Friday, 24 April 2020

Pandemic: foxes and sunsets and suicide

A couple of months ago, I saw a cat run across the garden with a pigeon in its mouth. I’ve never seen a domestic cat hunt such a big bird. The pigeon was upside down, white underneath. I did not see it being killed, just saw it being carried away.

I see foxes occasionally, once a year. One ran across the garden last week. It tarried for fifteen seconds or so on the wall, as if it were checking something. I was able to get a photo. It was huge - red and grey. Beautiful. I’ve seen it again since. Twice in a week.

I want it to come every day.

In between the pigeon being killed and the fox standing on the wall, uncommon events in this garden, the covid19 pandemic has impacted massively in the west. I recall watching reports from China in January, but of course did not think at all it involved ‘us’.

Now we are all affected.

Nothing feels real. 

Being chronically ill, I am used to spending long spells of time indoors, semi-isolated, but now the whole world is the same. It's getting a crash course in isolation and illness, in an alarming and dramatic way. The stuff of fiction.

Spring is happening, but it's dislocating. Daffodils have bloomed and withered, tulips are opening, the sun is warm if you shield yourself from the Scottish wind, but you cannot ever relax, the dread of this coronavirus is always there.

Six days into the lockdown, the weekend the clocks went forward, I heard my childhood friend had taken an overdose and was in intensive care. He has a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. The unfolding of the virus and the isolation it imposed was too much for him, he was simply overwhelmed. I had spoken to him four or five times the week before, which made the news of his overdose even more upsetting. Against all the odds, after six days in intensive care, he regained consciousness and after being treated for bacterial pneumonia was discharged to a surgical ward before being admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where I hope they will be able to look after him for as long as is needed. 

I remembered that when the clocks went back last October, my friend had called me to say he had  put his clock back at 5pm, in case he forgot. Before  the lockdown he was doing a writing class and I told him I would love to see his writing, and asked him to send me some. He said he wanted  to write a book and I told him writing a book was hard. I might just write half a book then, he replied. His mother has since told me it is poetry he has been writing.

What struck me when my friend was in intensive care and we did not know the outcome was that his mother, a close friend of my own mother’s, had been a huge support in the early seventies when my consultant anaesthetist father had taken his own life, living in the same town my friend and his mother still live in.

My current writing project is a (slow) fictionalisation of aspects of my father’s life. There is an early scene in particular, with withered flowers - hydrangea -  in this friend's garden in the 1970s. The scene has been in my head for many years, real, but now re-imagined in the novella-in-progress (I was delighted to discover a couple of  years ago, this poem by Rilke, 'Blue Hydrangea'). More than ever I've been thinking of the importance of storytelling. I have also been thinking of anaesthetists  as they are suddenly very much in the media – the experts on ventilators, so much needed in this crisis. In a 1960s' Polaroid, my father looks like a poet with his Paisley pattern cravate, drinking beer in Amsterdam.

The backs of my hands are cracked, my knuckles slightly bleeding, I've been overdoing disinfecting, using too much bleach, just so very afraid of getting infected from groceries/deliveries coming in. With ME your immune system is already in disarray, and we simply do not know how people with ME would be affected by covid19. It's too frightening to contemplate, given how unpredictably and aggressively this novel virus is affecting youngish, healthy people with no pre-existing conditions. There is talk in the medical community of how some covid19 patients are bound to develop ME afterwards. (Suddenly ME is respectable, the devastating illness you can get after a virus.)

In normal times, I spend much time sitting at my bedroom window watching birds and squirrels and sunsets. It's restorative, a gorgeous way to meditate and contemplate when you cannot do aerobic exercise. This process of contemplation has become even more important. Everyone is commenting on how much louder the birds are, they can be heard everywhere, surely a tiny silver lining of the pandemic.

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