This is not a blog post about some obscure aspect of an ancient language – sorry folks.
Its subject matter instead is Covid-19, specifically my experience of living with the disease. It will have to be filed under ‘Miscellaneous and Personal’.
It is not (at least intentionally) a pity piece, some ballad of misery that I wish to inflict on an already sorrowed internet. My reasons for writing are twofold: something for myself and something, perhaps, for others.
Memory is mercifully anaesthetic; while the physical data of daily life can be easily recalled long after the event, the internal world of feeling that accompanies the who, what and where slips silently away, leaving only the hollow knowledge that there was pain, but not how the pain was. Committing this personal story to prose is therefore one way of preserving things that it could one day do me good to keep in mind. It could also be explicitly and confidently intended as an era’s closing epilogue, as my health steadily continues to improve, but to call it so would definitely be to bait fate.
A concurrent motivation is an offering of experience, gladly given from one dust-doomed creature to another. No one needs to read it – and I am grateful that you have made it this far. However, I mean no pretention when I say that I am not the same person I was at the end of last year. Since then I have learned many profound things that in fact now offer me feelings of sincere and confident hope. Whether it be through kind-hearted concern, ghoulish curiosity, perhaps even inimical Schadenfreude, my experiences could be of interest, use or just momentary diversion for the many people out there in the world who are not me.
It is divided into two parts: the first is a history, and is the original text, while the second is a vague attempt at reflection and summary, which started out as a single paragraph, but got loose from me and grew into something bigger.
A Chronicle of Covid Post-told
January 3rd 2021 (a Sunday) was a weighty day, one which will certainly stick in my memory in the years to come. When I woke up and stretched for my phone, I did so not out of habit, but with an alert purpose, keen to read the text that said I had tested positive for Covid-19. It was not a great surprise; I had been feeling pretty peaky for a couple of days, so my reaction was not one of shocked disbelief, but rather of cold calculation and of a grimly determined sense that I needed to brace for impact. Over three months later, I feel justified in that initial apprehension; reflection also leads me to recognise that my response could not have been universal; it was a gift of privilege for the young and healthy to react as I did, when for so many a positive Covid test is something far more grave.
On that day, Sod’s law felt especially powerful; I had managed to contract the virus during one of my two forays into public life over December – namely my journey from the UK to the Czech Republic on December 28th. The fear of being seriously ill in a still somewhat foreign country was strong and I wanted to avoid going to hospital. This was a powerful priority, as I believed a hospital stay would deprive me of the one soul and friendly face in the country I needed to be with, my girlfriend, but this reluctance was probably a mistake.
The initial ‘acute’ stage was terrifying, but comparatively not unusual. My senses of smell and taste had abandoned ship by at least the 6th of January, but they were not missed, as food and drink were not desiderata. I slipped beneath waves of intense nausea and a tempestuous temperature. It was all a quiet illness; there was no coughing or groaning, just the silence of solitary sofa-sequestered suffering, being sometimes alert and talkative, sometimes gratefully unconscious, but always confused and very weak. The pain was at this point mostly bearable, just one star among many in a variety show of shit. Truth be told, it is hard to recollect a lot of this first stage; I was simply out of it for the most part, and there were numerous things during those days that I failed to remember thoroughly, like conversations, messages, phone calls, even the odd attempted insurgency in the USA.
And then it ended! By the 12th of January, I was feeling okay – shocked and fragile, but definitely better, and better enough to be bored. By the 16th, I even felt able to walk outside and enjoy the snow. I had then a sense of completion, that Covid was over for me. It had been rough, but I had done it and earned the badge.
Yet, as it turned out, I was wrong. The trouble returned with a vengeance on the 25th of January. This time, however, it was a beast of a different nature: no longer a panoply of symptoms, but only aggressive, debilitating pain. This was unexpected and I do not know why it happened, nor if it could have been prevented. My thoracic regions screeched and scraped with every breath, as if something was masticating my lungs and ribcage from the inside. Breathing was hard and prolonged movement was off the menu. Once again, I was confined to a supine existence on the sofa, whiling away whole days in miserable agony. Defended only by painkillers, this period transported me to such peaks of pain that I had hallucinations, viewing my own thoughts played out on the ceiling like tangible objects. By the 30th of January, this hellish second wave, for which I would have traded a repeat of the first, had subsided, but in its going it left behind someone scarred and scared in mind and body; I felt betrayed by my own flesh, afraid to ask anything of it, lest I deny its capricious whims.
Starting on the weekend of January 30th, my health then settled into a pattern of ups and downs, each sequence lasting almost precisely one fortnight. Over February and March, there would be days of activity and joie de vivre, followed by dives down into fragility, exhaustion and gloom. The pain has been constant in its presence and location, which I generally refer to as my ‘lungs’, even though it has not been clinically confirmed how it could be that the windbags are at fault. Faithfully accompanying the pain have been breathlessness and fatigue, mental and muscular, usually in my limbs. I still cannot stand up for long periods or rise from sitting without a little effort; activities (passivities, perhaps) that need this skill have become considerably difficult, most importantly showering. The capacity of my lungs has likewise not yet returned to what it was, but it is improving gradually.
The “Long Covid” milestone of twelve weeks was reached in March. At the end of the month, I also reluctantly agreed to pause my PhD studies on the gentle insistence of my supervisors; I see now that this should have been done sooner, having continued until that point partly because I was afraid to lose the structure and sense of purpose that it gave me, and partly out of pig-headed denial.
I was not an easy person to be around during February and March. My weariness and frustration expressed themselves as impatience, resentment and infectious despair. It was as if I was grieving for something lost – a diverse world of exciting colour, which had cruelly shrunk to the confines of the four white walls of our flat. I felt strangling loneliness, desperately missing people and places, and pining for a present with the distracting variety of the past. Some days, I just wanted everything to stop.
Yet, importantly, I was not alone; I hope somehow to fully express my gratitude to my girlfriend, who has unfailingly helped me since January. I also owe thanks to her family’s cat, Silver, loaned to us to be a source of joy, majesty and indignant howling, and to everyone who has got in touch by call, email, message or tweet. It has been a joy every time to experience people’s readiness to give without recompense, and to be simply kind.
Moreover, April has done her best to improve the weather, allowing me to spend more time outside; I visited the beautiful city centre of Prague for the first time three weeks ago, which was a little overwhelming after so many months of solitude! The warmer weather and stronger painkillers have (touch wood) reduced the fortnightly fluctuations down from rollercoasters to mere merry-go-rounds. I am regaining weight and have been benefitting from both fresh air and fresh scenery; prolonged periods of walking no longer have the adverse consequences that they used to, so my world is now growing again. We are not out of the woods yet, but the sunlit forest is thinning.
Of an Ordinary Day and an Extraordinary Time
(What follows is an attempt to capture in writing an average day over the past few months, as well as ideas that have been occupying my thoughts. It was written on and around the 4th of April, since which, I am glad to say, much has improved, although the lessons learned will not leave me anytime soon.)
I know as soon as I wake up what kind of day is in store. Sometimes, I am granted clarity, alertness, energy and a minimum of discomfort; on other days, I awake confused, weak and greatly pained pulmonically. Even though I go to sleep at similar times and with a constant un-tiredness, each nightmare-loaded night resets my health, rolls the dice and decides on the tone for the whole day ahead, and there is nothing I can actively do to change this routine. The spirit is at the mercy of the flesh, and the flesh is certainly weak.
This is a new state of affairs for me, as it is the first time I have been faced with a long period of poor health. It is a light cross to bear when compared to what so many people endure, but its novelty and unpredictability have left a novice hurting. Never before have I been so forcefully confronted by the base machinery of life, as a human body, sophisticated enough to run with naught but a beat and a purr, begins to fray at the edges. Lungs can be ignored, until dainty breathing becomes laboured contractions.
It is no wonder then that I have never before thought so much about death. In the empty spaces of the day, always while lying awake at night, the matter eagerly stalks the mind. Nothing unusual there per se, but this is no longer the spectre of death that emerges in rare moments to spook the young. It is something new: an idea that is forceful in its importance, yet chilling in its calm necessity. For the first time, I find myself worrying not about the fact itself, but rather the nuts and bolts of dying, the mechanism behind the final curtain, and what I believe about it all. I am not dying, but neither have I been living very well, and I am constantly and painfully reminded of the fact.
However, the shrinking of life has other facets when viewed from different angles – it has also meant the crystallizing of life, a refining process in which every action has taken on more value through its increased difficulty and the general absence of variety. For the past three months, I have woken up each morning, ascertained my state and asked accordingly ‘what can I do today?‘ The day ahead is daunting and, through this weightiness, chores have become rituals; my daily tasks of hoovering and doing the dishes have become quasi-liturgical in their rhythmic repetition, simplicity and succour, in that, once accomplished, they give me the boosting feeling that I am still in control of my life – although I cannot usually do them without a break. I say without a hint of shame that nowadays I wake up looking forward to doing the hoovering.
Each day lasts longer than it did before, and no day will be notably different from what came before. What sees me through from one end to another is this routine. It is not much, but it is a companion routine, which has steered through the days that I have lacked the will to face. I try to get dressed and eat breakfast before 10 o’clock; I try to watch mass online at lunchtime; I try to complete a grammar exercise; I try to do the research for and post one factual tweet per day. Try, try, try – all is just trying, as I try to hold myself up and just try to keep going, until the coming day when I do not have to try anymore.
When I try to summarise my experience of Covid, what feels true at least is there cannot be any going back after this; the last few months have left me too shaken and too raw for that. They have also left me feeling weirdly wiser, for want of a better word. I mean this not only with regards to what thoughts about life, death, the universe and everything that Covid has inspired me to think, but also concerning a deeper, almost ineffable wisdom. I have a belief that a true comprehension of mortality is something that the majority of people gain subtly and incrementally over a lifetime, beginning with a happy indifference that is youth’s gift. If I am right in this, then my experience of Covid has been a bulk download, an unwanted move two or three steps ahead in the game of life. I predict that I will be grappling with the mental reverberations for longer than the physical, as I come to see the same world with different eyes.
However, there is also also cause for quiet pride. I am pleased by what I have learned about myself and things dear to my heart. The past three (almost four) months certainly have given me time to think and to learn, committing wholeheartedly to exploring certain topics previously neglected, ranging from the liturgical to the linguistic – basic Sanskrit and Devanagari are two new skills, and I think I now understand Ancient Greek accentuation. These hard-won skills should come in useful, if only for serving as positive reminders of what can still be achieved in tough times.
However, looking back, the most important thing is simpler, yet more powerful: it is the fact that every day for the past few months, I have got up out of bed and done something. A deep personal reserve of stubbornness, unknown to me before, has compelled me to get up and get going each morning, admittedly at varying hours of the clock, even though no one has needed me to do so, and no one would be let down if I did not. Lord knows, I have often wanted to give up entirely. Yet, every single damnable day, I have managed to do something, if it only is the usual, exhausting routine of dishes, hoovering and making cups of tea. The fact makes me quite proud.
Every day, I have done something, and now, at last, with each day, I can do more. Out of gratitude, I promise my past self that I will.