I’m locked down at home, but I’m not shut off from my thoughts

Older people have to be vigilant during the coronavirus outbreak and stay indoors, but ‘cocooning’ is an unpleasant word, writes Terry Prone.

I’m locked down at home, but I’m not shut off from my thoughts

Older people have to be vigilant during the coronavirus outbreak and stay indoors, but ‘cocooning’ is an unpleasant word, writes Terry Prone.

Day One

I am keeping a diary of the day-to-day highlights and lowlights of being immured in an old fortress as a result of coronavirus.

A statistic, broken down by age and asthma, I have no choice.

I will hide with my tablet and get driven nuts by the tune RTÉ One plays while they’re not showing you the ads they would show you were you watching on a real television.

This is weird.

Not the tune itself, sanitary and soulless though it is. No: the odd sounds within it.

A door closes and someone sighs. Every time it happens, I wonder if it holds a deep significance or was an accidental inclusion in the recording, which nobody ever noticed because the thing itself is so boring.

Day Two

I catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror and when the shudders die down, realise that, without meaning to, I’ve done the hair equivalent of bulk-buying.

A week ago, I went to my local hairdressers, Suzanne Murray, and asked for a ‘Jenny cut.’

Jenny is the fastest hair exterminator I know and, for some reason, I told her to make it shorter than usual.

I have the look of an American GI. This is a haircut that will last for years. And it may have to.

Day Three

Getting an earworm is always irritating, but today’s is worse.

‘Things to do, places to go, people to see,’ it keeps inaccurately telling me.

I suppose, one out of three ain’t bad, in current circumstances. Mainstream media is becoming more important to anyone with a titther of wit, because it’s reliable and recurrent.

But some interviewers need to learn to control their normal ‘heard this before, gonna interrupt’ reflex when they hear a public health doctor or politician talking about social distancing or coughing into your elbow.

Don’t interrupt, lads. It’s the simple truth and needs repeating: constantly.

A lot of us, on the other hand, think ‘cocooning’ is a word that doesn’t need repetition.

It leaves a coppery taste in the mouth of older people, does that word, as do the endless TV pictures of good souls dropping boxes of food to old dears.

‘Old dears’ is how everybody over seventy is being portrayed, which does rather set us right back into a stereotype we were just getting over. 

The only counterbalance is provided by stories of older medics lining up to answer Ireland’s call.

A statistic, broken down by age and asthma, I have no choice but to be immured in an old fortress

Maybe — with luck — we’ll soon see photographs and footage of active professionals in their sixties and seventies replacing the images of passive recipients smiling gratefully from hallways.

Day Four

Guys are swimming, guys are sailing… Genuinely.

A glance out my bedroom window shows families on the little beach beneath, some of them swimming, some walking, along with children who are happy to have the undivided attention of their parents, and dogs losing the run of themselves with delight.

The car park above, leading to the cliff walk, is jammers.

People may be a lot healthier at the end of this pandemic than they would otherwise have been.

Jennifer Bulbulia emails me a letter written by F Scott Fitzgerald, who was quarantined in the south of France in 1920, during the Spanish flu pandemic.

In the letter, Fitzgerald reports Hemingway as ignoring handwashing advice.

“He is much the denier, that one. Why, he considers the virus to be just influenza. I’m curious of his sources...You should see the square: oh, it is terrible. I weep for the damned eventualities this future brings.

"The long afternoons rolling forward slowly on the ever-slick, bottomless highball. Zelda [Fitzgerald’s wife and fellow alcoholic] says it’s no excuse to drink, but I just can’t seem to steady my hand.

"In the distance, from my brooding perch, the shoreline is cloaked in a dull haze, where I can discern an unremitting penance that has been heading this way for a long, long while.

"And yet, amongst the cracked cloudline of an evening’s cast, I focus on a single strain of light, calling me forth to believe in a better morrow.”

Day Five

Now, an avalanche of large companies is saying they’re dropping salaries to fifty percent or forty percent. And small companies are just closing.

It’s fair to assume that the companies that will stay afloat —just about — longest are family businesses: they’re not dictated to by shareholder value, so they can take a longer view.

Not much longer, but longer. And they have tighter connections with the people who work with them.

Day Six

Today, I am struck by unwelcome clarity.

I am not afraid of death. What I am desperately afraid of is the manner of my dying.

Sherwin Nuland’s book about how we die put the heart crossways in me a couple of years ago, and what the virus presents is among the worst of his scenarios.

Reading the papers about HSE CEO, Paul Reid, having so many ventilators, and about companies like Medtronic beefing up their production lines to supply even more, is encouraging.

But if you go to the worst scenario, where an interdisciplinary team has to decide between, say, an old diabetic person and a fifty-year-old in competition for a ventilator, then we know who they’ll choose.

Which reminds me that accounts of writer Nuala O’Faoilean’s last days tell of her abject terror when her breathing became problematic, a terror eased in hospital, not by ventilation, but by tranquilisers.

That’s the thing. If you’re the one who can’t be ventilated, can you at least hope that, in a hospital on your own, with no loved-one holding your hand, someone will find a way to help you sleep into eternity, rather than suffocate?

I mention this to Naveed Abbas, a surgeon friend.

“Not to make you feel more paranoid,” he responds.

“But do you know that patients short of breath due to any cause actually die because they are tired? They actually can’t physically take the burden of carrying on with life.”

It doesn’t make me more paranoid, but it is puzzling.

If the profession has a means of easing that burden — and I’m not talking of ending the life of the patient, just easing their terror and agony — why is its use not a priority?

Medicine should be about more than cure.

Day Seven

Glancing at my watch around 5.45 in the evening, so I don’t miss the 6/1 News, I am suddenly struck by the sense of having been here before.

Here, with this low-level dread. Here, with this need to check pointlessly, every day, the list of the dead and damaged.

It takes a minute before the memory clicks into place: the Vietnam war, with the nightly news repetitive in its helicopters and explosions, filled with predictable inevitabilities made mundane by repetition, made terrifying by scale.

The difference is how far away Vietnam was.

Whereas, this is up-close-and-personal.

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