It is four months today since my mother died in what was her bedroom in my house. I was holding her hand in my hands and guiding her down a sunlit path lined with trees, at the end of which my father waited for her. He was dressed in a smart best suit, and had a little boy with him I didn’t know and still don’t know who it might have been.
Mum was a little afraid; I knew that from the noises she made, for she could not speak. I reassured her it was okay to go be with my father. Her eyes were cloudy but I believe she could see me, perhaps through a veil. And I know she could see the same scene I had in my mind’s eye.
Dying is easy, it’s getting there that can be hard. All it takes is to stop breathing and there’s no effort involved in that when you are ready to go. I saw the light switch off in my mother’s eyes, and began to howl. Where my breath came from, I do not know; it was an impossible continuous sound that must have continued to leave my body for several minutes. Absolutely unachievable in any other circumstance other than when the last person who ever gave you unconditional love leaves this world. My howl was a call to Valhalla, letting the gods know a warrior woman, a true fighter who led with love, was about to enter its gates. It was a roar of tribute for everything she was and had been.
Everything that followed that day and in the days that followed is now a jumbled blur. I would randomly keen, calling “Mum”. I remember that. The word would rise from the bottom of my stomach and force its way out, like bubbles from a pipe, when I was washing up or brushing my teeth. It wasn’t just my mind, my soul, grieving; it was my flesh and blood and bone.
I miss Mum every day. It took me a month to finally acknowledge the grief was not going to magically fade but would stay with me a long time. It took me another two months to accept the grief would never ever go away, and would instead become part of who I am, informing my character, thought processes and actions. “I am sick of death,” I said within days of Mum’s passing. “I have lost my mother, my father, my oldest friend and my best friend, all within the past four years. No more death. I don’t want to lose anyone at all in the next two years.”
Then the coronavirus hit. It emerged from a wildlife market in Wuhan to begin its spread across the planet at the end of December, around the time my mother was laid to rest, joining my father in the cemetery. No more death? My mother’s was just the start, as I saw the numbers ended by the virus begin to rise. By March this year I was feeling a strange gladness that Mum died when she did, was spared the horror of a Covid-19 pneumonia, was able to have me hold her hand and guide her away from life. Most who die from Coronavirus die, if not alone, then surrounded by doctors and nurses. They are professional and compassionate but they are not the sons, daughters, parents, friends or lovers of the dying who must watch from a distance, unable to touch.
Mum was 90. She had asthma and COPD. She was frail. Her personality was strong but personalities don’t save us from the virus. By now, were she alive, I would be a wreck of neuroses, anxiety and sheer terror as I sought to protect her from the invisible killer that is not the flu, was never like the flu, is something new even though it is a pandemic and there have been pandemics before any of us were alive. The last one was just over 100 years ago, and that was a flu. Anyone hoping the coronavirus will disappear in the summer months, the hope can be understood of course – but a fool would bet money on it doing so.
People who have not been in the presence of death and take unnecessary chances right now, they prove that we do not, paradoxically, attain completeness or a full sanity until we feel the loss when someone we love dies. Only then can we become sane enough to truly know that our possessions, mortgages, money and careers are transitory, illusionary and meaningless when set against the vitality of loving and being loved. We have been fed a lie that status, power and privilege are everything worth pursuing. The world has never had so many lonely people living on it, caught up as puppets in a system of politics and finance that gave no time to concepts thought nebulous, such as love and care, kindness and courtesy.
Find your wife annoying sometimes? Get another one. Don’t like the homeless? They’ll only spend money in ways you don’t approve of, so keep it in the bank and don’t let them sleep in your shopping centres. People in wheelchairs are there to be laughed at, while the old and vulnerable generally are such a drain on the economy, they’re better gone. Owning a house is everything, more than one even better. Public health systems are for others to use while you enjoy the attentions of private doctors. Money and the satisfaction of your own physical wants are the only things worth pursuing. Envy and greed and an absence of compassion, hatred of others, these are considered good. The environment does not matter, the Earth is disposable. Everyone and everything else is there to be used and abused.
Tell me: how did we allow ourselves to end up like this? It is too easy to only blame our leaders. We voted, or allowed them, to have their power. And now, after many decades, death is no longer the remote thing it had become for many on the planet, brought to us only by old age and known diseases like cancer – and we found cures for many things. Now death is everywhere. It can strike you down. We knew this during the Spanish Flu, the Black Death. Women knew this whenever they got pregnant. Time was, not long ago, you had children knowing they would not all reach adulthood. Death on a mass scale is back.
The panic response to a computer behaving oddly, unpredictably, is to yank the plug out of the wall. You don’t know if it will reboot when you plug it back in. Chances are, if it was infected by a virus, you’ll need to wipe it clean and start again. Maybe it’s wiser not to run the same programs that were loaded when the system crashed.
“I might die within weeks” should be at the forefront of every capable mind on the planet. This awareness should provoke soul-searching, responsibility and radical action. It is this awareness of the reality of death that has always prompted those who have lost loved ones to resign from their jobs, end marriages, start new relationships and do other so-called life-changing things. But their lives were already changed, as was mine when I held my mum’s hand and watched her die. Now everyone with even a little bit of sense is hyper-aware of death. It will change us all. We will either die or have stories of when we were infected but survived; we will have lost people, or know people who did lose those they loved in that most terrible of years. 2020. The year when death became mainstream again.
Those of us who survive will have to do things differently. The impacts of the climate emergency will make coronavirus look like a walk in the park, while future pandemics are as inevitable as this one was. We were unprepared because we squandered our intelligence, downplayed the importance of community and society, and bought into bullshit ideas for too long. WAKE UP. The personal and individual should remain important but a new sense of global community, the importance of love and solidarity, are required. Or there is only more misery to come.
I light a candle for my mother today. She was important to me. She raised me to love and care, to learn and be open to others different from myself and yet the same in many ways. When she was dying and on morphine, one of the last coherent things she said to me was, “I can see what’s coming, Andrew, to the world. It’s terrible. What have we done?” I asked her to explain, but she drifted off. It was as if, on the verge of leaving, she had a vision of what was round the corner for those she was leaving behind. I sat next to her and said nothing, watching her sleep. I knew she wasn’t wrong. Coronavirus alone proves that. But in every ending there are new beginnings as there was for me when I laid my mother to rest. I only hope to live to see what I might do in years to come, and to love and be loved.