How Early Americans Narrated Disease

This Tradition of Storytelling Around Illness Still Pushes Us to Grieve—And Imagine a Path Forward

In April, as COVID-19 marched wearily into its second year, my mother became suddenly and unnervingly ill. Barely coherent, she was hospitalized.

Only a couple of days earlier she had been playing with my children, hiking in Northwest Arkansas, dyeing Easter eggs, and—as my mom tends to do—talking non-stop. Now, in the hospital, she sounded like she was in another world. Her normally sharp mind became fanciful and her sentences slipped away into empty pauses.

My mother didn’t have COVID, our initial fear. She had developed sepsis, an extreme and …