There is a book, a memoir by Wendy Parkins, that has been sitting on the fold-down oak hall table opposite my bedroom for over a month, in the appointed position for objects that are due for return. It didn’t beat the lock-down and so it sits, mute, uncannily prescient, and currently a triumphant personal declaration. Every morning, so far, I’m alive. For now.
The book’s title has captured a potent truth. For here I am, self-protecting by order, sealed in my home in a transformed world, where every morning I hear of tens of thousands more who are no longer alive. They are the mounting daily toll of the dead. This is news to no one, yet as I read it again, punched into words on my computer, I find myself reeling. Just two months ago, I sat under the canopy of a sprawling sycamore at the bach, encircled by friends. From memory, no-one made mention of the plague that was to come. We simply had no idea.
Right now there are now more people in lock-down than were alive during World War 2. I’m sharing the experience of confinement with 2.6 billion other humans. I find this out on Google, as I flail for information that will anchor this experience for me. But of course that doesn’t anchor me at all. If anything I feel even more unmoored, less able to situate myself in relation to anything I once knew to be true. The big picture has lost its edges.
And so I return to the title of a memoir: Every morning, so far, I’m alive. And this evening, as I rest on my bed and the sun sets on the lumpy gingham cat in the window, I see my protruding toes shine, I hear the song of a bird I can’t name, I notice the ache of a right index finger long-since bitten, I feel the piping of a favourite forest green cushion I’ve migrated from the lounge to my corner right here right now. And I breathe.
Mortality. She has pranced into the room these past two weeks in a range of guises. Not hiding herself as she once did, but in a staggering array of outfits, some alluring and some ugly as sin. First, a gentle, brief encounter. It was driven by nothing that I could name – no suicidal feelings, depression or unbearable conflict. Curiosity perhaps. And we sat together. And it wasn’t frightening, although it took me by surprise. Perhaps my recollections are giving it ornament and elegance it lacked at the time, but it felt as if mortality and I were having a ‘meet up’. I call to mind the little I know of Sirens – one of the few things I recall in my classics education about the Odyssey. The island, the women. And that irresistible seductive song. As a person who has occasionally been entranced, undone by music, I’m on the alert for the sweep of its reach, its sensuous power. If she, mortality, smiles at me, will I be beguiled into smiling back?
So now I know. Yes.
I wonder if that sense of ease is one manifestation of my psyche attempting to manage the truth of the Covid-19 situation: that right now my fellow humans are dying in droves. Does it make it more okay if I see this not only as a natural ending – all that lives must ultimately die – but as sweet surrender?
I watched a Youtube clip this afternoon that slammed me back into the shock of Covid-19 illness. I saw medics whose identities were lost in protective gear, while their humanity and dedication notched up somewhere unimaginable. Frenetic coming and going of the critically ill, the dead. The exhausted straight-to-camera one-liners. The news I hadn’t known: that nearly all patients on ventilators will die.
Is it to my shame that I more easily drift to the outer rim of the dying experience? Up a little and into the aural orbit, away from the terror, the loneliness and sterility. I draw comfort from distant and more recent memories of good deaths. Ones that have taken me into the holy heart of love and mystery. For example Josie, beloved dog of beloved friend, whose compassionate intended death took place in my living room, just days before lock-down. All of us, plus vet and dog surely, being breathed into something bigger, something sacred, alongside the unutterable sadness of loss. Times such as these have gifted me a reset. The big bigger biggest context of all, where mystery and mercy take their rightful place.
But spiritual comfort, for me previously never too far over the horizon, has taken a hammering. The grim reaper, (no longer an adequate metaphor), is cutting swathes through the human population at such a pace that disposal of corpses has become a ghastly and pressing issue. Who am I kidding if I presume those sacred encounters, my own lived truth, offer any harbinger of hope?
A new lens. A new truth. And with that, slow transformation. I feel it more than I understand it. A thinning of resistance, a recognition of the slender defense I hold to the outside world. And inside, a shifting changing energy. At times diffuse and foggy; at other times sharp, alive and potent. At another level, cellular perhaps, I understand in ways I never have, that I’m a particle within a living organism, bigger than both me and Covid-19, and bent on survival. It will have its way. Period. I am part and I do my part, which is nothing. And everything.
And so, meanwhile, I live. When I wake, and if I can catch him, I may stroke the morning stubble of my familiar man. I will probably make a plan, fragile as a toothpick house, that may or may not scaffold my day. I shower, almost every day, noticing how my skin is thinning.
There are daily triumphs. I find a lost slipper among the dust and detritus under my bed – an accumulation of all that’s been kicked out of sight. I chop at my hair and for once, I quite like the result. I rediscover my love for marmalade.
I breathe into my mortal frame.
Pam Morrison is a former journalist who has turned her hand to creative writing. She currently writes short fiction and is working on a novella-in-flash. With her sister, Annie McGregor, Pam co-authored Fields of Gold: Celebrating Life in the Face of Cancer. The Story of Two Sisters (Rosa Mira Press).
Read more about Wendy Parkins’ memoir Every morning, so far, I’m alive on Corpus here.