When I went round to visit Mum a few weeks ago, back in the days when moving freely between houses was allowed, and even actively encouraged, I asked Dad how she was doing. The television in the corner continued to blare out stories of escalating deaths in Italy and the sense of national panic (still tinged with apathy) that was building here, but Mum was sat tucked in her recline-and-raise armchair, a blanket on her lap and a smile of contentment on her face.
“She’s probably the happiest person in the country right now,” said Dad. And indeed, it appeared t’were so. Mum’s expression was the standard issue ‘vague and carefree’ that has become her daily norm unless, heaven forbid, someone tries to file her nails. She does not understand what is happening and this lack of understanding, instead of making her anxious (as it does with many people living with dementia) actually makes her completely fearless.
I saw her for the last time (not the last time, hopefully, but just the final visit before lock-down) when my sister and I went home last weekend to sit on garden chairs placed two metres apart and drink from our own thermos flasks of tea. We were a model of infection control – Dad left the gate open so we could walk through without touching a single surface, he placed magazines on the chairs so that we could avoid contact between buttock-covering fabric and seat (magazines removed and dropped into the wheelie bin by us when we departed). We sat in the fresh air and shouted our fears across the lawn to each other and Mum sat in the conservatory separated from her family by the double-glazing but still able to see us and hear our conversation filter through the open window. It was similar to how I imagine the Queen conducts her state visits; sat behind bullet proof glass as the attendant crowds wave their flags, or perhaps like that bit in Silence of the Lambs when Hannibal Lecter speaks to Clarice from his see-through cell, just less grim, obviously.
As we spoke, we knew that this would likely be the the last time we’d physically see each other for many weeks – talk was of imminent lock-down and we have since been proved right. Our mood was a curious mixture of panic and stoicism. The need to reach out and touch someone for reassurance, or put your arms around one another, is never more pressing that when you have been expressly forbidden to do so. We were all anxious in our own ways. My Dad and sister were concerned for me, having seen the slightly disturbing reports of increasing death rates amongst healthcare workers, particularly medics. I, admittedly, was a bit anxious about myself, my husband, my colleagues. But my sister and I were also both worried about my Dad; concerned for his health and his sanity. And then there was an underlying fear for all of us, about society; how we’re going to cope as a nation, how the people who have lost their jobs and livelihoods are going to manage, where the people who only weeks ago were washed out of their homes as rivers burst their banks in the most recent biblical purge (we’ve had flood, we’re doing plague so presumably it’s only a matter of time before famine and war) are going to live. How do you self isolate if you’ve lost your home?
And while we were mulling this over, keeping a brave face on things, laughing about the fact that I couldn’t go indoors to use the loo and so had to relieve myself on the compost heap instead (sheltered from view obviously – self distancing taken to extremes). While we’re dealing with all this shit going around in our heads, Mum is sat looking at the clouds, feeling the sun on her face and registering no trace of alarm or crushing fear of her own impending doom. The word coronavirus means nothing. The word pandemic means nothing. Words mean nothing. Her happiness and comfort is entirely dependent on her immediate surroundings. The outside world has no relevance. She has no fear for me, her daughter, working ‘on the front line’ (accompanied by dramatic music) and she has no concern for my father and how he is going to cope. These things don’t register. Therefore, number one on my list of reasons to be cheerful is:
- Being related to someone who doesn’t know what Coronavirus is – Someone who isn’t worried about catching it, spreading it, dying from it or living in fear of it. How bloody amazing must that be?
Number two on my list is linked to number one:
- Having a parent who will not present challenging end of life treatment decisions if COVID-19 does take a hold. Whilst we are obviously hoping that Mum escapes the virus, or that if she does contract it that hers is a mild snuffly version, we need to consider the possibility that she might get it and become very unwell, the kind of unwell where other people might talk of ITU and ventilators. This will be a scenario facing thousands of families up and down the country who may be considering these issues for the very first time. Not us. Mum has her DNACPR form. We have sorted out Power of Attorney for health – did it years ago. She has an Advance Care Plan of sorts. We’ve already wrestled with the angst of quality of life versus general frailty. We’ve had those difficult conversations – we are EXPERTS in this field. Not for us the rushed and awkward ‘would your mother have wanted to be resuscitated’ chat. Not for us the wrangling with guilt and expectation and denial. We are done with that. Appropriate decision making at the end of life? – it’s so 2017.
The remainder of my reasons to be cheerful do not relate to me, at least not directly. They are not novel or unique. They fall mainly into the territory of ‘general observations that have occurred to the majority of the world’s population during this time of global crisis.’ i.e. it’s just more of the same generic stuff you’ll find all over social media – no revolutionary thinking. Anyway – lets not oversell it…
- Key workers – a celebration. Only weeks ago, cleaners, care-home staff, sewerage and sanitation workers, supermarket shelf-fillers, delivery drivers and hospital orderlies were being described as unskilled and ‘not really the type of person one would with to be associated with, dear‘ (see Care Workers – who cares? ). The disdainful right wing press (under the auspices of the disdainful right wing government) was full of chat about how these underlings would not be allowed to enter the hallowed portals of UK-PLC in the future. How the post-Brexit sunlit uplands and ivory towers would be shutting their doors to this type of riff-raff. Well, aha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha (falls off chair laughing) you bigoted fools! Whadya think of those unskilled workers now? I think you’ll find these people are da da dah… KEY-WORKERS and WE NEED THEM. Who knew?
- The NHS – Yada yada – I know it’s not supposed to be about me but I do work for this hallowed institution and I know how good it is. The NHS rose from the ashes of war as a uniquely positive attempt to protect our weak and vulnerable. It has taken an absolute pasting in the past ten years, resources have been cut to the bone, demand has gone through the roof and any other analogy you could care to mention has occurred. But it keeps going. It picks itself up, it rallies and it will be there in our hour of need. Other countries do not have an NHS. They do not have an organisation that is used to coping on a shoestring budget, one that runs almost exclusively on goodwill, camaraderie and a sense of duty. Nowhere else has a health service that reaches its arms across the nation and scoops up every single person, irrespective of social class, wealth or race, in a ginormous cuddle of care. For free. And what other organisation could mobilise long-retired employees, calling them back to the fold, or conjure up 400,000 new volunteers? Once this is over please let’s not forget our good fortune. I mean really. Please. FFS.
- The BBC – See above re public institutions that have been brought to their knees by slashed budgets and scapegoating, only for us to suddenly realise at the eleventh hour that, to be honest, it’s pretty handy to have them and, hmm, actually not bad value for money at all. In these dark days it’s vital to have a public service broadcaster bringing us news, music, chat and Mallory Towers.
- Community projects – Whether it’s neighbours in the same block of flats dropping a note round to say hello to the man at number six that they’ve never spoken to before, or entire districts mobilising teams of volunteers to deliver shopping to those in self-isolation, great swathes of our nation are suddenly realising that we actually quite like each other, and, you know, we don’t really want people to die alone or run out of tinned tomatoes. Although we wouldn’t in normal circumstances dream of spontaneous sociability, a national crisis brings out our nurturing, humanitarian and gregarious selves. No man is an island. Most of us care about each other and most of us need something to do. As an aside, a neighbouring village (beginning with A – lets call it Avonlea for the sake of anonymity and just to crowbar an Anne of Green Gables reference in) has recently set up a community group called Avonlea Needs Us – handily abbreviated to ANUS. That tells you all you need to know. Light can be found in the darkest places.
- Health – There’s nothing like being told you can’t go out and exercise more than once a day to make you really want to get out of your house and exercise. There’s nothing like home schooling small children to make you appreciate the joyful exuberance of Mr Joe Wicks as you high-kick your way around the sitting room. Is it possible that by being confined to our homes we might actually become less sedentary? Seems odd but you never know. We also aren’t eating out or larding up on takeaways, we’re not having casual sex with strangers, falling accidentally pregnant and contracting STDs or meeting up at raves to take cast quantities of illegal drugs (at least not in my household – not sure what’s going on at a government level). We are having to cook our own food and clean our own houses and spend quality time with our spouses and children. Our mental health may be taking a hammering from the relentless anxiety but we have been dragged kicking and screaming into mindfulness; appreciating the simple things in life like flowers and birdsong and playing Cluedo (not really, I hate Cluedo).
- The environment – Whilst the decimation of the airline industry is not ‘a positive’ as such, the reduction in air pollution attributed to fewer flights is at least giving our planet a moment to breathe (somewhat ironic given that the extreme end of COVID symptoms results in respiratory failure). The water in Venice’s canals is clear and repopulating with fish (the dolphins were fake news), the clouds of pollution above industrial cities have dissipated as we pause in our relentless manufacture of stuff. And I know this is dreadful for the economy. I know there are people out of work and that we one day will need to start up the cogs again, to erect buildings, make cars and travel to Vegas to watch boxing matches, but to press pause for a few months is like a smoker halting their habitual forty a day – even if it’s temporary it reduces the damage and might just make us think a bit about how we return to the new normal.
- Kindness – Those who work in the public sector know all about seeing the best and the worst of people. Crisis brings out extremes and there will always be the profiteers, the scammers and the complete bastards. But for every despicable individual stealing stuff out of the food bank, for every conniving shit sending families on free school meals a WhatsApp message asking for their account number in order to ‘reimburse’ them, there’s a person wondering what they can do to help. People are smiling and shouting hello to each other (from a safe distance), putting up rainbow pictures in their windows, singing in Italian chorus, phoning friends they haven’t spoke to for years, thinking of others. The trolls, the bigots and the haters remain and COVID-19 has no ethical code, the baddies are unlikely to all be wiped out leaving only the goodies standing, but they might at least be given cause to re-evaluate their priorities and maybe we’ll emerge as a kinder, more appreciative society.
So. Stay at home. Stay Safe. Be kind. Look after each other (remotely).
It will be ok.
Trust me. I’m a doctor.