Three days into 2021, an aunt texts to inform that my grandfather has died. In November he was admitted to hospital after a fall at the London flat where he has lived alone since the death of my grandmother in 2008. Just before New Year’s Eve he was tested for Covid-19 then sent home, only to be urgently readmitted when the test came back positive. By then my aunt and her husband had been in contact and were urged to isolate, causing a huge knock-on effect for the family.
Whether it was the virus that finally saw off this 97-year-old former station master, war hero and lifelong Stalinist is unclear, but as he’d tested positive a few days before dying that’s what will be recorded; just another statistic from a virus that keeps on giving.
My aunt asks me to break the news to my mother, who lives alone in Yorkshire and has Alzheimer’s. Phoning mum is out of the question: the thought of her dealing with the news alone unbearable. My wife agrees that I should drive from London so I can provide comfort and reassurance. So it is that just weeks after making the difficult decision not to visit over Christmas I find myself hugging the kids goodbye and heading up the M1, hoping I won’t be carrying the latest re-brand of Covid-19 as well as bad news.
It being Sunday, traffic is light and I am optimistic about arriving in time to see mum before she goes to bed. However just past Milton Keynes traffic grinds to a halt following a fatal accident. After three hours, enlivened only by a need to relieve myself up an embankment before the walk of shame back to the Citroen attempting to look nonchalant, the long queue is directed to make a U-turn and drive back to the last junction with hazard lights flashing. There are no detour signs; I drive aimlessly towards Ampthill in search of the A1. By the time I pull up outside my mum’s residential complex I have been driving for eight hours and her windows are dark: it’s only just gone eight but she’s already asleep. Rather than wake her I decide it might be best to wait till morning.
I then have to make another difficult decision: where to stay. My dad lives nearby, but he’s 76 with heart problems; can I justify the risk that I pose to him and his wife, and potentially the health of my own family? It’s that or sleep in the car – and it’s freezing. Arriving at dad’s, he and his wife give me a hug, all of us trying not to think about the potential consequences; a scenario currently being enacted countless times across the world. Next morning I head back to mum’s, where her carer lets me in: mum is delighted to see me, rushing forward for a hug: I blurt out the news about her father and she sobs.
When my dad’s mum had dementia, she kept forgetting that her husband was dead; I had to break the news over and over again. Mum hasn’t reached that point yet, but now I realise that due to the looming lockdown I might not be able to transport her to her father’s funeral. A carer assures me they will ensure that mum can watch on Zoom if possible– assuming the link will work. Recently I was invited to attend a funeral online, but the live feed failed; the thought of that happening to mum is too awful to contemplate.
After driving mum around – including a visit to the house where she lived for so many years, and which now she hardly remembers – I go back to my dad’s. As well as heart failure, his memory is deteriorating fast; at one point he asks how my grandfather is and I gently remind him why I am here. His face crumples as the awareness sets in and he realises he might be headed down the same road as his own mother. We watch Boris’s lockdown announcement gloomily, and I realise that once again my children’s education is to be severely hampered.
Next morning, dad is visibly upset as I leave, understanding that it might be some time before he gets to see his grandchildren again. Back at mum’s, I chat and laugh with the carers, but being averse to emotional displays I am too cowardly to mention my grandfather in case it upsets her again. Then I explain to mum that I need to get home before the new lockdown takes effect. Mum looks blank. Because of the virus, I explain. Mum frowns.
For a moment I almost envy mum’s shrinking world, her warm, neat flat, the carers taking care of her every need – except one, the principal one: her awful loneliness. Driving home I feel yet again the guilt, leaving my ailing mum and dad behind, but also the relief that I’ll be with my wife and children to face whatever the world throws our way next. Arriving home I hug them all, trying to suppress the possibility that once again I am putting my loved ones in danger. I remember an article I wrote about an asbestos mill in my home town, stories of parents who unwittingly exposed their children to danger by hugging them after a day at the mill, still in overalls covered in deadly dust.
Next morning – first day back at work for my wife and me, and school for the kids – the tiny kitchen is frantic as we fight over access to the kettle, toaster, fridge and cooker. Turning on my work laptop, I discover my password is out of date. Having called IT to get it resolved I find several hundred new emails which I am unable to answer because the Wi-Fi has crashed. One week into 2021, I’m already misty-eyed with nostalgia for the halcyon days of 2020. Life seemed so much easier then.