Sat with my dad when the news filtered through that coronavirus was no longer contained to China, my main preoccupations were embarrassingly prosaic: how was I going to battle Storm Ciara to fly home from London to Barcelona? What Valentine’s Day gift I was going to buy my partner?
Fast-forward two months and, naturally, my concerns are more profound. Dad lives thousands of miles away and, observing the lockdown following his organ transplant (I donated my left kidney last year), he’s on his own and going up the wall.
My two older sisters moved abroad years ago and have families in France and the United States. Sudden choices confronted each of us about where to ‘see out’ this emergency; every night our last waking thought is about how we’d reach Britain if either Grandma, who’s 96 and lives in a care home, or even worse, Dad, started to feel ill.
In 2019 BC (Before Coronavirus), our original plan was to all flock home to the UK for our annual shindig: my oldest sister and her baby boy from their adopted home in Los Angeles, and my middle sister and her son from Paris. We’re close, but we lost Mum years ago to cancer and we don’t often see one another, spread out as we are across different continents and dramatically different timezones.
Dad’s 75th birthday is approaching and my baby nephew soon turns one. Like so many other families we know, these celebrations will now take place online, truncated and without the familiar touch of loved ones’ warm embrace. Truth be told, we’re not the most tactile family – black humour and digs at one another’s expense regularly rule the day.
Dad and I have our evening chats, some of them grimmer than others but, conscious I won’t be able to see him until at least the lockdown ends, I never hesitate to tell him: “I love you”. What’s startling is hearing him, obstinately unsentimental, reciprocate. The other night, I found my voice breaking as I told him, “I wouldn’t be here without you”. I was quietly tearing up when he then replied, “I don’t know where I’d be without your help.”
Ever desperate for silver linings, I’m finding one peculiar benefit of the pandemic is the way it’s drawing our family closer, from the Pacific Coast to Poble Sec, where I am. We’ve rallied in a way we haven’t managed in easier times. My oldest sister has secured Dad shopping deliveries, and asked a friend of hers to set him up on a laptop. My middle sister signed him up to the government’s food parcel service, and I’ve asked an old university friend of Dad’s to reach out and encourage him to remain indoors.
I’ve wrestled with guilt of not being with him. My decision not to return to London wasn’t an easy one but I don’t have a home there, my partner is a French national, and even if I did return, I wouldn’t be permitted to walk beyond Dad’s front porch. There’s no straightforward decisions to be made when confusion reigns.
Transforming guilt into something more productive, I sent Dad my favourite memories of childhood holidays, of driving with him to Southend one bank holiday, both of us singing, rather improbably, along to Abba’s Fernando. I’ve whooped at seeing my baby nephew crawl and stand – in a video, of course – and played Scrabble over Facetime with my nephew in Paris (I bent the rules, to keep him happy and his mother too). All three of us organised a communal Zoom for the Jewish festival of Passover – always a time for sombre reflection – but this year, a chance for some cheer as well, as we shared Mum’s secret recipe for chicken soup and dumplings.
Extended family feel closer, if nothing else, because I’ve forced myself on them through a diet of regular phone calls. Until now, I’d never exchanged WhatsApp messages with my Uncle. I’m a genealogy geek, so after extensive research on my family tree, I’m even enjoying chats with a newfound long-lost cousin in Toronto.
We used to joke that our family only ever met at funerals and that we all ought to make an effort to see one another on happier occasions. I’m not sure this counts as one of those, but whether it’s borne out of fear or some other emotion, from now on, I’m determined to make all family contact meaningful. If it can’t be upbeat, it should at least be emotionally honest.
After all, none of us knows when, or how, this situation will end.
Andrew Kaye is a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter at @JKaye82
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