Last week, my mum died. In just a few short minutes, she went from being a living, breathing human, to a mere number on the list of daily Covid stats. She’d been on a ventilator in ITU for three weeks, unconscious and fighting for her life. But then, on Thursday, her organs failed, and the machines were switched off. Her name was Mary and she was 74.
My overriding feeling is one of immense grief, obviously. No matter how old you are, nothing ever prepares you for losing your mum. But I also feel sadness that she had not been able to properly live her life for the past nine months, and then she died anyway. She got the call up for her vaccination just last week. It’s the kind of irony that would once have made us both laugh out loud.
My mum had her fateful encounter with Covid at the beginning of January after her body had been initially weakened by a stroke. While being checked out in hospital for any lasting neurological damage (there was none), she contracted the virus. Why did she suffer a stroke in the first place? I can’t help but wonder whether the fact that she’d been deprived of her active, fulfilled and happy lifestyle after almost a year of lockdowns and restrictions was to blame.
My grief at her death is made worse by the knowledge of how she spent her final year on earth. Not living with her usual vigour; there was no dancing, drinking, singing, Zumba-ing, eating out, seeing and hugging her kids; and grandkids, and with her husband of just four years, taking the frequent trips to sunnier climes that she loved so much.
By rights she should have been in Barbados now, had we not been repeatedly locked down. Her husband had booked their annual trip to get them away from the winter gloom, but he’d had to cancel, rebook, cancel, rebook and finally cancel as the rules chopped and changed and it became clear that international travel was not possible.
On Monday afternoon, my three siblings and I dropped everything and made a dash to the hospital where her husband was waiting, distraught, in the ITU relatives’ room. It was the first time we’d been permitted to visit since she went in on 12 January.. We sat and listened in a collective state of shock as the doctor explained that she was no longer responding to treatment and there was nothing more they could do.
Donning the full PPE outfit, we were allowed in pairs to sit by her bed and hold her swollen hands, stroking them softly and telling her that we loved her. She looked so frail; the ventilator replaced by a tracheotomy, tubes from her double chest drain snaking down to the receptacles on the floor, the whole scene bathed in the sterile light from the ward cast over the curtains around the bed.
There was strange comfort in the privacy that PPE affords you. I always hate the way my mouth curls into an ugly, open grimace when the tears start falling, but all that was hidden from view by the mask and visor. I wept without stopping, and had no choice but to let the snot drip freely from my nose and let it gather in a puddle inside my snug-fitting medical mask.
How do you convey adequately, to the woman who gave you life, everything you need to in those circumstances with the clock ticking and an ITU nurse, who, though perfectly lovely and kind, is a complete stranger, sitting just two feet away? There is no manual for this and no preparation. My sister and I just had to do the best we could to get the right words out, through our tears and our masks, before making way for our brother and other sister so that they could spend time with her too.
I last saw my mum in August 2020 when she treated me and my sister to lunch at a local pub on a ‘Rishi-Dishi eat-out-to-help-out’ day. We didn’t hug, but we spent a lovely afternoon together, talking, laughing, catching up, reminiscing and looking forward to the time when we could all be ‘normal again’.
She came back to my house afterwards and we sat with a cup of tea basking in the warm sunshine in the back garden. It was to be the last time my kids saw their grandmother in the flesh.
I’ve felt a sense of guilt throughout this pandemic that I’d not been touched by its tragedy. Before losing mum, I only knew of a handful of friends who had contracted Covid, and all of them recovered fully and rapidly.
Now that the icy fingers of death have reached out and plucked my mum from our lives, it’s actually reinforced my view about the pitfalls of lockdown. Her final months were bleak and deplete of the joy she would usually have had. Covid-19 is an awful disease. But let’s not forget the damage that the restrictions which have governed our lives for a year now can do too.