I’ve heard my father refer to it as “the most epic tragedy ever to befall the Inuit people”, but then, he’s a writer, so I would expect such extravagant language from him. I’ve heard my grandma say, “It was a tragedy alright, glad I wasn’t old enough to remember it”; and I’ve heard from various family members that Great Grandpa may have lived through it, but he never got over it: The Spanish Influenza that nearly wiped out Okak, Labrador, in 1918.Lisez l’histoire de Rebecca Brennen
My name is Rebecca Brennen, I’m 23 years old and an Inuit individual from Postville, Labrador. I chose to write my story about the Spanish Influenza at Okak, Labrador in 1918. I chose this event for my story because it was an incredible tragedy that nearly wiped out the Inuit people of the time. The survivors had to bury their family members and move on to a new place to rally with other survivors in order to thrive as a people. In my story, the young man, Michael is facing the decision to go to college and trying to decide what college to go to. It seems like an amazing problem that has loomed up before him, and he takes it very seriously. While visiting his dying great grandfather, however, he discovers that his problem is very small in comparison to the great obstacles faced by the older man in relation to the Okak tragedy. I decided to write this story because it shows the tremendous respect our generation should rightly give to those who survived the illness. It discusses the strength that we can harness when we remember the hardships our ancestors endured, and it teaches us the valuable lesson that when we grab onto that strength, we can conquer anything the world has to offer.
While walking to my grandparents’ house in the snow, I find myself wondering why Mom is never home anymore, even though I know where she is. She’s helping Grandma take care of Great Grandpa, because, as she puts it, “He’s very sick, Michael, and Grandma needs all the help she can get in taking care of him, you know that”.
It’s true, he is very sick; but I wonder if she’ll be able to spare a few minutes to go over my college applications with me. It’s so hard to know what to do. On the one hand, I could go to the college in Goose Bay and be close enough to home to come back now and then; and on the other hand, the architecture program I really want to take is in Halifax. My cousin Julie goes to a school in Halifax and she almost never visits home. And for that matter, who says I even need to go to college this year.
But speaking of hardly ever visiting, I reach Grandma’s house and for some reason, I feel the awkward need to knock. I don’t know what it is about coming here that makes me feel so out of place. I usually tell my mom that it’s Great Grandpa’s sickness that makes me feel so uneasy, but it’s more than that. As I ponder the possibilities, the door opens and my mom ushers me inside. I see Grandma sitting on the couch folding towels, and my mom is so completely covered in flour that I can only guess I’ve interrupted her in the middle of baking bread. Grandma says a quick hello to me before my mom grabs my hand and starts pulling me down the hallway.
Even as I dig in my heels and do my best job at resisting, I know we’re going to Great Grandpa’s room. I can hear the low moans escaping him and I remember again my mom’s words that he’s “very sick”. I just know that whatever’s about to happen is going to make me very uncomfortable, so I quickly ask my mom if she’s got some time to look over my applications with me. She stops short and looks at me. So far she’s been very brave in stating her support of me no matter where I decide to go, but I know that she dreads talking about the college applications. Why should I be the only one who’s uncomfortable here?
But her usual line gets her out of this one, “Michael, you know that when I have a moment to spare, I’ll help you with that”. I wish I had a line to get me out of stuff. She keeps going. “But right now, I need you to sit with Great Grandpa. Grandma and I are getting behind in the laundry. He’s sleeping right now, but he seems to be uncomfortable”.
She pulls me into the room with her, sits me down on a chair beside the bed, and fluffs up his pillows. I never understood why people do that. Just to feel useful, I guess. The noises coming from him make me shudder. I decide that wherever he is in his dreams, I’m glad I’m not there. Mom is talking again, so there’s no time to dwell on it.
“It’s good that you’re here. You just need to sit with him, and hold his hand if he gets too upset. Call out to me or Gram if he needs anything or if he starts thrashing around too much. Read your applications if you want.”
Sounds easy enough. I start reading. I don’t get very far though, it’s too dark in here; and depressing if I think about it. I study the room with an architect’s mind. The moaning gets louder and more erratic, and I cringe. I feel angry because I have to sit here and my sitting here doesn’t seem to be making the least bit of difference to the dreams he’s having.
My frustration builds. I’m about to call out my protests to my mom when the moaning turns into something a little more audible, and almost coherent. I put my booklets down and reach for Great Grandpa’s hand. It feels rough, work-worn, old. I study the features of the hand I’m holding, because I can’t bear to look at his face and see the pain there. My thoughts return to the possibilities of where his mind might be right now: Somewhere between life and death; fear and hysteria.
I continue to hold his hand, and for some reason, I bow my head. It seems the reverent thing to do. In the silence and the darkness, I unmistakably hear him say “Hebron”, and I close my eyes. For all my wondering, I can now imagine where his mind is; what’s replaying itself over in his memory.
I’ve heard my father refer to it as “the most epic tragedy ever to befall the Inuit people”, but then, he’s a writer, so I would expect such extravagant language from him. I’ve heard my grandma say, “It was a tragedy alright, glad I wasn’t old enough to remember it”; and I’ve heard from various family members that Great Grandpa may have lived through it, but he never got over it: The Spanish Influenza that nearly wiped out Okak, Labrador, in 1918.
My resolve against being here softens, and I squeeze the old man’s hand. To live in my family means you know the ins and outs of the Okak story. But to have lived through it, and to be reliving it now, well, Great Grandpa had my sympathies. He muttered on, and when I heard him utter the word “Harmony”, I considered waking him. I knew it wasn’t part of a peaceful memory, the way the word implies. It was the name of the ship that brought supplies to the people of Okak, and in 1918, the Spanish flu.
My mom appeared in the doorway, and for some reason, my discomfort returned. I dropped the hand I was holding and stated matter-of-factly that he seemed to be dreaming of Okak. It was only now that I realized that my mom looked as tired as I had ever seen her. She was also visibly upset. When I suggested she should wake him, she told me about the sleeping pills he’d been given and soon left, saying she’d give a call to the doctor.
So I was left to sit with the old man. He seemed to be a little more at ease now. At least the noises escaping him were quieting for the moment. In the silence, I thought about the ship coming in to Okak. The missionary ship, the S. S. Harmony. It would have been bringing life-giving supplies and sustenance to the people, their children. They would have trusted her to come, to provide, to carry them through another winter. I thought about the betrayal the people would have felt when it instead brought the disease that would take their lives, the lives of their children.
I had heard the stories of various survivors: Sickness, fever, pain, death, starvation, mass burials. The common thread was devastation. It was a wonder the Inuit were able to thrive at all as a people. It wasn’t only Okak that was hit by the illness. The coastal communities of Hebron, Nain, and Hopedale were also impacted. My mother says it was the ability of all the survivors to come together and support each other that sustained them into future generations. She said once that she wonders about the family that we had, and the family that we would have had if this tragedy hadn’t wiped out so many people. I can’t say I’d given it much thought before now, but with my great grandfather dying in the bed next to me, and his last dreams being about what happened in Okak, I was starting to really think about it.
By now, Great Grandpa was making noises again and I don’t know if it was my imagination carrying me away with it, but I thought I heard him say “Mush”, and I immediately imagined the huskies involved in the stories I’d heard. I had been told many times that when the people became too ill to take care of their husky dogs, the dogs became wild and frenzied with hunger. The beautiful animals the people trusted would have become their enemies; trading their years of loyalty for a chance at some fresh meat.
My thoughts turned to the children. Parents would have been devastated as they watched their children die, and with that, their legacy. To have to lay your child to rest in a mass grave, with no reason or ceremony, would have been heart breaking. No time to mourn, just moving on to help the next dying soul.
I cringed again in the silence. He wasn’t tossing or turning or moaning. Was he breathing? I lifted his hand and leaned in to listen for breath. After deciding that yes, he was still breathing, my vision of Okak returned.
I had been told that once the sick were well enough to take action, they buried their dead and burned the place to the ground: To officially and symbolically end the destruction, I decided. I guessed that because the sickness was also so bad in Newfoundland, there were limited medical resources to come to Labrador. For whatever reason, though, help didn’t come until well after the event was over. I know that Great Grandpa and his remaining family members moved to Hebron, to rally with the survivors there. I thought about what a hard move that would have been, considering that they relied on their tried and trusted traplines and hunting grounds for their food and means of trading. They would have had to carve out a new place for themselves in a harsh and unforgiving land.
I bowed my head in the dark again, and squeezed the old man’s hand – just because. I tried not to dwell on my own selfishness, but it suddenly seemed as though college applications and deciding where to go to school for the next four years became significantly less important over the last thirty minutes or so. In the minutes that followed, I thought about how weak I felt inside; how unsure of myself. I wondered if I would have had the inward strength it would have taken to live through such an ordeal – not only at the time it occurred, but throughout my lifetime — like my great grandfather did. I wondered what my dying dreams would be about, and I was pretty sure they wouldn’t involve something as important as the thriving and carrying on of an entire race of people. Would they even be about these college applications, or what college I went to? I decided that probably not.
I also decided in those moments that stories of the past that I’d heard about all my life, weren’t just from a generation that was too far removed from my own to offer me wisdom. They were a source of strength for the future. The same life blood that enabled an entire people to start over, ran through my veins and would give me the strength it would take to make any decision and to overcome all obstacles.