I’ve never seen someone look more tired. The luminous orange jumpsuit he was pulling on looked paper thin, but the way he handled it made it look like it was weighing him down. The rain didn’t help either, coming down as it was in thick heavy droplets. He steadied himself and leant awkwardly up against the police van trying to dress himself. I didn’t like to stop and stare, but it was hard not to.
I sat there in my car for some minutes. How many exactly I can’t say for sure. It smelt sickly of limoncello, from the hand sanitizer that rested permanently now in the driver’s door. Another small visual clue of how things have changed. A few months ago, I was not the type of guy to religiously use hand sanitizer. Now though as rain blurred my windscreen and limoncello filled my nostrils, I watched two young police officers pull on full protective clothing outside of a medium sized residential care home on the outskirts of my hometown, Gloucester. I learnt later that they were undertaking this task to free up capacity amongst medical personnel.
Sat there I thought back to visiting the care home in the last few months. The gush of warm air as you open the door. The biro by the visitor’s book perched next to the inexplicable bowl of foxes mints. How a sea of faces would look up as you entered the living room; One resident, chair-bound and staring, another engrossed in knitting, and my Dad always, and I mean always, fast asleep. All of them frail, elderly and often with poor health. Each of them deemed ‘vulnerable’ by the new vernacular of our new age. And none of them with any real agency to control the threat that they faced from this new virus.
I still don’t know how many of the people that my Dad shared the final few years of his life with are now dead. I’m not sure I want to know. I also don’t know how many of those who survive him know he is dead. I realise now that there is a lot I don’t know about Dad’s final few years of life as I played little more than a weekly cameo part popping in and out of his four walled world. I think about how terrifying it must be now for those with the cognitive function to process what is happening as they remain isolated away from their friends and family in care homes reading daily about this deadly virus.
I can’t begin to imagine what it must feel like to work in a care home and be responsible for their health and wellbeing in this context so out of our control. As the news catches up with the role care homes play in this global pandemic though the numbers that are following are terrifying. The ONS has already recorded over 5,000 deaths but this figure is likely to be much higher. As Full Fact say:
“[many of the] unexplained extra deaths in care homes and private residences are in fact Covid-19 deaths, and we’re undercounting the size of the epidemic”
The enormity and scale of this crisis isn’t always evident to those not on the frontlines – myself very much so included. But I promise you that I saw it in the body language of the two young police officers pulling on their protective clothing waiting to go into the care home. And I promise you it was more than evident in the staff member who greeted me at the back door. I saw in her so much tiredness. The tiredness that death brings. Worse though I think I saw in her the tiredness that suffering you can’t stop brings.
I asked if she is OK and she mustered a forced smile that meat little and said that she hasn’t hugged her child in weeks. I stood there helplessly in the rain that seemed to be getting worse.
We went inside, a few seconds respite from the rain. We started to pick up the pile of possessions I was there for. A small mountain piled in the corner of an unused communal room. We carried them together outside. Working quickly together but always apart. Large drops of rain running down each of the bin bags of clothes that we both bundled into the back of my car. At one point I made a joke about how much he owned but no one was around to hear it. In the silence that followed the latex of my gloves squeaked loudly against the plastic of the wet bags every time I dropped one into my car.
The whole transaction felt stripped of remotely appropriate interaction. I remember thinking that I wanted to hug her, to give her any strength I have left and to help her keep going. I wanted to tell her that in my eyes she is the nearest thing to a hero I’ve seen for doing what she does. I wanted to tell her how much her years of care of my Dad meant. Instead she handed me an envelope of 140 pounds and twenty-two pence of petty cash leftover, and I gave her a bottle of wine and some chocolate. I muttered something about being eternally grateful but the phone in her pocket rang.
It was so inadequate.
It kept raining and I got back into my car, stripped off my gloves, squirted the yellow limoncello smelling hand sanitizer onto my hands and started the engine. I left knowing I would probably never come back.
Sat here now surrounded by my Dad’s possessions I can say that I am grateful to the care staff, to the nurses, to the police. But this doesn’t even come close to communicating how profoundly important I know their jobs to be, how much I think we as a society owe to them and how angry I am that it has taken these truly awful circumstances for us to begin to appreciate this.
All I can do to make sense of it is write this and think how in retrospect I am embarrassed that I gave them a bottle of wine when they deserve nothing short of the world.