March 18, 2020
Do Not Travel overseas, says the Australian Government.
Late afternoon, we arrive home from a road trip. In the week we’ve been away, the Coronavirus situation has changed rapidly. Now we just want to stay home.
I text three-year-old Jack’s Mum and Nanny Gaye: I won’t be coming to his birthday party this weekend after all. Mum understands. Nanny Gaye says, “Fark!” People are over-reacting, she says; her GP told her to go out, she’ll go mental if she stays home. I feel bad. I worry about her, she’s in the high risk group.
It seems plenty of people agree with Gaye. Over the weekend they flocked to the beaches. So beaches closed.
Government says stay home, shuts down pubs, restaurants, sports, events. Queensland schools remain open. I worry about teacher friends.
Coronavirus cases climb, 1,347 now. It’s very fast and getting faster. Scary.
Breda is in Brisbane. We’ve agreed to chat on Skype but when I try to log in, it doesn’t work. I haven’t used it for years. Eventually John fixes it. Breda tells me her mother’s aged care home is locked down now, family can’t visit; but they relented, let her visit in the garden since she’d come from Sydney especially.
The hospital calls John, pre-admission paperwork for his angiogram tomorrow.
Government announces further closures, restrictions, cancels elective surgery. We decide not to worry, his procedure will likely go ahead, it’s semi-urgent.
Australia closed its borders on Friday night. It feels surreal. I picture our vast island, its rocky cliffs now sentinels, its jetties, beaches, airport gates barricaded with ropes and “No Trespassing” signs. We ponder what to do about our overseas trip booked for May and June, decide to put off thinking about it until after tomorrow.
We’ve invited Stepdaughter 1 and Boyfriend, who house sat while we were away, to stay on so they can be together. Stepdaughter 1 is studying online; Boyfriend is waiting for a new job to start. In our renovated Queenslander, we give them upstairs; we live downstairs except for meals. They stay up late, leave lights on, are messy, unobservant. They eat a lot. Boyfriend has expensive taste in coffee. But they help out with cleaning, cooking, washing up; they buy some food and coffee. And they make the most divine chocolate pudding we’ve ever eaten.
Harmony hovers. I try harder to bite my sharp tongue, be patient, calm. Stepdaughter 1 can be prickly, John grumpy, Boyfriend a somewhat unknown quantity. I expect they feel the same burden, trying to keep the oldies, the wife, happy.
My sister texts, confirms our eighty-eight year old Mum is fretting, can’t imagine what she’ll do at home all day. Hopefully their Far North Queensland rural location will protect this four generations slice of my family.
These days I pray a lot more.
Upstairs, computer games and fantasy movies reign. Downstairs, it’s the TV, with relentless COVID-19 coverage. Information access improves for me: Auslan interpreters begin appearing on TV press conferences; I’m thrilled, grateful. Government announces a committee to redeploy unemployed people, repurpose factories, keep supply lines going. We need to manufacture things like masks and ventilators for hospitals. Bundaberg Rum Distillery is using its ethanol to make hand sanitiser. It’s like wartime government requisitioning of private industry to work for the war effort.
It’s strangely exciting, dramatic, scary. Food shopping is bizarre. We sanitise our hands, don’t touch anything unnecessarily, walk wide of people. Others do the same, glance at us warily.
Watching TV gets depressing. John disappears into the study. I go outside, deadhead the roses, eat fresh-picked raspberries. I’m thrilled with my unexpectedly successful raspberry patch!
We check into the hospital at 6.00am. Hand sanitisers are everywhere, waiting room chairs 1.5 metres apart. I wonder if they measured each one. People come and go, constantly sanitising their hands. When John is called, they tell me I can’t stay and wait, so I leave him there, go home to worry. They say they’ll call me when it’s done but we know they won’t, my deaf need for texts instead of phone calls flummoxes procedures everywhere. Only my dentist does it well.
So John texts me, provides better information than the hospital would. At 6.55 he’s changed into a gown….putting his phone away. He leaves me in silence. At 9.30 he texts. He’s in recovery, all good…he’s had some food…at least an hour yet…he’s dressed… And so I track him as he perks up, feels better, asks me to pick him up at 1.30.
It’s Queensland local councils election day. Contradictory government messages abound. Stay home, don’t go out unless it’s essential, it’s not safe. It’s safe to go out and vote. Friends say they won’t vote or pay the fine. We voted pre-poll when it was quiet, took our own pencils and hand sanitiser, used their sanitiser too. I’ve become obsessive about hand washing; John always was.
Numbers keep rising: 3,500+ now and 14 deaths. Government flip-flopping incites nervousness. They reinstate elective surgery in private hospitals for another week, scrap an absurd 30 minute, 1.5 metre rule for hairdressers. Some are choosing to close. We don’t care. We have clippers, love our grey hair. But we worry about our wonderful hairdresser. “Perhaps we should gift him the cost of our cuts,” John says.
Family and friends have phoned, texted, checked we’re ok; we’ve checked on some. I worry about Lesley, already in home isolation for six weeks with a different virus and flu when we all went into isolation. At eighty-six, she’s still such a social person. We text weekly; she’s fine, talks with family and friends on the phone, reads, goes walking, practices line dancing in her kitchen.
Gaye doesn’t want to chat on Skype, she’s depressed. I worry.
After dinner Stepdaughter 1 and Boyfriend say they’re going to Macca’s for ice cream. Please don’t risk it, we say. They make chocolate pudding instead.
We have a big day out. We all go to the chemist at Brookside for a flu jab, do a week’s grocery shop, stock up on wine. But we forget things. Leek for the shepherds pie; some things Stepdaughter 1 wanted: running late, stressed, she forgot her shopping list. So John goes back for the missing things. Going out, doing the shopping, is stressful now. Scary. Threatening.
Boyfriend’s new employer calls. He still has a job but everyone is working from home, can’t train him until they return to the office. He’s been considering moving back home to his parents’ when work starts. We worry. If he moves back there, sooner or later Stepdaughter 1 will want to be with him. They need to pick one place: here, his parents’ or her mother’s, and stay there. Going back and forth between houses isn’t wise or fair to any of us.
John talks with them. Now that the job situation is clear, they decide to stay here. They go back to her mother’s and his parents’ to collect more clothes, his coffee machine. He’s very attached to his coffee.
We hope they will stop finding reasons to go out now, except for walks. I get nervous when people go out.
Life seems slow but the days still slip away. At two o’clock I decide I’m spending too much time knitting in front of the TV and go give the garden some love.
Today’s news is encouraging. Virus spread is slowing, isolation is helping. But government keeps saying things will get worse, go on for at least six months, possibly 12 to 18 months. It’s hard to imagine living this way for so long.
John stresses about our holiday cancellations. It’s a constant conversation. We’ve requested a full refund but they aren’t responding. No one is offering refunds, only credit notes. We worry about travel companies collapsing. Who knows when we might travel again? We understand why they want to give credit notes but it’s a lot of money for us to lose.
I tell him, as I have every day for a week: give them time, stop thinking about it constantly.
He goes to the doctor, the supermarkets for bits and pieces, flour for Stepdaughter 1, she wants to make pizza. We couldn’t get any when we did our big shop. There is still no flour.
I settle on the back patio with a cup of tea and Tim Costello’s book, A lot with a little, purchased at Adelaide Writers Week in early March, a lifetime ago. A third in, it’s disappointingly dull. I put it aside, take up Night train to Lisbon. I’m half way through. It’s beautifully written but hard work. I think about tossing them both, my life’s not this long, I have a stack of other books unread.
I weed the garden for an hour. It’s hot, humid, reminds me how unfit I am.
Stepdaughter 1 and Boyfriend cook dinner, a dish new to us: turkey mince pasta. It’s delicious but I can taste the cider vinegar. I do not like vinegar in food. Vinegar, to me, is a household cleaning product. John suggests they use wine instead next time.
After dinner, Boyfriend tells some stories. We’re establishing a ritual: after dinner storytelling. It’s been mostly John and me with stories from our lives, the children’s childhood, many stories Stepdaughter 1 hasn’t heard before, we haven’t spent a lot of time with her as an adult. Now Boyfriend is starting to tell some. I feel hopeful.
A friend tells me she’s loving having her four kids at home, no after school or weekend sports, more family time together. On Facebook, games mushroom. A friend starts a group sharing yoga videos for Auslan users. Another describes how isolation is making her feel disconnected from people, muddled in her thinking. We all need time to make sense of this new way of living, create new daily routines.
John and I plant seeds in punnets. A jasmine vine sprawling over the fence from a neighbour’s garden, for years a perfumed joy, has mysteriously died. Near a corner, behind a lavender bush, we struggle to cut it down.
Television is now too infected with Coronavirus. We sign up to Netflix and watch movies.
Food. Life seems to be a lot about food. We can’t plan anything much but we can plan meals, so a lot of energy goes into planning a week’s meals, writing shopping lists, shopping while trying to social-distance, finding space in the fridge and freezer, cooking, cleaning up. Shopping was something we often did on the fly, several times a week. Now we try to do only one large weekly shop. Food, and rituals around it, gives our days some structure. It’s also making me fatter.
We go walking. At the house at the end of our street, I pause to talk to the goose. She waddles to the fence, fixes me with a beady eye, listens attentively. “Hello Goosey. How are you today? Are people being kind to you?…” I love this goose. Other locals do too.
We’re getting better at this, walking most days. More committed, Stepdaughter 1 and Boyfriend walk daily for longer.
Breda and I catch up on Skype. We’re more settled in this isolation lifestyle now. We share concerns about mutual friends who are struggling. Somewhat guiltily, we confess we’re actually quite enjoying isolation. We both love our homes, have many mutual loves: reading, gardening, watching movies; Cameron has an extensive DVD collection.
Cam and Rowan join us briefly. Rowan, home from uni, studying online, tells me he’s had to reclaim his room from the storage room it had morphed into. “Are you retraining your parents?” I ask. We laugh.
Behind them, vintage glass doors, shelves of books, a sun washed room. It’s so beautiful it sings, a lilting visual melody.
We cook roast lamb, the four of us enjoy after lunch stories around the table, we laugh.
I bake a devil’s food cake. John makes the icing, he says I don’t make it thick enough. At three o’clock we cut the cake, lush and perfect with tea, and chat over Zoom with John’s brothers and sister. Zoom doesn’t work particularly well, people talk over each other, are difficult to understand, I can’t lipread anyone, but it’s worth it just to see them.
My mother phones on the TTY. She’s the only person I still use the TTY to talk with. I’m missing her, she’s normally here with us for Easter.
Late afternoon we chat on Skype with Stepdaughter 2. John talks with her often on the phone but I haven’t for a while. She looks happy.
John is grumpy. Flight Centre is still not talking to us. I get grumpy too.
I go into the garden, spread fertiliser, give everything a thorough watering. It’s deeply satisfying to be in the fresh air, nurture living things.
Lying in bed, we discuss what’s testing us. Our travel refund is driving him spare; his obsession with it is driving me spare. We’re concerned about how Stepdaughter 1 and Boyfriend spend their time. It’s their journey, they need to figure things out for themselves. But we feel responsible to try and nudge them along. I feel I have to tiptoe around other people’s messiness, indolence, grumpiness. I expect it’s a good thing to practice patience and calm, but a part of me resents it. Why can’t I be grumpy and have everyone else tiptoe around me? They probably feel they do!
We laugh, roll over to sleep, love wins.
We decide to do something constructive together and clean out kitchen drawers, insert new non-slip liners.
On the end of a long orange pole, John sticks a little metal bucket I found for $3 months ago at Vinnies and we use it to pick paw paws. The tree is too tall now, the bucket safer than a ladder.
Coronavirus case numbers are steadily declining. We are buoyed.
It’s our 16th wedding anniversary and we can’t go out to celebrate. But we often don’t anyway. A nice meal, some wine, we are content.
We’re falling into a kind of routine now, our days have a rhythm we hadn’t managed to achieve in the four years we’ve both been retired.
The seeds we planted in punnets are unhappy. Only one has germinated.
John makes pancakes for brunch. They’re delicious. Boyfriend and I eat ours with maple syrup. I wish I hadn’t finished all the bananas.
Our neighbour’s son is fourteen today so after lunch we walk up their driveway, stand far apart, chat for a while. They’re good neighbours, we’re fond of them. Son seems delighted with our gift, fresh ravioli and a tub of home-made pasta sauce. He’s enjoyed it before at our house. We’ve included dessert, a few small Picnic bars, the last of our stash.
Sue’s cryptic quote on Facebook worries me a little. “Are you stressed?” I ask. She replies privately. She’s worried about her daughter and six months old grandson, expats in Argentina. They need to come home. She’s managed to get them onto a flight organised by DFAT on Anzac Day, flying into Melbourne. They’ll have to quarantine there for fourteen days before flying home to Brisbane. Daughter is happy they’re coming home but upset she has to leave her beloved cat behind.
Finally Gaye replies to my latest text asking if she’s ok. She says she’s not bad, still a bit down but perking up. My relief is palpable. It’s so difficult when someone I love goes into a funk and won’t talk. To me, it’s the worst way to deal with feeling down, and makes everyone else worry, feel helpless.
There are no new cases in Queensland for the first time. We’re winning!
After dinner, minor bickering between John and me morphs into a discussion about relationships. I’ve never talked much about this with Stepdaughter 1. We laugh a lot.
John is still obsessing over our travel refund. He’s in a couple of Facebook groups, thousands of angry people all trying to get their money back from Flight Centre. I tell him I’m thinking about running away.
It’s John’s birthday. How to celebrate in isolation? I give him a card from our stash, with a $50 note inside. It’s silly but it feels wrong to let his birthday go by without giving him anything at all. One day when isolation is over, we’ll go shopping, buy something he likes, probably for a lot more than $50.
I make another devil’s food cake, with ridiculously thick icing.
Stepdaughter 2 comes for dinner. It isn’t absolutely clear but we think it’s allowed under the two-people-can-visit rule. She brings him flowers: a sunflower, white gerberas, everlastings. John is delighted, says, “How very unsexist of you!” Stepdaughter 1 and Boyfriend give him a Bunnings voucher, his favourite. We cook roast lamb again, have cake with a candle, which John “blows out” with a brisk wave of the knife.
He’s had a splendid day.
I read about a report released by the Commission for the Human Future: researchers and citizens led by John Hewson. It identifies ten risks to life on the planet, says this pandemic offers an opportunity for rethinking society and policy reform to build societies focused on natural and ecological security rather than economic growth as the key success indicator. I feel hopeful.
The PM talks about “harvesting” ideas for economic and tax reform after isolation ends. It sounds depressingly like everything he’s ever said before. Only “harvesting” is new. I feel despair.
We bake Anzac biscuits, leave half in the kitchen for Stepdaughter 1 and Boyfriend, take half downstairs.
Stepdaughter 2 sends us the lyrics and recording of a new song she’s written for guitar. The lyrics are lovely. John says the music is excellent too.
A neighbour sends photos of her family standing in their driveway for the “light the dawn” street memorial. “We missed you,” she says. I feel rebuked.
I reply, explain: We don’t do dawn services. They aren’t inclusive, don’t usually have Auslan interpreters. Instead, we watch them on TV with captions, much more meaningful for me.
I know she probably didn’t mean it as a rebuke, had just hoped to see us. I’d mulled over this, suspected some people would look askance at neighbours not participating. I’d have liked to participate in this unusual Anzac salute, this community spirit, but knew that as a deaf person it would be difficult, even just communicating with neighbours in the dawn’s faint light. Community spirit, such a fine thing, can be unwittingly judgemental. I feel hurt; and I feel silly for feeling hurt.
John and I go walking and I talk to the goose, feel better.
Overnight Stepdaughter 2 posts a video on Instagram, a song she composed about isolation, for fun. She sends us the lyrics and we laugh. It infects my head all day.
Flight Centre calls, offers us a full refund of land tours and flights, partial insurance refund; we will have to pay $600 cancellation fee. This is much better than vouchers on the never never, we know there’s no way they will refund everything, they want to survive. John accepts the offer, forgets to ask when the refund will be processed.
There is a sudden rainstorm. I take my half-drunk tea out to the patio, sit and watch it drench the washing, bend the roses with its weight. It brings vitality to the garden, a world washed clean, hope.