Soap Opera

Is it me or are the first cracks beginning to appear in the lockdown? At the beginning of all this our Close was jammed with parked vehicles all day long. Every available space taken. Overspill lined along the grass verges as though the occupants had turned up late for a local event.

That’s not happening now. Cars come and go. You can’t help but notice that some people disappear for the entire day, sometimes overnight, with their kids. If you’re observing the government advice, your life has become so static and predictable, you develop a kind of hypersensitivity toward the slightest movement outside. The cult of curtain twitching has a strong pull. What was once simple curiosity, becomes stealthy surveillance. If someone is moving out there, what is the threat level? Are they wearing a mask and/or gloves? If not, why not?

Our postie doesn’t wear any protection at all, yet he visits almost every address every day, including the block where there has been at least one confirmed case of Covid-19.

Two men were sent by our housing association to clear some carelessly discarded household items. They were wearing the standard industrial gloves issued to workers who need hand protection. But after heaving several black plastic bags and their unknown contents into the back of his truck, one of the guys proceeded to scratch an itch on his face without removing his glove. Similarly, we watched with alarm when a refuse collector, wearing disposable latex gloves, manhandled the communal bins to the rear of the lorry before taking a water bottle from his pocket, unscrewing the top with his germ laden latex gloves, and enjoying a long swig.

Are we, in our efforts to dodge the virus, succumbing to pandemic paranoia? Short answer is no. The urge to survive is basic, isn’t it? Basic hygiene isn’t rocket science. Before touching anything that’s destined for your mouth, make sure your hands are clean. The casual observation that everyone has to eat a peck of dirt before they die will no longer wash. We, on the other hand, must.

Staying put

Just a year ago we were enjoying a family holiday in a cottage overlooking the Camel Valley vineyards. Wow! How the world changes.

Following Mags’ diagnosis in May we promised ourselves to be forward looking and try, as hard as it might be, to remain positive about the future. During post-op recovery life became a series of small steps, figuratively and literally. By August we were taking our usual two mile walk across country to the village shop and back. With the sun on our backs we promised ourselves that 2020 would be a year to make the most of. We’d get out and about more, take advantage of the long summer days and drink up the goodness those times would offer.

The chemo began a few days after Mags’ birthday. The ensuing three months passed in the form of a solemn synchronicity; the warmth of our days fading as the weight of treatment took its toll. By November, when the PICC line was removed and the chemo ended, we had the festive season to look forward to, although we were prevented from taking a daily stroll on cold days as exposure to a sudden drop in temperature could cause breathing difficulties. Even residual amounts of Oxaliplatin in the system might prompt a throat spasm, making it difficult to swallow and/or breathe. So we accepted the advice, and only ventured out on milder days. Which meant that we were, most of the time, cooped up in the flat.

Still, spring was around the corner. Soon the flowers would be blooming, the hedgerows turning green, the trees, fully dressed and ready to look summer in the eye with leafy confidence.

As per the promise we made ourselves, we started getting out and about more, increasing our walking distance daily, passing the time of day with familiar faces once again and taking the time to stand and stare, as we always used to.

Now, just as our own dose of uncertainty came out of the blue last year, the entire world finds itself in the realms of the unknown, hanging on the words of scientists and medics, hoping each day for an improved prognosis.

It’s going to be a long haul, and I fear that the promise of a summer that helped to get us this far will have to be appreciated from the wrong side of our windows. There are suggestions by people who know better than me that ‘shielding’ may be in place for many months. But we already miss the outdoors, and we’ve made an agreement that if this goes on for longer than we can bear, we’ll mask up and sneak in a walk before the sun or anyone else is up. We miss our family. It’s one thing seeing them and talking to them on FaceTime, but there’s no substitute for a hug.

Yet for all the unpleasant ramifications of the lockdown, Mags and I are, without a shadow of doubt, living a precious year together that we might once have written off as being a lost year.

Who are we?

One of my favourite writers, Joan Didion, once stated, “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be…”. I’ve often felt this about myself. But these past seven or eight months have flipped that quote. I’ve actually discovered a couple of people I didn’t know I was.

When you live with someone for a very long time many of your conversations take place in the abstract, usually prompted by a simple, sometimes random, question. What sort of person might our daughter grow to be? How would we spend a substantial windfall? Can we ever truly prepare for old age? What’s the point of a career? Is enough really as good as a feast? How would each of us cope without the other?

We, like many others, have speculated and tested our imaginations. Then we have sighed and got on with our daily business while the unknowns and inconclusions pooled around us only to quickly evaporate, until next time.

Recently there has been a been a lot of form filling for us, and questions that demand concrete answers. A recurring one has been, “Martin, are you Mags’ primary carer?”

My response, on first hearing, was “Hold on, what? Primary Carer?”

“Well, for the record we need to know,” comes the reply, or “To complete the process, all fields on our form must be filled. No questions left unanswered.”

So, according to officials I’m a primary carer. But the reality is I just care, the way we have for one another these past 46 years.

The other person I’ve discovered is the one who had to learn quickly about signs and symptoms, chemical concoctions, and the pitfalls of prognostication. Medics are, on many levels, miracle workers, but they cannot, by their own admission, foretell the future of a cancer patient with any certainty. Neither should they be expected to.

Mags has a CT scan on 23rd of this month, and a follow up with her oncologist a few days later. Whatever the outcome, it’ll be faced by the people we now are, and maybe some of the people we were, once.