Yesterday was Mother’s Day here in the UK. As usual it was celebrated on the fourth Sunday of Lent, also known as Laetare Sunday in the Catholic church. Back in 1997 it fell on 9 March, and it was the last time my own mother was able to celebrate it.
A week ago (in this piece about a School Reunion and the word “journal”), I mentioned, for the first time on this Blog, the spread of Coronavirus. In the seven days since that piece, Coronavirus (or specifically COVID-19) has become the biggest news story of our time. Just 16 days ago we were able to go about our day-to-day lives in ways that are already impossible. Schools are closed. Mass gatherings (sporting, musical, theatrical, the Catholic mass itself) are no longer allowed. Pubs and restaurants have shut their doors. When I began drafting this piece we were not in lockdown, in the way that parts of Spain and Italy have been, but by the time it was finished that had changed too.
It feels worth recording some of the events from the last fortnight (many of them minor and personal), not so much for posterity, but to get my head around how quickly things have changed, so here goes. I also note, for example, when we last heard live music, or had a meal in a restaurant, or attended mass.
Saturday 7 March: A full sporting programme; Leeds United return to the top of the Championship. Pubs, restaurants, theatres, art galleries are all open as normal. I attend a School Reunion in the afternoon, have an early dinner of Pho with my son, and he and I attend a charity concert (a Don Williams tribute act). [Last gig for the foreseeable future.]
Tuesday 10 March: I meet an old work colleague for lunch and a chat about work. [Last visit to a pub, last pint of draft beer for the foreseeable future. Yes, we had a drink at lunch-time, like it was the 1980s.]
Wednesday 11 March: Arsenal’s football match at Manchester City is postponed after Mikel Arteta tests positive for Coronavirus. Liverpool are knocked out of the UEFA Champions League by Atletico Madrid. [The last live televised football many of us will see for the foreseeable future.]
Thursday 12 March: My daughter trains at her athletics club as usual. [Last training session at the club for the foreseeable future.]
Friday 13 March: All major sporting events are postponed (Rugby Six Nations, top football leagues in England and Scotland, GAA matches in Ireland). That evening local rivals Fulham and Brentford FC were due to play in a key Championship game. I watch “Parasite”, the most recent winner of the Best Picture Oscar, at a local cinema. [Last cinema visit for the foreseeable future.]
Saturday 14 March: My daughter runs a Personal Best at a local parkrun. [Last organized athletics event of any kind for the foreseeable future.] My son and I walk to the High Road and have a late lunch of Pho. [Last meal in a restaurant for the foreseeable future.]
Sunday 15 March: I have a Skype call with my brother, who lives in Spain. They are in lockdown, even in the small city that he and his wife live in. Earlier that day, out for a walk to buy the paper, he was stopped by the police to make sure that he was going straight home. My son and I attend evening mass at our usual church. [Our last church service for the foreseeable future.]
Monday 16 March: My son attends his Monday evening dance class, as usual. [Last dance class for the foreseeable future.] In a rare display of proactive behaviour, I cancel our subscription sports channels, hoping that I will have cause to reactivate them in April. [That looks very unlikely right now.]
Tuesday 17 March: My daughter’s school closes to all years, apart from Year 11 (GCSE) and year 13 (A-Level) students. [Her last day at school for the foreseeable future.] It’s St Patrick’s Day but I do not take the opportunity for a pint in a local pub.
Wednesday 18 March: My son’s school closes too.
Thursday 19 March: A local shopping trip with the children, and lunch from McDonalds (takeaway only). [Last McDonalds for the foreseeable future; the company announced the closure of all its restaurants from Monday 23 March.] An official announcement that all schools in the UK are to close on Friday 20 March. All forms of mass worship (in churches, synagogues, mosques) are no longer allowed.
Friday 20 March: All pubs, cafés and restaurants are ordered to close that night until further notice. Takeaway meals are still allowed. We support our local chip shop by having fish & chips for dinner.
Saturday 21 March: We deliberately begin to practise social distancing, trying to keep at least 2 metres away from strangers while out and about. My wife and daughter organize a training run for 7.30am in a local park, along with my daughter’s regular training partner and her father. They all keep 2m away from each other, and from the park’s few other visitors, throughout. My son and I take a long walk by the river, and visit my mother’s grave, keeping at least 2m away from all strangers.
Sunday 22 March, Mother’s Day: My children and I watch a live mass online for the first time (broadcast from the church of St Anselm and St Cecilia, Lincoln’s Inn Fields). Mother’s Day lunch is a takeaway Pho rather than a meal in a restaurant. My son and I collect the food by car – social distancing easily observed. The manager tells us that they will be closed, even for takeaways, from Monday.
Monday 23 March: The UK prime minister “orders UK lockdown to be enforced by police”.
The speed with which our usual way of life has changed mirrors the speed with which my mother’s health declined and our lives changed in a few weeks during March and April 1997.
On Mother’s Day she was feeling weak and listless, but she was due to get a blood transfusion the next day. She was being treated for lymphoma for the third time, another course of chemotherapy after previous treatments in the spring of 1991 and summer of 1995. An earlier blood transfusion, during that summer of 1995, had given her recovery a real boost. We were hoping for the same this time round. She entered hospital on Monday 10 March, still able to walk, talk, eat and drink. She died at home one month later, to the day. We had managed to get her back a couple of days before that, but with no prospect of recovery. She was, by then, unable to walk, eat or drink. She was on morphine. Her ability to speak was severely diminished. The morphine played a big part in that. One of the last things she said was, “Too many people” a few hours before she died. She had to say it a few times. We couldn’t work out what she was saying. Over 20 people came to visit her that day.
My pocket diary for 1997 does not give a day-to-day breakdown of how my mother’s health deteriorated. The gap from “Blood transfusion (3 bags)” to “Bad news” was a mere 19 days. That was the time it took to go from thinking that everything was going to be alright to being told to prepare ourselves for the worst. That’s slightly longer than it’s taken for most of us, in 2020, to go from normal everyday life to lockdown, but it was nowhere near long enough.