:: Buzzwords

3:AM in Lockdown 69: Miranda Gold

Left Pending
By Miranda Gold.

Yellow ringed, disinterested, but the illusion of eye contact was convincing enough. We were a week into London’s variation on the theme of lockdown by the time I’d realised the blackbirds had gone. Every morning since New Year I’d watched them blandly through glazed eyes till the coffee kicked in, laying down a retrospective appreciation for their supposed loyalty to the tree outside my window, perched long enough to let me think I’d met their quiet, steady gaze. In their place came vanishing flashes of blue and yellow, with a beauty so sudden and starting it felt incongruent — as though the connecting scenes had been cut.

Days later people were saying the birds had the sky back. Birdsong and sirens, sirens and birdsong. And yet the swing between giddy optimism and despair is nothing new: it’s either the end of the world or a new earth.

The quasi-biblical note falls flat round the edges of Burgess Park. Away from the stretches of trimmed grass nettles flower over dried leaves, ivy thrives indifferent — I can escape the joggers here but not the metaphors. Metaphors sprawl but joggers keep to the path — and it turns out the whole of London is jogging. Corona has inspired an urban wide health kick. My walks are too slow and too long to qualify as essential. My walks are, in fact, characterised by the non-essential: I inspect lichen, thistle, an empty packet of paracetamol. But in the few days after dad was admitted to UCH with Covid the non-essential was essential. I stretched out the distance between blossom tree and blossom tree, talking to him in my head. It’s not cherry blossom, I could hear him saying. There’s little he doesn’t hierarchise but I said I’d let him get away with it so long as he breathed. As though I could bargain like that. Alright dad, I’d say to the apple blossom, cherry can’t compete with apple where blossom’s concerned but the deal is… I directed impossible promises skyward, made him unlikely ones too, briefly committing myself, along with my brother, Matt, to learning Hebrew, so long as he —

I’m holding you to that, he told me.

And I could see him standing there, saying what he always says about blossom, a line that became a character’s in my second novel: so sad, they say, so sad it should blow away so soon.

I tell him about the Dionysian frenzy going on up in the Horse Chestnut — it’s spring, he tells me, they’re all at it. Alright dad, I say, just breathe. As though breath is a choice. Miranda, he says, this is not one of those yoga classes.

He’d called that evening and I told him about the chat we had. Is that right? He manages and there’s something almost like a laugh when he hears what I had him say about the yoga. But there’s a scratchy overlay bridging faintly grasped words, each sounding suffocated behind the oxygen mask that’s making his speech possible at all. A coughing fit cuts him off. That’s enough now, he says —

Only I wanted to tell him that cherry is better, tell him that Matt and I will learn Hebrew, say that the field was studded with crows —

The crows, did I tell you, I’d have said, they’ve already taken over the football pitch.

On the trees by the lake they take a branch each, standing sentry, waiting. And we’re waiting too. Seconds stretch with just this line on repeat in my head: not yet, please not yet — I’m not ready for you to die.

It was only a couple of weeks before that the park looked as though it had been set up for a photo shoot: toddlers pointing out a goose’s white behind, swans putting on a show for the party of six leaning over the bridge, a group of teens gathered round a stereo. Picnickers squeezing round tables. Any other Sunday. Except it was a Tuesday and I got back to the drilling and the banging which has been the soundtrack to my weekdays since I moved to Silverthorne. Stopped for two months and the moment it cracked on it seemed impossible it could every have gone quiet. The tables remain cordoned off though, like a crime scene. A sign hangs on the fencing round the barbeque area says Temporarily Suspended. Doubling up on the non-committal. London left pending.

There’s no cure, we were told. It just depends on how his system responds. Soon as I put the phone down I recall a coolly authoritative voice: in Spain they’re turning the ventilators off if you’re over sixty-five.

I wanted to speak to him again but hearing the short tight breaths meant I had to swallow back the fear caught in my chest and keep my tears quiet. His oxygen levels weren’t improving. His lungs were more infected than they’d thought. Two litres of oxygen became four litres of oxygen became six litres of oxygen. One mask replaced with another until they resorted to the cepak which forces oxygen into the lungs. I could hear my brother’s calm, gentle voice saying to dad we were right there with him. Curling up, I had to hold the phone at arm’s length, waiting until I could steady my voice enough to say, yes right there with you, shamed that I couldn’t bear his suffering.

When he called 999 he wasn’t sure it was necessary. Thirteen days in meant he must have been one of the lucky ones. He’d throw it off. A cough, a fever. A mild case. When he got through to 999 the first time he reported that they weren’t too impressed and told him to call 111. The automated message on 111 says to call 999 if you think it’s life threatening. He tried to make a joke out of the fact he’d already tried that and they said — but he couldn’t. For once it had got beyond even our capacity for gallows humour — the one thing that’s always pulled us through. Or maybe it’s why we didn’t always get through. Laughter in the dark rather than switching the damn light on and looking at the mess we were in.

Four days after he’s admitted No Caller ID flashes on my phone and I skid back to the moment when the nurse called me to get to the hospital for mum — and now I’m blurring because I can’t remember if she told me mum had died or to get there as soon as possible — but I think she told me she tried to call me but there was no answer. The only sensation or thought that cut through the numbness the week after her funeral was just don’t let dad die, don’t let Matt die.

***

I’m Dr Charles Raine, I’m looking after your dad

Looking after — present tense, okay —

Yes?

He’s apologetic that no one has called and runs through the numbers that I shouldn’t understand but am all too fluent in. Break and mend a thousand times a day. The fact that none of us is getting out of this alive doesn’t help. People are always there — until they’re not. What does it mean to be eighty-one if there was an interruption that lasted close to thirty years but the clock kept ticking. Matt and I feed each other clichés about hope and strength and couldn’t care less that they’re clichés. He smuggles in bananas and dates via a nurse who agrees to meet him outside at 8.30 and take it up to the ward, slips in a rainbow painted by his daughter. Feels like we’ve got round forbidden contact and made our way up to his bedside. Bananas, dates and a seven-year-old’s rainbow. And then we get a message from dad saying he’d asked a nurse to use the tape from the bananas to stick the rainbow up and for a few hours this has me celebrating the insistence of spring because somehow this will all be okay. Because it has to be. Because I can’t conceive of a world without him in it. Not yet. If I hadn’t lost so many years, if each of the eighty-one years he’s been alive had been his — but I did and they weren’t and this is where we are now, willing him not to give up and willing ourselves to keep hoping.

***

Later I speak to a friend whose neighbour’s treatment has been terminated. He’s got stage four cancer and was meant to stay with relatives only they decided it was safer to wish him well over the phone and leave a couple of loo rolls on his doorstep. He hasn’t got a daughter and a son caring whether he lives or dies, she says, locating him higher up on the tragic scale. But I can’t plot dad on a graph.

When the symptoms started we thought he was one of the lucky ones — just a mild case. Then it seemed he was one of the lucky ones because he had a bed. Lucky that the choice was between which mask rather than which life. He was put on a ward which had only just been converted, staffed by nurses who had only just been trained and drafted in.

The evening he was admitted my first thought was how Matt and I were just two loved ones and dad just one case — but then my tiny world shrunk further and I couldn’t see past the next breath. Breath by breath, Matt kept saying, like a mantra. We’re meant to take it in turns to crumble, Matt and I, but I felt like he was holding up for both of us. The moments he couldn’t I found myself compensating, reverting to a role immediately familiar the minute I assume it again. But it didn’t hold. At that point nothing did. Delay and contain — it sounds like a form of toddler behavioural management. Pure will without consciousness.

***

Another doctor called on day six. The numbers were reassuring. The curve encouraging. His optimism was cautious though, telling me this virus is unpredictable. That he just didn’t know. But the growing energy in dad’s voice told me more than the numbers and hope started to feel less like something we were forcing ourselves to say than something we felt. You’re missing out on some serious material here, he said, providing extensive detail on the characters in the ward. All three of us laughing then until another coughing fit breaks him off. I hear one of mum’s one-woman shows in my head — hooked up to monitors and a blood transfusion, she’d still manage a series of acid sketches of the surgeon; then me, with a heart rate of twenty-eight, hypothermic finding comedy in A and E — and the laughter should have been a warning. This family habit of driving all the will we have into entertaining when we should be preserving it. But maybe it’s our best effort at preservation. Either way there’s little that’s reassuring about the laughter.

The day before he was discharged he watched the clip of Beethoven’s ninth I’d sent on to him. That was eight weeks ago and even now he wants me to understand how remarkable it is that the orchestra managed to coordinate the symphony remotely. How is it even possible? he asks. He describes it to me as though he’s concerned I didn’t watch it carefully enough. Then he switches mode and checks the way my niece used to want to check I understood a story. Yes, dad, I say, remarkable.

@mirandagold999

First posted: Wednesday, June 3rd, 2020.

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