‘Four months, imagine, since’.
It’s all I keep saying to myself, to him, to anyone who will listen, still not quite believing it. Four months, imagine, since we’ll have seen him, in the flesh. It’s not necessarily helpful to have that as the background chant, but it does make me feel something. A mixture of things. We’ve been put to the test. We’ve risen. We are rising. Reaching that plateau. Hoping for a rapid wonderful descent. One that gives you that ticklish feeling in the pit of your stomach as a child when you go over a good bump on the road. One of those, please. We’ve been teetering on the brink for too long now. Wheeee…
A twelfth, a fifteenth, a sixteenth, an eighteenth even imagine, a twentieth at the start of it, with him propped in the fruit-bowl on someone’s device for the present giving and the blowing out of candles. I go on a maniacal over-compensatory buzz in the lead up to them. To make them the best birthdays ever. I don’t know how or when to stop. Even when marque 3 fixes me with one of my own father’s rational but kind quizzical looks.
‘Enough Mum. You can stop now. We have everything’.
Because while I know their father in the fruit bowl certainly beats no father in the fruit bowl, I still can’t quite get my head around it. Why he’s not here with us. How I ever agreed to this.
I poke at whoever is nearest to me for the reminders. They are very good at them. Something about mortgages and school fees and college fees and potential savings and the chance of double-glazed windows down the line and maybe even a holiday off this actual island at some stage and… Blah blah. What about companionship and hand holding and laughing at the little incidentals and having the banter and the flat whites and the dinners together and the mile-stones and the red wine and the chats about writing and the little annoyances?
The eighteenth is followed by the leaving cert, during the height of which I’m put on a blood pressure monitor for 24 hours due to some random peculiar headaches I’ve been experiencing lately. I greet him after the biology exam and know that as he describes it, the high of the good long questions, the short ones even, and the low of the experiments because even though he had worked really hard and had covered himself really well he was caught out there, just a little, in this, his favourite subject, and had to scratch back to some muscle memory, I know that even as I try to let it wash over me the reading today at 5.30 will be a rocket one.
I return the monitor, thankfully, in advance of marque 5’s primary school leave-taking. Sixteen years. Imagine. This new chant takes over for the day. Sixteen years of dropping off and picking up from this school. I arm myself with marque 1 and my sister for the occasion. I forget to bring tissues, but I’m buoyed up somehow. Even seeing the little Senior Infants lined up in their bright yellow gym tops waiting to play their role in the great departure of their 6th class buddies, and the banner across the school saying ‘Congratulations on your Graduation’ seems to produce mirth, rather than nostalgia. The sun breaks strongly through and as his class comes out to the guard of honour in the car park, to the whoops and claps and cheers of teachers, parents and children, and I see his lovely happy sunny smile, his little wave, it doesn’t even strike me to weep. I wept at all the others. I’m clearly done now. Marque 1 whips him off into town for lunch, taking the place of a parent perhaps, and I return to the house to feed and ease marque 2 out the door to his afternoon exam.
The countdown begins. We have a date. July 2nd. He will be doubly vaccinated. Marque 4’s fifteenth birthday will be mere days behind us, the over the top helium balloons still inflated. Marque 2 will be just back from his post leaving cert Magaluf holiday in Galway. All the pressures will have eased. A beautiful bottle of Bollinger (thanks to a wonderful sister-in-law) will be uncorked. After 5 days of home quarantine he will do a PCR. Armed with the negative result and both of us vaccinated, we will have a one night stay in a Junior Suite hotel room with panoramic views across Dublin bay. Then we will head with family to Connemara.
The way we’re discussing it, assuredly, driven by me, starts to niggle. The way he has packed up and is ready to go, two weeks in advance, and how desperate he is to see us all starts to niggle. The way we discuss all the things we will do as soon as he’s in the door starts to niggle. The ticklish little cough that he springs ten days in advance starts to niggle. But that’s me. Waiting to be niggled. Trust. It will all be fine.
His second shot of Pfizer seems to escalate the cough. His voice is a little hoarse, even though he hasn’t been to his singing lessons lately. I begin to quiz and wait for him to reassure. He ate koftas, and he’s had an allergic reaction. It’s too hot and it’s affecting his breathing. The air-conditioning is affecting his breathing. Someone on Facebook had exactly the same reaction to the second Pfizer. I swallow them whole. Trust. I send him a photo of Seapoint from the evening before with a caption ‘Dublin beckons. Time for that PCR’, smiley face emoji. He says ‘Already there, getting it in 20’. Smiley face with the colon and the bracket. So much more mature.
I fall asleep on a picnic rug in the late afternoon sun. My phone pings with a message. I open it. It’s a screen shot of his result. It actually takes a full minute to process it. Positive. That’s good isn’t it? Wait a second. Is that good? He doesn’t send any caption with it. He’s gone offline immediately. Leaving me to work it out in my own inadequate sun-stroked way.
He has Covid.
‘Shit’ is all I can think to send as a reply.
The mind goes into 1200 rpms. He’s not allowed to get Covid. He’s highly vulnerable. How did he get it when he’s doubly vaccinated? Will he be okay? Why is he so far away? He’s NOT supposed to get Covid. Then I dig as deep as I can. He’s going to be floored with this news. He needs support. I call him. We spend the rest of the evening talking it out while he sends messages to work colleagues. Highly concerned colleagues. Concerned about him not now getting home. Concerned about us, the kids and me. Not a bit concerned about themselves. Throwing in a touch of humour which certainly helps. We process it over the evening. All the implications. We’re quick to conclude that while it’s a bummer, we’re actually lucky. Lucky that the vaccines have done their job, in some way at least. While the virus managed to slip on through the fire-wall, and he has it, he’s not unwell with it. He will not be hospitalised. He will not become a statistic. Although when he says ‘I’m so sorry’, sounding very unlike himself, vulnerable and cowed, a niggle kicks in again.
‘If you feel you’re dipping at all, get yourself in, won’t you?’
The boys go into survivor mode and we order spice bags all round. High fat and MSG seems to be the answer for now. I ring marque 2, on the last evening of his post leaving cert holiday. I wasn’t going to but marque 3 assured me, in the way that only he can, that he’d want to know. To keep this from him would be unfair. I leave it a while. Until the best of the evening is over and most of the fun surely had. He’s out with the pals having his first ever real pint. Guinness. His Dad’s favourite. And they’ve just ordered spice bags. Sweet. I wonder if I can, now, just chicken out. Leave him to it. Then a flash of marque 3’s eyes is somehow before me and I begin. ‘Everything’s fine. There’s nothing at all to worry about. It’s just that…’
The night before the arrival day we opt for a Prosecco fuelled recovery date on Zoom. Late on in I tell him that I can’t actually stay on too much longer. My husband’s due back in the morning and I have some last minute preparations to take care of. He doesn’t even smile. The virus has stripped him, temporarily, of his sense of humour. But not his gratitude. Nor ours. We know the end of this story without the vaccines. We know it at very close quarters, sadly, only too well.
I’ll wait patiently and gratefully with the Bollinger to see him again in the flesh.