went to wake up her brother one morning that week but found him unresponsive in his bed. The coroner later determined that Larry had died in a freak accident, having fallen hard against the bunk bed ladder. I believed that hearing this news of her brother, her best friend, would surely kill her when the infection hadn’t. She was driven to Larry’s funeral in an ambulance. Too weak to even sit up, she was rolled in and out of the sanctuary on a gurney, which became a very different sort of victory lap for her.
Sitting near Heidi and her family at Larry’s funeral, listening to the theme from “Chariots of Fire” (his favorite song), I experienced the incredible fragility of our lives pressed against the unimaginable power of a loving God, a God promising no happy ending on Earth, but gifting us comfort and strength to carry on somehow through unforeseen loss.
The desire to survive a disaster, and to help those we love to survive, is God-implanted in each of us. Like all healthy desires, it can be twisted into its own god. That is what it became for my grandfather, who built his first fallout shelter in Michigan in the 1950s. It was a tiny underground backyard home, with provisions to last my grandparents, my dad, and his five siblings for a few weeks. By the 1970s, with the construction of a large underground bunker on a remote mountainside in Colorado, Grandpa Harry’s conversion to survivalism was complete. Instead of baptism by water, he chose submersion under tons of concrete and Anasazi beans, burying guns and ammo all around his property like a magic circle to ward off his fear.
My father, a new follower of Christ, did not worship at the bomb shelter shrine. However, because he was a good son who loved his parents and longed to connect with them, a couple of times a year, he would drive us five hundred miles north to visit them in the “Cabin,” the shelter’s well-decorated, sunny above-ground floors. Every time, my grandfather would harangue my dad to contribute money or work to improve the shelter. Over and over, my dad refused and also warned him never to discuss his survivalism with my sisters or me.
One day, Grandpa caught me alone in the hall, and he couldn’t resist the opportunity to preach. “Karen, I know that your parents don’t believe in preparing for a nuclear attack. But you’re old enough to think for yourself. So if one day, you hear that a bomb is coming, what are you going to do?”
I paused for a second. I knew what he thought I would say, some sort of churchy response to the effect that Jesus would deflect the bomb somewhere safely to the south. I knew, because of my memory of Miss Boeve, of Heidi struggling for breath in the hospital, and of Larry’s sudden funeral, that bombs can and do explode. In that moment, I imagined my future self, grieving the seemingly inexorable evil being done. I said quietly, with sadness, “I guess I’ll go be with Jesus.”
After that, to my surprise, my grandfather was speechless. In fact, he never said another word to me on the subject in his lifetime.
His last gift to me was a can of pepper spray, which I don’t carry with me, nor bring myself to throw out. I keep it buried in my nightstand, thinking it could come in handy against an unleashed neighborhood dog. Still, I leave it in the drawer, reluctant to touch it. In the decade since Grandpa died of cancer, I’ve been considering and reconsidering his legacy to me. Is it possible to find a godly balance? Only God’s grace and wisdom can inform a healthy desire to protect the ones I love, a mad-bulldog instinct rooted deeply in my biological and spiritual DNA. Every day, I fight the anxious thought that I will unknowingly infect someone I love by just breathing near them. I wrestle with what to do with this uncertainty. But if Corrie Ten Boom, with God-given courage, can survive losing her father and sister in a concentration camp, if Heidi can leave Tucson Medical Center without her brother waiting for her at home, I know I can make it through another uncertain day.
For now, my aunt has gone up to isolate in that mountain house, which she inherited from my grandparents, now a vacation rental more than a bunker. But my calling is ultimately to show up in the valley in Tucson, even if standing two yards away with a mask over my mouth and nose. And whatever happens here, I guess I’ll go be with Jesus.