With Dad in hospital the circus of care is suspended and the house feels suddenly calm. Mum is the secondary beneficiary of Dad’s safety net. The place is busy when he’s here. Bustling with paper masks and plastic aprons. It’s been ages since she’s been alone, can she handle it? It doesn’t matter for now. I’m here. Alright, Dad might be dying, but in the short term, in the absolute moment, this is a break. The worry, if we must worry, is how we will cope if he comes home even weaker than when he left. What then?
A hospital doctor phones and says the fluid is clearing from Dad’s lungs and he will be off oxygen soon and maybe home tomorrow. That would be good, we can pick up where we left off. Even chaos is contextual. I’ll take familiar mayhem over change. They are just waiting on a Covid test. Me too I tell them, there’s two in the post. They will know within the hour, they say. Two hours later they phone back and say he has it. Whole new ball game. Goodbye ICU, hello Covid ward.
Later that night I get a text from the government from the swab I did, confirming Dad’s result. Then I get one about Mum, she has it too. She seems OK though now. I tell her she’s got it. “Got what?” She says. I hold up the newspaper she’s just read and point at the Covid headline. She misses that completely and instead does an impression of Donald Trump who is doing his fists raised thing in a picture. “I’m tough – NOT!” Says Mum, in an American accent. “He’s gone mad”. She is 92 and an instinctive conservative, but she knows who’s who.
You can seldom tell what anything means at the time. I had Covid in November and it was unpleasant, but now? Now it seems like a good thing, a community vaccination. I wouldn’t have been able to look after matters here while Mum was ill if I was that sick again, or worried about getting sick. My guess is she had it first then Dad caught it when she came downstairs and was feeling better, but who really knows? The hospital calls, Dad is back on oxygen. I tell the consultant they have both been vaccinated and now they both have it. The government says one shot is all you need, so this is big news right? “It’s not up to me to determine that,” says the doctor. “But we should consider that that first shot might be why they are both alive.”
My sister is asthmatic, still waiting on her jab, and so stays clear of things. “She’s avoiding us like the plague,” says Mum. “You’ve got the plague,” I tell her. She laughs up an inordinate amount of phlegm. Perhaps this isn’t over. Maybe it’s hardly begun. My sister has phoned Mum’s GP and the practice is one of only two in the city that are offering the second jab. “If Mum tests negative first they say she can go,” my sister reports. Mum’s positive test is from four days ago, on Saturday it will be a fortnight since her symptoms started. Maybe this is worth a go. Two jabs and she’s had it, surely that would make her bulletproof. Which would be a load off. A whole new world.
I drive her to the plane-less local airport that is now a testing centre for another swab. She has never queued to get into a festival so the hi viz vests and plastic tents are all new to her. And of course it is a thrill just to get out of the house. We go for an illicit, unnecessary drive on the way back as the sun’s out, but get stuck behind a hearse. I just can’t bring myself to overtake it. There’s nothing else on the road. Mum puts on her posh voice when we get back: “Oh what a nice living room!” she announces. Acting surprised at the sight of her own house. Or at least, I think she’s acting. Lockdown has eaten her mind, somewhat. One never knows. I take my daily sanity stroll before the sun sets.
Given the viral load here I clean the house from top to bottom. Wash every sheet and towel and dry as much as one can in winter. Dad’s room is never empty when he’s here so there are layers of dust and dropped pills and crumbs from God knows when. Secret crevasses of crap yield to the vacuum cleaner. It feels good. No news from the hospital though. He is the same. But he can’t speak and we can’t see him so that is that. You phone the ward and someone who sounds like they are in the midst of a medical motorway says he’s stable and you thank them and hang up.
Ten months into the crisis and this is the first week the carers are being tested. Even now they have to test themselves, post that test and keep working while they wait on the results. One of the carers calls me and says he can’t register his test online, even with his daughter helping him. This is no surprise to me, I was on the phone for a day getting ours organized which delayed the whole business. But for some mirth, you might call it a joke. This is more of a Divine Comedy, one which yields a different kind of laughing.
No news from Mum’s last test. I call the helpline, they can’t chase a result until it’s five days late. Can I then in good conscience take someone who might be infectious into a line of vulnerable people? I get a text about Mum based on her symptom date which says she can go back to work. The GP wants a negative though, but we have nothing. I tell myself I can justify taking her with no result, but not if she still tests positive, which might mean months more of treating her like an unexploded bomb. The whole damn shebang is pulling my brain apart – ‘you are powerless – now make a huge decision’ – the dark dialectic of our times – and it is only when I stop for a minute which itself is almost never that I can feel it. Better not to stop then.
My friend phones. I can hardly bare to regurgitate the whole sorry saga and almost don’t answer, but then I realise he may have news of his own so I pick up. He does have news. He has a lot of staff and a fridge full of lateral flow tests. I can test Mum in the morning ahead of her appointment and then we will know.
I am awake at five, as per. The was a text at three saying Mum was still positive on Wednesday so unless today’s is negative there will be no second jab and we are out of luck.
At seven I drive to my friend’s office to get the test. I feel like someone is pushing long, cold nails into my head and stomach, the malign acupuncture of anxiety. Then I turn on the radio which plays the opening movement of Vivaldi’s ‘Winter’ and I drive through the deserted, dawn-pale city to the profound wonder of this piece. That a human being should conceive and execute such a thing, that it can be performed and recorded and that centuries later I can hear it … well you listen, you figure it out, but suddenly the nails are nowhere, and neither am I.
I meet my friend in the car park of his business and he hands me the test through the window, takes a step back and then tells me has just re-watched Akira Kurosawa’s film Yojimbo. Now I have things to do and places to be but one of the many reasons my friend and I are close is because we like to sit down and re-watch films like Yojimbo, and if you get to my age without realising that help comes in the form that it comes, not the form in which you would like it then, really, God help you. Eventually he eases up on the cinematography review and I speed home. Mum’s vaccination appointment is in less than an hour.
I test Mum for the third time this week. We wait on the result. “What have I got again?” she asks, just as the ten minutes are subsiding. I check the result.
“You’re clear.” I tell her. “Get your coat on.”
Long shot indeed.