But We Survived
So much of that time was wrong.
My sensible waterproof remains on its hook for days on end. Blue skies and sunshine. I wade through plastic toys and endless food debris. After a week stuck indoors, I hand the baby to my husband, dig out my old trainers and hobble out of the flat.
I begin to run in 60-second bursts, using an app on my phone to coach me. Down the steps and along the river; over the bridge and up the hill, through the park and then a loop back towards home. I try to notice what it is to be living through this time; I try to note down words to describe it in an effort to find meaning, joy, gratitude.
One day in April I notice three mallards sitting in a row, like teenage boys posing on a wall; the following week, a mother duck passes me with miniature balls of fluff and feather paddling in her wake. In the same spot days later, a majestic heron tiptoes silently through the shallows of the river. This to me is something. The fact that I have looked and seen and noted.
My playlist grows to include uplifting disco and seedy house music; steady, repetitive beats that drive me on to put one foot in front of the other.
She got fifty dollar bills, burning in my pocket
She got a big ol' fat ass, and you ain't gonna stop it
She's ready to fight, she's ready to bite, she's ready to stay up all night
She got fifty dollar bills, she got fifty dollar bills.
I run now for 3 minutes at a time. Over the music, I hear church bells ringing and I take out my headphones. Somewhere, things are normal. Parishes. Small communities. Perhaps I am nostalgic for a time I never lived through - when being a woman and a mother was more straightforward: A sturdy pram, a scrubbed floor, an intricate brooch on a brown wool coat.
That's how the good Lord works
That's how He works.
It is May. Weeds sprawl from the sides of the pavements and grasses grow a foot high. Hundreds of yellow poppies, everywhere you go. My little boy, not yet three, holds my hand as we wander slowly down the street. The same way we walked yesterday, and the day before that. He sees endless dandelion clocks, snails, dried dog poo. I see people’s trimmed hedges. Teddies and rainbows in the windows. I admire cherry blossom and a neighbour’s choice of door colour. His hand reaches blindly for mine when he returns from bashing yet more dandelion fluff. Underneath the ache of loneliness I feel a bud of joy swell in my heart. The sheer miracle of him, the beautiful crown of his head.
You brought me home to this happy house
You're the reason for the width of my smile
Stay with me, don't lose me now
So I can thank you for just being so damn excellent.
I run for 6 minutes along the river, crowded now with people from all over the city looking for beauty. Where is the mother duck and her ducklings? I see a dog in a hi-viz coat. It says NERVOUS in large black capitals along its flanks. I want a bright orange t-shirt which says OVERWHELMED.
As I run I assign words to the people I now see regularly: TALK for the squat man with the limp and the kind eyes ; TOUCH for the woman with the shaved grey hair. The boy with the drawn face who sits begging by the tunnel, MISSING. I want some kind of signal. I want us all to admit it, that we feel the same - the terror, the heart-break, the claustrophobia.
I take my baby for walks in the sling, through the same streets, past the same houses. Her little body, not yet a year old, nestled into the warmth of my chest and heart. Her hair tickles my neck as she turns her head and dozes off again. I see a woman up ahead, her face pinched, her eyes on the ground. As I walk towards her, she jerks her hand at the pavement ahead. She means KEEP AWAY.
Hope you don't blame me
For what I'm saying
My heart is aching
Do you feel it too?
I am running for 18 minutes now. My jowls jump, my arse sags and flaps against the top of my legs. I think of my children’s bottoms and thighs and wonder if that’s where all my collagen went. I circle back through the park, closing my eyes to the sun and daydream of Berlin. Four days with my best friend, in clubs and at the lakes, our belated fortieth birthday presents to ourselves. Bitterly I resign myself to it never happening and I pad back home.
I have a complete disaster of a socially distant play-date with a friend and her two small children. My boy’s behaviour is getting gradually worse and I’m less patient. At the end of a hot day I get into the driver’s seat and scream SHUT UP at his requests for songs. “I’m so angry,” I tell him, over and over, until he says, “Don’t look at me”, and then I begin to cry. I’m so sad at the mother I’ve become. So disappointed at how worn out I am.
I run for the full 30 minutes. Cheers and fireworks accompany me through my headphones, June sunshine beats down. Once I would have felt elated. As it is, I am questioning why the hell I thought becoming a mother was a good idea. The lockdown begins to peter out and my furlough comes to an end; it all feels like an enormous anti-climax. My children are still so small and yet so mighty. As I drop them at the childminder’s I’m amazed at their insatiability for life.
Five months on, eyes still prick with tears at the smallest thing - an old song on the radio, watching my children giggle at each other. I am entering into a dialogue with a new world using the old language I have as best I can. Maybe we are a global population with PTSD. I suspect, just like in the days after my baby’s birth, that I will learn to look back at the pandemic, dry-mouthed at the horror of it all. It was incredibly intense, I’ll tell anyone who asks, but we survived.
By Catrin Kemp
Sworn Virgins Fifty Dollar Bills. Quoted with kind permission of the artist and their publishers DeeWee Studio (Belgium)
The Joubert Singers, Stand On The Word. Quoted with kind permission of the artist and their publishers Favourite Music (France)
The Juan McLean, Happy House. Quoted with kind permission of the artist and their publishers DFA Records (USA)
Sigrid, Don’t Feel Like Crying. Quoted with kind permission of the artist and their publishers Universal Music Group (UK)