How I’m going to talk about what it was like

When I was six, I was in a boring classroom, bored, and really longed to fast forward time until I was an age when things got really interesting. My guess was about three years would do it. I just wanted to look back on that whole time and only go through it hazily.

When I was nine or ten, I remembered this really distinctly and looked back with what I assumed was adult fondness on my baby self. And I never wanted it again, except for any weeks containing surgical procedures, and also now.

The ideal beginning to this story would be indulged innocence, where the West swanned around catastrophically drunk on our own inevitable but unforeseen stunning defeat, but in Sydney January was, of course, the season of fire and smoke. Just after New Year, Andrew heard wailing from the living room and assumed that V was hassling A, but found instead that I’d just told them our holiday was cancelled. Too much risk of being trapped, being burned.

We explained the entire situation in the context of other people’s lives, that one day they lived in a house and the next day they lived in an evacuation shelter under a red and black sky. Later urgent bulletins came from the school about respiratory safety, sudden changes to children’s sport. Folks burned themselves out on Twitter sharing information, people were uncertain whether they could ethically bring new children into the world.

My children never heard the estimate that a billion animals burned to death last summer, I think. I ran into a friend at a climate change protest who was hurriedly fleeing home with a distraught child because one of the speakers had mentioned it.

We packed the Sydney CBD body to body for many streets more than the police or the organisers had bargained for.

We heard about the Wuhan lockdown, distantly. I thought of it, not as the press would talk about it in March and April, as if I was surrounded by a deluded magical shield that would prevent me from getting diseases originating in Asia, but in relationship to the Xinjiang internment camps. A lockdown was like the camps and was something as big and terrible as the death of a billion animals, and it would cut my mind open if I thought about it too carefully.

January was perhaps the last month that I remember the Xinjiang internment camps receiving any coverage or commentary in Australian media at all.

Someone at work travelled to China for Lunar New Year for one of their very first overseas adventures, and came home early when everything was suddenly closed down. It was two weeks before they were allowed to return to our office. Someone else spent New Year in Singapore with their family, and their parents worried about what was later called COVID, but they did not themselves worry.

February was something of a blank around COVID, like it apparently was for Donald Trump.

It rained on the east coast of Australia to the point of flooding, but it was a catastrophe of a few weeks, not the years of drought and the months of fire. Fires whose names we knew like we were later to talk about R0, Gospers Mountain and others, were extinguished by the rain.

There were changes at work and I was up in my feelings about them. I cried at some point because I was becoming a full-time birthday party planner for everyone who lives in my house who isn’t me. I was managing 18 direct reports, about twice as many as is sensible to do, and I carefully planned a series of weeks off in March and April to recover.

On the 16th February Andrew and I went out for his birthday, had dinner at Bennelong and saw The Necks perform, and on the 23rd we took V and three other boys to Treetops in Western Sydney for them to climb in trees and ride ziplines. I was so proud of A for being able to do all the younger children’s rope courses. The boys threw rubbish at us from the back of the van as we drove them home and we were pretty angry.

I had no sense that these were the last weeks of anything.

I have work emails in late February about there perhaps being a few cases in the US.

I started to get nervous, I’ve always had a niggling worry when travelling internationally that the entire setup is awfully contingent. They could just stop the planes someday and then I’d be in real strife. I imagined this might happen in, say, the event of war.

I expressed a preference for not doing any work travel for a while.

By April, everyone had settled on quarantines and border closures as the only possible response to pandemics, but in early March they were unimaginable, including I think by WHO, or at least they were felt to be extremely unwise and impossible to actually do. I knew people were fleeing the north of Italy and being turned back by the military. I was horrified.

Italy was overwhelmed and its doctors were trying to warn the rest of the world. Twitter responded with its usual prescription for catastrophes, fresh from the bushfires. “Don’t look away, you must not look away, you are required to know every detail of everyone else’s pain, if you don’t know about this you are deeply complicit in it.”

I read story after story after story of doctors panicking in Italy and people being dropped off at hospitals and next seen by their family on Skype calls, dying.

I cried for hours most nights in the first two weeks of March about both Italy and Iran.

I accomplished absolutely nothing at all I am aware of by refusing to look away.

Perhaps when I write this story for the last time I will have learned to delete Twitter from my phone and memory at any point whenever no one has better ideas than “bear witness or be damned”.

By mid-March, I was clear enough on what was coming. V had played his final cricket games and I half wondered if they’d be cancelled. The weekend after cricket finished, V had the first training for his new winter sport (AFL) and by then I knew for sure that it would also be the last training allowed. It was like walking around behind glass: the coach and team didn’t seem to know this, we also ran into former soccer teammates who were enjoying their rugby season and seemed to think it would continue.

We started building expectations, bad ones, in the kids. We maybe think your tryouts for representative cricket will be cancelled (they were), it’s very unlikely our rescheduled-from-the-bushfires coastal trip will happen (it didn’t), skiing is unlikely this year (still unknown, but I can’t imagine it).

You won’t see your grandparents for a long time.

They cried. We explained the situation in terms of other people’s lives, doctors and nurses working long hours behind masks, people we saw every day in cafes and at school who don’t have jobs any more. One grain of rice, two grains of rice, four grains of rice, eight…

We bought a few tins of food at the shops each day, as the media was starting to recommend. Believing we were heading for a near-complete retail shutdown, I bought all our Easter eggs, a new microwave, and a bike for V in the same weekend. I fought for a while with my hatred of working from home but accepted that I needed to get a desk again. I heard an older child at a supermarket say to his mother “you’d better not get all weird about coronavirus.”

I work from my bedroom now, if I roll over too far in bed I will hit my head on my office. I tell people I’ve accepted it will be six months or more but I haven’t.

I tell myself I’ve accepted it will be three years or more before carefree international travel is available, and that’s assuming it’s affordable. But I haven’t.

In late March, the modelling for Australia teetered between “barely survivable” and “tears will outnumber those in Lombardy”.

Tears in my beloved New York began to outnumber tears in Lombardy.

For a few days in Australia, events of 500+ people were cancelled, then gatherings handfuls of people, and then anything but one guest in your home and only for a specific set of reasons. My recovery holiday from overworking lasted one day, and then the state premier advised us to remove children from school, and then from the second day I had two jobs. I cancelled half my holiday in April.

I had a pretty good idea of the economic implications. I cried at big layoffs, I cried removing my children from after school care knowing that they were going to stop giving all those smiling staff members any more shifts.

I was wrong about retail in Australia, although there were many many voluntary shutdowns and also many from economic necessity. But Easter eggs were available right up to the day.

I taught my daughter to ride a bike. Both kids were devastated about the cancellation of their extracurriculars, but very stoic about the cancellation of school, and more compliant with home education than any other story I’ve heard from parents.

In late March and early April, we waited patiently. The case numbers dropped noticeably, at first, over a weekend. The daily briefings were stern: less testing on weekends, less doctors open, we don’t expect these numbers to stay down, community transmission is happening and will only get worse from here.

The Australian numbers stayed down, week after weekend after week, into mid-April. First days with less than a hundred new cases in NSW. First days with less than twenty. We can’t get enough people to take tests because no one has a cough any more, they said. You can get them for the asking, they said.

And we waited.

Helping

From August to October this year my family was in a bad way. Our baby started at childcare, and he brought home very nasty short-term illnesses week after week after week. (Even people familiar with this phenomenon thought we had an unusually unlucky run of it, it was something like seven respiratory illness and three rounds of gastro.) There were weeks that none of us were out of bed for long. There were weeks we didn’t sleep. There were many times when we were all sick simultaneously and had trouble feeding ourselves.

Various people have said they wished they could help, or is there anything that could help next time, so I thought I’d toss some ideas out there.

Important note: I am not asking for these things now. We’ve been well for a couple of months and are doing OK! I’m providing them for reference in case you need to help another friend who is caught in a mess of family illness or severe stress or similar. I realise that almost all of these require money: if you don’t have money or time to help someone a card or note is appreciated, I think!

I think the main problems were decisions and planning, frankly. If in order to accept an offer of help, I needed to look at a calendar and cross-match with someone else’s calendar, plan a menu, write up the baby’s feeding and care needs, it was too much work. At times I was literally cognitively incapable of that kind of reasoning due to utter exhaustion.

Finally, you do have to ask if your help would be appreciated, but I think the thing to do is to present a pretty concrete plan. Eg, “I want to help by ordering you some ready-made meals from the supermarket for delivery tomorrow. Any allergies, diets or food preferences I should keep in mind? Also let me know if it’s a totally bad idea, or if there’s another way to help.”

Stuff that might have been helpful, given that:

  1. ordering groceries to be home-delivered to us, especially if we didn’t have to plan the menu! Just simple meal staples that could be boiled or stuck in an oven or toasted. Since we don’t have many geographically local friends, this was probably more practical than cooking food and dropping it off. You can order groceries online around here, good stuff.
  2. likewise ordering takeaway meals, except harder if anything to order online.
  3. perhaps paying for extra childcare for a day or two (although almost all of them don’t take sick kids, so it would have had to be during an interlude). For a child in existing daycare like Vincent, their existing centre can often take them for extra days if paid for. For reference this would have cost about $70 a day I think (we get some government benefits towards it) and we can’t afford it ourselves.
  4. paying for a two-hour house clean.
  5. simple treats, like wine or chocolates.

Stuff we didn’t find very useful, with reasons. Not to make anyone feel guilty, but to perhaps help decide whether to offer these things:

  • “We’ll look after him!” For various reasons we were often unable to take advantage of this. We generally didn’t want to give someone else what we had. Or it involved a lot of careful calendar planning and comparison in return for half an hour of babysitting. If I need to spend an hour planning the babysitting for an hour of babysitting, it isn’t as helpful. This might work better if you have long periods of time available. And, sadly, if you are not an experienced child carer, a sick baby with sick parents is probably not the place to start.
  • “Come and stay with us! We’ll do all the work while you relax!” Firstly, we were too sick to drive for other than a very short period of time, and the people making this offer were some hours away. Secondly, when we did take it up, Vincent got very sick away from good medical care and was distraught at the destruction of his routine. He also wanted me to do most of his care. Obviously that was partly bad luck. But travelling with a sick baby is a pain in the neck, so this could be hard to arrange unless you live conveniently to each other.
  • General offers of visits: we were worried about getting people sick, or having to cancel because we were, our house was a mess, we didn’t have any food to offer them, and all the hours I had free from sickness and sick-baby-ness I was spending catching up on work commitments that people were screaming for. I suspect this varies a lot, many people are badly in need of contact with the outside world in this situation.

On that last, maybe keep an eye out for a drop in Chicken Little-ness from your friends, and visit, or invite them to a low-key local outing when the immediate pressure is off. One can emerge from these things with distinctly fewer social contacts, if they’ve gone on for long enough.