At some point each day, the hospital call would come, and I would relay it to my family on WhatsApp. O² up. O² down. Creatinine up. Creatinine down. Drink. Smoke. Rinse. Repeat. Soon, I was on first-name terms with all the doctors. Cheerful, optimistic Freddie. Lucy, more in the glass-half-empty category.
Dad’s cardiologist nephew, who was in the family WhatsApp group, told us that hospitals didn’t have enough protective equipment, not even enough basic supplies. Nurses were resorting to wearing garbage bags. “Watford ran out of oxygen today,” he said at one point, almost offhandedly. That stuck in my mind.
I was searching for something to do, anything that would make me feel less powerless. The hospital had a care-staff wish list on Amazon; I went down it and bought one of everything. Instant noodles. Nutri-Grain protein bars. Chocolates. Tea bags. Phone chargers. The hospital even asked, horrifyingly, for antiseptic wipes. I ordered some of those too.
I was going through this alone, but I was hardly alone in that. My family’s experience of this pandemic has been, I guess, starker than many others’, but, to some degree or another, everyone (anti-lockdown trolls and conspiracy theorists notwithstanding) has gone through the same rude transition from innocence to experience. Everywhere, as governments fumbled with lockdowns, people’s worlds shrank to their four walls. Time became meaningless for all of us.
For a few stiflingly hot weeks at Whittington in the height of summer, before Dad was transferred to a special neurological hospital with stricter rules on visitation, we were able to go in and see him. He was still unable to speak, so I drew conversation boxes on scrap paper. “I want to know about: hospital stuff; family stuff; the world.”
To us, Dad’s return to life seemed miraculous. To him, it seemed like a curse. As far as he was concerned, he had gone to sleep healthy—recently retired, a regular at the gym, studying for an art-history degree, a sociable lover of travel—and woken up profoundly disabled. He would come home, after 306 days in the hospital, in a wheelchair. The brain damage caused by the coronavirus has paralyzed his right side and left him with aphasia, which restricts his ability to speak, a particularly cruel outcome for a man whose love of language and literature is so core to his being.
The most bizarre part has been explaining everything that happened during the year he missed—not just to him, but to all of us. He woke up changed, and will have to get used to a different life. But he woke up in a changed world, too.
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The generation that lived through World War II was marked by the war’s effects forever. In the U.K., that meant rationing, and schoolchildren sent away from their parents to escape German bombs. For others, such as my grandfather, who survived by hiding from the Nazis in Romania, it meant far worse. The war left lasting marks of trauma across society, not just on discrete individuals. Many of us have grandparents who habitually, even now, never throw things away. Living through rationing made them thrifty for the rest of their life.