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  • Catherine Mayer

2020 Vision, 27 March 2020, 06:17

Updated: May 5

Yesterday passed without human contact but for the moment I opened the window to join in cheering and hollering for the NHS and, after the noise ebbed, exchanged goodnights with a neighbour. Today dawned formless and structureless, nobody to see, nothing in the diary. Oh strange new world that has no people in it. Laws and natural laws are upended, noisy cities stilled and markets transformed. We are living in an Aesop fable, eggs and other basic commodities trading like gold, while the thing that is most precious devalues: time. There is, it seems, a world glut; time encircles us, empty and oppressive. We focus not on savouring it, but enduring it, striking off the days, another done and dusted, another survived.

This the fourth day of lockdown in London, the 15th of social distancing. For me another calendar ticks away too. It is 55 days since Andy died, in ICU2 at St Thomas’s Hospital. However painful those days, I cannot wish them away or regret today or any days that are to come. Every moment matters. I recall the 12 vivid minutes between the removal of Andy’s life support systems and the end of his beautiful life. So many of us they allowed in the ICU, by special dispensation, his brother, my sisters and nephew, friends, his beloved bandmates. I stroked his brow and traced the dimple in his chin and told him again and again how much I loved him and how loved he was. I watched the colour drain from his lovely face until he was gone.

I cannot wish away the weeks of gathering fear that preceded his death because that would be to wish away the sense memory of his touch and smell in those last weeks, the conversations that mean everything now. I cannot wish away time because that would be to abbreviate 29 years together and the years to come that I will spend remembering those years. In sickness and in health.

I cannot wish away time when I worry, most days, that I squandered it. Might Andy still be alive if I’d called the ambulance sooner? Would he have consented to ventilation if I’d been at his side when the question was asked? A consultant had told me, days before they intubated him, that they hoped to keep Andy breathing by himself. Patients such as Andy, their lungs already damaged and fragile, fare badly on ventilators, the consultant explained. I will never know if Andy was aware how poor were his odds. I suspect he would have consented anyway. By then, he was so exhausted from the effort of breathing that he had opted for the discomfort of a feeding tube over the struggle to eat. He grew weaker each day, but the team looking after him still held out hope and they worried for me. Andy is stable, they said. Go home, take time for yourself, sleep, eat, take time for yourself, time for yourself. This will be a marathon, not a sprint.

A marathon, not a sprint. In that expectation, on January 27th I return home. I don’t sleep, but I lie on the bed. Early the next morning, I head to my exercise class. I believe I am in training for a marathon of staying strong. This is not wrong, but a different strength will be needed. I walk from the class to St Thomas’s, 12,730 steps according to the health app on my mobile. The world is already changing. I pass hoardings about Brexit. On the last night of Andy’s life, thousands will keep candlelit vigil underneath his window, for the European Union, and on February 1st, his death day, the headline on The Guardian, carelessly left on the windowsill by his bed, will read “The Day We Said Goodbye”.

On this morning, however, I anticipate hellos. I’m only a little later than usual; visiting hours have just started. I near the hospital, pass the London Eye, text Andy. “Good morning, gorgeous. I’ll be in very soon. You’ll have two visitors later in the day, Grainne and then Lulie. I love you. xxxxxx” As I press send, the phone rings, the nurse in charge. She has news: Andy is in a medically-induced coma. I think she says he has been placed in it. The phrasing confuses me. I ask why they couldn’t wait for my arrival. She replies that he was in distress. I am running now, in through the glass doors, past the Marks & Spencer and the cafe and along a corridor that only veterans of the hospital know to be the quickest route to ICU2. All of a sudden I hear a familiar voice and find myself crying onto a white shirt. Its owner, Ed Miliband, though startled, is kind. We know each other slightly, through work. He will later write me a graceful letter.

Then I run again, along the corridors and up the stairs and on to the ward but no matter how fast I run, I cannot make up for time lost. Andy will never speak again, never open his eyes again.

I, however, talk to him every day. Sometimes I tell him about the big stuff, the transformative effect of the pandemic and the responses to it. At other times, I ask him where he put the flat-bladed screwdriver or joke about my slipping standards in the kitchen. I tell him I love him and that if he were alive, I would be guarding him fiercely. He did not, as online conspiracists allege, die from Covid-19, but he had an underlying condition, sarcoidosis, that would have put him at high risk. The immuno-suppressants he took to manage it laid him open to the pneumonia that proved implacable. He did not die from Covid-19 but his death, in many details, resembled that of a Covid-19 fatality, respiratory failure, the battle to keep him alive long enough to give him a chance of life.

I tell him how lucky we were, he and I, right up to the end. Not just the 29 years together—though that is a piece of unbelievable good fortune that nobody can take away from us—but the timing of his death. No restrictions on visits, the best of care. Everyone on ICU2 had time for Andy, not only the brilliant medical staff but the cleaners and a lovely Brazilian man from the catering department who every day asked Andy what he wanted to eat and looked downcast when he collected his untouched plates.

When it was clear that Andy was dying, a nurse asked me if he would like to be shaved. I said yes and she did a wonderful job, but for a small section of his upper lip that the mouthpiece of the ventilator obscured. He cannot die with a Hitler moustache, I told her, and she took the time to figure out a solution that involved a second nurse assisting. Even then, ICU nurses had no time to spare and yet for this, they found it. He died cleanshaven. He looked handsome, dignified, so much himself.

I tell Andy that patients today will not receive this level of care, even though the staff will want to give it. I tell him that as the numbers of critical Covid-19 cases spike, those same incredible nurses and doctors and support staff will be forced to make choices that nobody should have to make, about their own safety and about which patients to prioritise. I tell him that I have signed up to the national scheme to volunteer for the NHS in honour of those nurses and doctors and support staff. I tell him about other things I am doing and planning to address immediate needs and to try to shape a better future. I tell Andy that time without him will never feel like time with him, but that time has the value we give it. I tell him that I mean to make my time count for something.


All words and images ©Catherine Mayer 2020

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