Another Covid Ball

by | Jan 24, 2024 | Reflections

In 2020 I wrote this contribution for In the Midst: a Covid-19 Anthology by Sandy Tritt. The collection offers poems, stories and artworks from the world over. Slices of life that might, but for this project, have stayed in the vast realm of Untold Story where so much of life really happens.

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My life has been one big, beautiful, curved ball from the moment my mother was given the wrong baby.

“That’s not my baby,” she cried.

The nurse must have assumed the trauma of childbirth had stripped my mother of her maternal instincts and tried to nudge the precious bundle into her arms. “Of course it is, dear. Don’t worry, everything will be okay.”

“It’s not my damn child!”

The nurse’s eyes widened. Now where does a sixties housewife in South Africa get such unnatural confidence? “Look, madam, here is her little armband. Baba Maitland,” she read, as if that settled the matter.

“I don’t care. Mine had ten strands of white hair coming from her crown.” My mother’s lip quivered. “Go away and find my baby.”

I often wonder what life might have been like if my mother didn’t have the observational skills of a reconstructive surgeon, which was what she’d wanted to be, but went to art school and fell pregnant instead. Ah, history, you cry from the gaping wound of unfulfilled potential!

Not that she didn’t become a spectacular artist, but that’s another story. I’m extremely grateful to her, especially as about eight months before, she’d enquired about a termination. At the last minute she changed her mind and walked out of the doctor’s office.

Somewhere in my teens, my mom gave me a birthday card that read: “If it’s true that people learn from their mistakes, then you must be one of the cleverest people I know.” My adult life has been one ‘shouldn’t have’ after another. I shouldn’t have fallen pregnant in third year varsity—shouldn’t have gotten married knowing it was a mismatch—shouldn’t have become a housewife instead of a psychologist. But Life gave me two beautiful daughters and myriad precious moments. I ran my own business designing communication and training materials, started a trust for HIV orphans, and much more besides. I was even a professional clown for a while. Along the way I developed my love affair with words and their exquisite power.

Lockdown gave me time to reflect on all my shouldn’t haves.

Shouldn’t have stayed married, but my husband was a truly good man. Shouldn’t have sacrificed my health. Shouldn’t have finally left when I did—mid shitstorm, broken, dotage looming. Shouldn’t have plunged into gypsy wanna-be-writerhood, deeper ill health, and a bunch more shouldn’t haves.

Through it all, a single awareness kept me going: I was birthing, being pressed into being, like a pearl or a diamond. Every mistake I made, every time I let go of attachment to outcome with grace, I was being guided along a birth canal to something more fantastic and beautiful than I could imagine. What, I did not know. A thread of faith seemed to link my chaotic serendipities into a necklace that was me.

So on March 14, 2020, I ‘shouldn’t have’ boarded one of the last planes to squeak into the USA before borders closed. Two years before, I had moved to the UK. Unintentionally, of course. I came over to make money as a live-in carer (care-giver)—enough to keep the wolf from the door and leave me in bloody peace to write.

When I got here, it was a slam-dunk—I was staying. Why claw desperately for every penny if you don’t have to? Even though my beloved home country, South Africa, gave less than a proverbial crap for my existence, I felt like a turncoat abandoning it just as corruption spread like a fiery bacterial monster eating itself. Until it dawned on me that I can’t do anything useful if I’m not okay.

Two years on, I’m balancing caring stints amongst the writing, and it’s hard. When you’re knee-deep in diarrhea after ten days of fifteen-hour shifts, it’s easy to wonder how the hell it came to this. I shouldn’t be here. But these are just birthing pains.

Halfway through a caring stint with my client—a quadriplegic woman in her seventies—my daughter called from the USA. Her husband was on long deployment with the navy, and his return had been delayed, courtesy of COVID. Faced with the prospect of lockdown with a radioactive five-year-old son and no hubby, she was unravelling.

It’s a fine line, knowing when to leave them to their life lessons or jump in when the chips are down. I assessed the cost-benefit of her being stuck indefinitely on her own versus me being stuck there with no guarantee when I’d be back, and did what mothers do.

There would be a cost. I’d just found three months’ accommodation in London in lieu of thirty hours care work per month. It was perfect! At last I wouldn’t be scuffling from one Airbnb or friend to another between work shifts, dragging my suitcase like that woman in Baghdad Café. Perhaps I could even start tacking my health back together.

These days, when things don’t go my way, I barely miss a beat, but it was with a heavy sigh that I unpacked my newly acquired car and stacked (some of) the crap I’d collected since being in the UK back into my client’s loft.

I still had a week to prepare for the trip, and who knows, COVID might be over in a month and I’d be back in my cozy nest (yeah, right). On the last day of my shift, tired but wired, I walked into my new room, put my new duvet cover onto my new duvet, made a cup of tea, and Skyped my daughter to see how things were going.

“They’re closing the borders, Mom. You have to come tomorrow.”

It was seven p.m. I downed my tea and, per miracle, managed to change my ticket for the following morning. It took an hour or so to cram my worldly possessions into orange recycling bags and stash them under my bewildered landlady’s musty staircase and apologise for letting her down. Another hour to drag myself to friend Tanya’s on the other side of London, because getting to Heathrow by four a.m. from here would be a nightmare.

After a bath, soul-sister ruminations on the vagaries of life, and a few hours’ sleep, I arrived at Hammersmith bus station, bleary-eyed. The shops declared their wares to abandoned passages under neon lights. With COVID fresh on the collective super-conscious, even the “chavs and hooligans” that notoriously lurk here at night seemed to have gone to ground.

There was one woman, sitting on a metal chair and tapping her phone. “The tube is down,” her voice echoed. The accent was South American.

“Well, how do I get to Heathrow?”

“Which terminal?”

“I don’t know. Delta airlines?”

“Ah, follow me, I work for them.”

Whenever I really need something, it appears. I used to think everyone’s life was like that, but apparently, it’s not. Or maybe it is, and people just don’t listen or notice.

I got to the gate at Heathrow Terminal Four just as fifty or so people were boarding. I had been re-assigned to business class, and on the plane, there was not a soul around me. The one place I was not going to get COVID was on this plane. The layover in Charlottesville felt like a scene from I Am Legend.

To be fair, the waiting area filled up a bit. There was an air of smug camaraderie from having squeaked through before the borders closed, but it wasn’t anything like the havoc portrayed on the newscasts. No one knew what to expect, so we hunkered down behind our masks and made COVID small talk peppered with silly jokes.

After crossing five time zones, my UK winter body stumbled into a deserted Jacksonville airport, oppressive Florida heat, and the arms of my grateful child. Well, we didn’t actually touch. I was on a fourteen-day no touching, kissing, or going-out ban. Try telling that to an excited five-year-old who hasn’t seen his granny for a year.

In the short time I’d been in the air, COVID had turned the world upside down.

My friend Bill and I agreed to keep each other sane via Skype. Bill is a struggling Mick Jagger look-alike muso living in Cape Town. Within a short time, to my utter surprise, our friendship blossomed into the possibility of something else.

After two months, my son-in-law’s return was delayed yet again. Although the borders coming into the US were closed, repatriation to the UK was allowed. Summoning faith that this would not change, I postponed my return. Things got tense. My daughter feared she’d never see her husband again, and radioactive five-year-olds are unaware of the whims of the system—except, of course, they act out even more when adults are stressed.

About two weeks later, I received an automated email from the US government along the lines of, “We do hope you’ve enjoyed your stay, but you must be gone in ten days.”

What? I thought my ESTA visa was valid for six months. Why didn’t I check? What is wrong with me? It was out of my hands, but my daughter was at breaking point. Why was everything falling apart so spectacularly?

That afternoon, I sat in the sunroom reading. There’s no point fighting something you can’t change. Next thing, my phone rang. It was a WhatsApp call from my son-in-law, who, being on deployment, is hard pushed to find a way to talk to his wife, never mind unimportant mothers-in-law!

The first thing he asked was, “Are you out of earshot of your daughter?”

“Yes,” I said. “What’s wrong?” My heart raced as I feared the worst: He was delayed again and didn’t know how she would handle it.

“I’m coming home tomorrow.”

Just like that—the baton was wielded. It was one of those moments that confirmed my belief that there is definitely a strange and beautiful pattern to this life.

“Dude, you literally have absolutely no idea how glad I am to hear that.”

He wanted me to take the phone to my grandson so he could tell him, so my grandson could tell my daughter. (My son-in-law’s sense of humour can be disturbing!)

“You won’t be popular,” I warned.

“It’ll be fine. Can you do it secretly?”

My grandson was in the bath, so after some fancy footwork about wanting to help and telling my daughter to go and have a nice cup of tea, I embarked on the secret mission.

It sort of worked, but when my grandson blurted out, “Daddy’s coming home!” my daughter thought he was losing it too and burst into tears.

“It’s true,” I said, and handed her the phone.

She fell to the ground, sobbing. It had been seven months. Of course, he got an earful for his choice of delivery, but what I was seeing was the Godiverse at his/her/its best: creating beauty out of chaos.

I went back to my room and sat in awe of the timing; reminded myself that it was true: I had received the email that morning, and my precious family would be reunited the very next day.

It’s these kinds of things that happen to me often enough that I don’t question anymore.

A few days later, I was back in the UK. Three months on, the borders are still closed. Bill and I still chat regularly. Except for lockdown, I might never have discovered the depths of this rich soul. I have no idea how this particular ‘shouldn’t have’ will pan out, and that’s okay. My life continues to string me together with exquisite serendipities, and I’m grateful for every moment. 

"In the Midst," a COVID-19 anthology by Sandy Tritt

Diverse voices share resilience, loss, and hope. Poems, essays, and more paint a tapestry of the pandemic’s impact.

Find your story in theirs.

Written by Lana Hunneyball

Editor I Writer I Author I Poet

I believe in the power of words to connect, inspire, and transform.

"Life is giving birth to yourself" ~ Erich Fromm

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