The carer is suddenly there on the screen, shrouded in blue, face shield and mask in place. Which is just as well as both my mother and father have the infection.
My mother comes into view. It’s the first time I’ve seen her live on a computer screen in my life.
Except for two 20-minute foyer visits nearly three months ago, I haven’t seen her at all for nearly six months – unless you count her waving from the shadows of her window at her facility two weeks ago, when we stood in the suburban street below holding a happy birthday sign for my father.
The first sight of her is shocking because she’s lost so much weight. She looks like a really, really old lady. Which, of course, she is. My first thought is that she’s in the maws of death. I stare. Then I realise she can see me back and I try to arrange my face into something that might pass for normal.
She’s not in the maws of death, despite having the infection for two weeks. The iPad swings over to my father, who is. He is lying on a bed, sustained by morphine and oxygen. His mouth is gaping but his eyes seem to be taking us all in. He looks calm and my most overt fears subside. He would speak, if he could. The carer gives him some water.
We knew they had found Covid in the building in July but we thought they would never let it spread. Hadn’t they kept us families out, completely, to stop this? But, as we now know, there was no comprehensive plan in place for aged care. The hospitals flipflopped on taking the first infected aged. The virus spread like wildfire among the high-risk residents and the ill-equipped staff.
We had gone as a country through the first wave watching the experienced epidemic beaters, the Asian communities, wearing masks, and we scoffed. Our leaders told us repeatedly that masks were unnecessary. We colluded with them in our ignorance. We were smug. We are now paying for that hubris.
Or rather, my parents are.
My mother had decided to live to be 100. There was a role model in the facility, a woman who shared her name, a vibrant, charismatic lady, and my mother was inspired. They also made some important friendships, lovely people who they regularly dined with. Most of the staff were incomparable. But despite this we never quite got over the shock of our parents being in a nursing home. And they themselves, incapable of discussion about choices once extreme old age settled around them, seemed to be silently shellshocked. Who knew they would live so long? First-generation migrants, what did we know about extreme old age? We barely knew our grandparents, except by family lore.
My mother, despite nearly being crazed with anxiety, is showing no respiratory symptoms and, after two weeks, people are talking of a recovery. But her off-the-scale anxiety means that every phone call is difficult; she can no longer converse, but needs to be in touch. She calls repeatedly, not remembering why she called or what is wrong and quickly hanging up, as if she’s rushing off somewhere important, just to call back immediately. One day I ask her what she is going off to do and she says she’s going off to wait. Wait for what? For lunch, I suppose. Then one day she tells my sister that she’s been told she has the virus.
Despite the facility’s compassionate staff, they have some communication problems. We had been told, confusingly, that they had already both been informed that she was positive, and that is the reason my negative-testing father was able to stay in their room – because they had insisted on staying together. We are dubious, knowing their level of comprehension is low, despite religiously watching the ABC news and keeping their Age subscription. We definitely know we weren’t consulted about this decision, just like we weren’t given the daily updates promised once they became infected. Not once. And we also now knew my father would test positive any day now. He was a sitting duck.
Now that my father is in palliative care within his room, we are finally allowed to visit. But given the choice is to go in covered in PPE or have Zoom visits, we decide, given his failing eyesight, that four of us dressed head to toe in PPE might just look like visiting ghosts, and so we choose Zoom, which allows us to be unmasked. Now that we can see them both in their room, we get some feelings of relief – there are still staff members who we know, and who we know care. The swirling visions of horror that we see every night in hospital wards on the news are replaced by a more tranquil vision.
If a supernatural recovery is not possible, then I wish my father a peaceful death. What more could anyone want? But my mother, who had the virus first, will now have to watch him die and then find a way to live without him.
Who knows, maybe even to 100.
• Julia Taylor is a writer and editor living in Melbourne
Source: The Guardian