When I began writing these blogs they were were very public and political. They gradually became more personal. Lockdown is an introverting lifestyle. But the gossamer- like threads that hold together our society have been illuminated by the bright, bitter, light of the Covidspring. So the personal and the political are intertwined in the stories of these days because the usually private world of poor health and death in our families is part of a public health emergency. That emergency has extended into every aspect of our private lives through the lockdown, so there is now a double binding of the public and the private. It has been refreshing to see the extent to which the threads that bind us, though they have been worn down to a mockery of what they once were, have survived. In their survival there is hope.
When my father was dying, in his beloved flat in Toft Mansions on the East Cliff in Bournemouth, there was a Macmillan nurse with him every evening, as there is for thousands of people in the same situation everyday. My father’s death was perhaps the quietest and most understated thing he ever did. It was not immediately noticed and his body became cold. Mum shouted at the poor nurse that she had let him get frozen. The nurse gently listened and waited for my mother to feel the truth. And when she did, the nurse hugged her. I was far away in London, so my older brother dealt with the immediate aftermath. When I got home to Bournemouth, one of the first things my mother said to me was: “I was so rude to that lovely nurse”. When it was my mother’s time she was already in a care home, all carefully and lovingly arranged by my older brother. In the very angry phase of dementia, that time in which I imagine some of your brain realises that the rest of your brain no longer understands where you are, who you are or even when you are living, she was a handful – there was a lot of swearing in Italian and sometimes in dialect. The care home team managed her and allowed her to keep her dignity. And my older brother dealt with all the complexities of the aftermath. He is the gossamer thread of our family.
Seflie by Ally showing the lines of her mask
A more recent story, from this Covidspring, came from my wife’s extended family in the US. A young nurse, the niece of my brother in law, Ally Marcello, 24 years old, works as a ICU nurse in one of the worst hit hospitals in Queens. 24 year old Ally held the phone so that a family could say goodbye over facetime to their father. Ally Marcello is also the founder of ISeeU Blankets, a project that provides home-made blankets to patients and family members in her ICU (intensive care unit). And this brave young women had to decide when it was time to end the call after she knew that the man was dead. What is the right length of time to keep the line open?
Most of us have stories like mine to tell but we do not often tell them publicly. Too many of us will now also have Covidspring specific stories to tell. Like the family that Ally helped. These will be different. Our ordinary stories of death and illness become woven into our family narrative, told and retold, polished, preserved in our small collective memory. The Covidspring stories are bringing these life narratives out into the collective memory in this and many other countries. In the telling of these stories around the world we are also making much more visible the lives of the people who are there for us at the worst moments of our existence but whom we do not know. And will never know. I do not remember the name of the Macmillan nurse who was probably the last person to speak to my father or the care home orderly who found my mother dead. And this spring has also, perhaps, made more visible the lives and the life stories of those who look after us everyday or deliver services to us everyday, but whom we may have seldom noticed.
If this Covidspring is to “mean” anything, then there are several of these gossamer threads that we need to see more clearly afterwards and we need to find ways to make them stronger. To make them once more the ties that bind us.
One thread that invisibly holds the NHS, and therefore at this time our society together, is the idea of a vocation of caring.
I am not suggesting that all the walks of life that suddenly matter to us in this time of emergency are vocations. Though I am sure there are people in all jobs that matter most now – the supermarket teams, the rubbish collectors, the energy workers, the supply chain experts – who love what they do and perhaps they do it because they love it. But these are mostly low paid jobs, hard work, long shifts, hustling for over time. So let us not, in this moment in which we are searching for meanings, romanticise all of these always vital but now visible jobs into vocations.
But then there are the care workers, the nurses, the doctors, the ambulance drivers and all the others who make the NHS work. For some, again, this will be only a job-badly paid, what they can get and what they need to do to pay the rent and feed themselves and their families. If a better job came up they would seize it. If a chance to study more or retrain was made available they would not hesitate.
Then there are the many. Within the NHS, in my experience at least, and I have spent a lot of time in a variety of hospitals with my kids over many years, especially a very intense five years, and before that for decades with my sister who had Multiple Sclerosis. The many do what they do because of a vocation, which they carry lightly. They carry it so lightly that we have taken it for granted in recent decades that we can simply rely on it to be there no matter how bad we make the conditions in which the carers of all kinds have to work.
Those other roles I mentioned especially in food supply, have also been threads that have become suddenly more visible. And most of the jobs that really matter are ones that are done in a uniform. For the carers the wearing of a uniform of anonymity allows them to be there at the moments of greatest intimacy but to be also absent from those moments when a family closes in on itself. These uniforms also allow the check out workers, the shelf fillers, the rubbish collectors, the UPS drivers to have been invisible in normal times. Their role is to do their jobs quickly and quietly. Uniforms are strangely deceptive things, they can either make you disappear or they can make you stand out. The police, the armed forces, the ambulance teams and other first responders wear their uniforms to demonstrate their roles and to assist in its enforcement. To be visible.
Another thread that we have glimpsed and which I hope will now become stronger is the acceptance that “the other” we have spent so much of the last decades hating, lives and dies just like we do. They also care and cure. The nurses who cared for the PM were immigrants and his genuine gratitude and warmth is a glimpse, passing as the shadows shift perhaps, of what might be a renaissance of a shared identity. Our cosmopolitanism had been what, until recent years, marked us out in the world as somewhere different. Might this shared experience of suffering and recovery be something on which a renewed sense of connectivity can be built? I do not mean reversing Brexit, as much as I would like it. Brexit needs to happen so that the xenophobic dagger can be pulled from the heart of our identity and we can begin to heal and renew.
If we pull these threads together we have the covenant that binds us through social solidarity into a community. An example of that covenant is the payment the government has announced for NHS workers who die on the front line. The language is intentionally echoing the military covenant. It should go further, there are many kinds of people in uniform who allow the rest of us to live our lives predictably. Our covenant with them should be a guaranteed basic income when out of work and a living wage not a minimum wage when in work. It should be an renaissance of social and affordable housing construction and distribution to a more broadly defined group of key workers. Our private stories will become part of the public narrative of this emergency and in doing so they will make meanings of what has happened. But the private is also always political, so for those stories to have meanings it must be in the recognition that when we had to look hard at ourselves the ties that bound us were fragile but they held. They were made up of many different coloured uniforms, some of which we maybe had not noticed much before. They were made up of many different peoples from many different countries who were still trying to call this country their home. When this spring becomes summer I hope we can make these ties stronger and not forget what is there before us to learn.