The End of the World as We Know It

I’m good in a crisis. I’ve had enough of my own and I’m paid to help others manage theirs. I’m good in a crisis. I know what you’re supposed to do.  Tipped off by a friend who saw it coming, I start to read about it and can just about make out the white of the wave, barely visible out there on the horizon. I watch with a growing morbid fascination as my friend in Milan posts articles about the number of deaths in Italy, and tells me she is trying not to panic. Uncharacteristically for me, I have Eurostar tickets to take kid number 2 to Paris. It feels a step too far to cancel, but I keep my eye on the numbers. She wants to see the Mona Lisa – we queue nervously, surrounded by thousands of people from all over the world, dousing ourselves in anti-bacterial gel and feeling like we are running the gauntlet every time we brave the Metro. We go to museums, we touch the interactive exhibits, we eat out. I accidentally leave my wedding rings on the draining board in our rented apartment because I am so good at washing my hands.

I’m good in a crisis, back home, I buy a box of gloves and some Clinell wipes online, telling myself I am just being cautious, and put them in the wardrobe. Feeling foolish, I ask my husband to buy a big bag of rice at the supermarket and I add a couple of extra bags of pasta to our next online shop. I keep an eye on the numbers as they slowly, inevitably begin to rise. I go to work at the hospital, feeling like a gazelle who can smell the scent of lion in the air. Conversations are full of nervous references, unsure how seriously to take the threat, we  laugh as we bump elbows and our receptionist reports the first cancellation due to suspected symptoms. The next time I’m in work I learn that she has lost her husband. 

I’m good in a crisis, I know what to do. Lizard brain, hardwired for fight or flight by childhood trauma, takes over. I read everything, I join the League of Armchair Epidemiologists. I absorb the statistics, I calculate our risk, I no longer want to go to work or send the kids to school. My friend in Milan calmly tells me that we are two weeks behind them. And yet, life carries on as normal. My health anxiety is back with a vengeance and a softly spoken colleague kindly tells me that panic is useful because it helps us prepare. Our hands are red raw.

I’m good in a crisis. I drive Kid number 1 to school and notice he is coughing. Despite it all, I’m convinced it’s just a cold, and I drop him off and continue on to work. We are due to meet his teachers for a lecture on his poor attendance. The government announces that anybody with symptoms should self-isolate, and I laugh at the irony of having to miss his attendance panel as a result.  We giggle as we tell Kid 1 that he has to stay 2 metres away from us, we make him eat on the sofa as we sit at the table. He goes to bed and in the morning I get up and go to work. I don’t want to be there. The government announces that anybody who lives with someone with symptoms has to self-isolate too. I breathe a sigh of relief as I pull Kid number 2 out of school. I’m fairly confident we’ll be in lockdown by the time the 14 days is up.

I’m good in a crisis. I read the guidelines and realise that Kid number 1 needs to be on his own in his room – this isn’t a problem because he’s soon too ill to get out of bed anyway. I take his temperature religiously and am relieved at the lack of fever. He coughs persistently, his head aches, he is so tired he can’t get out of bed. I tell myself it’s just a cold. He vomits a couple of times, he still doesn’t want to get out of bed. He coughs persistently. I leave his meals at the door, tortured by the lack of physical contact. He misses us but he is too ill to want to join in anyway. I nervously ask him whether he has problems with his breathing, I don’t want to scare him, but he isn’t getting better. I tell myself it must be flu because I haven’t caught it and I’ve had my jab.

I’m good in a crisis, I check him regularly, sometimes waking him up in the morning when he desperately needs the sleep, just so that I can reassure myself that he is still breathing. I tell myself it’s just a cold. I compulsively check our temperatures. Still no fever. He coughs persistently.  I wonder if we should both be wearing masks.

Day 6 and he says he is feeling better. Sick of being cooped up, he goes out to the trampoline, bouncing over enthusiastically, front flipping himself back into a headache and exhaustion. He goes back to bed.

Day 7 and he is brighter and thinks he can manage a walk. I’m so relieved I take him too far. He has to sit down, tells me his chest is tight and he can’t breathe. He is visibly breathless and I am shocked and try not to look scared. Almost as tall as me now, he is too big to carry. I feel utterly stupid, and try not to despair. We get him home and he goes back to bed.

Day 8 and he is finally getting better. I pin up a  daily timetable which includes exercise, yoga and meditation. I’m good in a crisis. I know what to do. Mental health comes above all else, school work can wait. Nature is good, the sun shines every day. I start a sourdough starter and set myself some goals. I will learn to play the piano. I know what to do.

The government finally announces the lockdown and I breathe a sigh of relief. I realise that my friend in Milan is now looking at us with horror. We are two weeks behind them.

Five weeks later …. and I’m no longer so good in a crisis. The optimistic daily schedule has fallen to the floor, I can’t be bothered with Joe Wicks any more and my sourdough starter sits abandoned in the airing cupboard. I watch the numbers in horror and cry over the needless deaths, the criminal lack of PPE and incompetence of the government. I am tired of our luxurious yet boring confinement and am grieving for my old life. I’m sick of Zooming and I miss my friends. My introverted husband, exhausted by the enforced sociability, misses his precious solitude. Far more extroverted by nature, I miss being able to go out with my friends and give it to him.  We argue about petty things. I don’t even have the energy to maintain the anxious hand washing or symptom checking of early days.  I’ve had enough of this boring apocalyptic groundhog day. I go to bed and I cry and I cry and I cry.

If women hold up half the sky, then it’s the half in which we make our homes. My friend recently  described herself as the ‘emotional barometer’ of her family and I see this reflected in the eyes of my children. When I’m not okay, they’re not okay, and the sense of having to practise gratitude, maintain positivity, keep going, have faith that this will end, is becoming exhausting. The responsibility is draining and I think that within all of this, it wasn’t just my sourdough starter that I neglected.

If I want to be good in this crisis, I need to remember that it’s okay to mourn my old life, it’s alright to get annoyed at the boring repetitiveness of domesticity, and it doesn’t matter if the kids spend all day staring at screens because I can’t muster the enthusiasm needed to download another bloody worksheet from Twinkl.

I asked the kids recently how they thought they would remember these times, expecting some sort of wisdom from the mouths of babes. They looked up at me bewildered from their endless stream of Tik Tok inanity and told me they didn’t know. And you know what, I’ll take that.

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