I seem to have a blunt relationship with death. It's never crept around me in long, dark shadows, or ghosted vague visions of "old age". For me, death announces itself with a bald, prosaic thud. Like a thump at the door.
It first came with a thunderous knock on my villa gate, some years back, when an Indonesian police officer, in a blindingly white uniform, informed me my husband was dead. He then lay his cheek on folded hands, closed his eyes and said it again, "Dead."
My husband was not dead. He was very much alive and eating breakfast in Singapore. Wrong villa.
The second time was this week. The infra-red thermometer Canberra Hospital kindly dropped at my door keeps telling me I'm dead. I have COVID. I feel a bit dead. Or close to it. But I just looked in the mirror, and a ghostly version of me is still here. Just.
One of those Nightingale nurses from ACT Health's COVID Care@Home - may the world bless them and all their progeny - just happened to phone. I tell her the reading; "Oh, you'd be dead," she says.
There you go again. Clearly I'm neither dead, nor dying. We decide the thermometer perhaps isn't working. Or, in truth, she is too polite to say it, but I've probably in my foggy brain haze failed to use it properly. Perhaps my "out damned spot" whacks to get it working actually broke it. My mind has darted off to a very dark place. Even my unconscious is channelling Lady Macbeth's terrifying guilt. Brain flapping wildly about what I've done, how I failed so badly to keep myself safe ... and worst of all, my aching head is screaming with a question on broken repetition that I can't shut down: Who else have I unwittingly infected? If I sound erratic, I am. Anxious, angry, confused. But most of all, exhausted. Utterly, thoroughly shattered with fatigue. Writhing with fever. And that was just day two.
Those first few days of COVID-19 were among the darkest days I've experienced. And I've had a few. But none with the sudden intensity and full-body onslaught of pain that shook through me. Nor have I experienced shock like this. For me, the shock was deeply personal. It still is. And although today is day six, I still can't stop crying. I am mortified by what I may have spread to others. I had moved around our Canberra community for a full day before I shut down with obvious sickness. That night I felt inexplicably exhausted, disoriented, and my body began to ache. I was confirmed COVID-positive just over a day later. By then I had a raging fever, the shakes and every part of me was twisted with pain. My head and face pounded, I'd lost all smell, was short of breath, and could barely shuffle.
This was despite being fully vaccinated. And just in case you're wondering, no, I am not immunocompromised, nor do I have any other relevant underlying health issues. I've given bowel cancer a good boot. I'm fit. I run most days, do yoga, meditate, eat lightly. So, why this? And why has it hit me so badly?
Luck? My lack of it! Who knows? But once it's got you, COVID is a rollercoaster. That much I know. The rest, frankly, is still guesswork.
Here is the thing I have learnt. About us. All of us. It's something I've intuitively known, but since day one of this hideous virus invading my body, I've experienced it in practice. Every single day.
The unconditional love extended by complete strangers, through the simple act of a gentle word, a caring call, a pause to listen to you weep and blubber, all of those tiny daily gestures have extraordinary transformative powers. These little acts of care are healing me, cell by sick cell.
Our community is awash with overwhelming kindness and care. Yes, I'm blessed with a dear friend or two who keep me nourished with soup, cake and soul. The Lady of Lourdes has her waters out, and another has her hotline to heaven working overtime. But what of all those for whom I'm just a number on a growing list of patients?
This is how it's been. From day one I have been phoned and messaged by various players in the ACT Health system. Every single one of them has spoken to me like a dear sister, even though I'm simply a name on their long checklist for the day. I cannot overstate the comfort I've drawn from every single kind, patient, genuine and caring voice. As a television news reader I mastered control of my emotions in public long ago. But COVID has dissolved that. For most of the first week, every caller has ever so gently steered me through a tidal wave of tears, as my Lady Macbeth fears ran out of control.
Even police constable Jack made me weepy, when he thanked me for returning his several unanswered calls. Sounding like my little brother, he asked how I was coping. He chatted to my husband about the hardship of iso, inquiring if Mark had enough entertainment to pass the time. Like a PPE bot from another world, ACT nurse Anne visited my bedroom, twice. Oh, the joy! A real person, who sat on my bed, unhurried, unphased and calmed my racing heart.
As decomposing bodies line the streets in rural villages of the developing world, and desperately sick African nations are cold-shouldered by the West, and Australia treats our Pacific neighbours like a vaccination policy project rather than a pending humanitarian crisis, how is it that you and I landed the community lotto prize?
I know our Canberra public hospital is an inadequate facility. But what we lack in infrastructure, my god, we make up for in the unfailing kindness and deep care of all those who staff our health services. Our systems aren't perfect. But ultimately it is people, not systems, that give us the strength and encouragement to heal.
Every micro act of kindness we share feeds the heart of our collective spirit. And right now, I can assure you, Canberra's community heart is as fit as a fiddle.
Soon, I will be too, just you see!
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