A Bed Of Roses, Isabella Ross

Photo by Isabella Ross

A Bed of Roses was awarded 3rd place in The Quarry – Future Leaders Creative Writing Prize 2020


Nestled among the flowering hedges within the grounds of a Sydney cemetery, is baby Primrose. She rests underneath a canopy of white roses, a ceramic mushroom house and a fairy figurine placed next to her grave. The morning breeze scatters petals across the Baby Garden, wind chimes drowning out the hum of the adjacent highway. Next to Primrose is 10-day-old Kenzo. A sun-bleached toy car leans against his plaque, the granite surface adorned with a rose motif. These plaques are two of the many sprawling across the cemetery’s gardens.

Attending to the grounds and its 3500 roses is Horticulturist John*. With his khaki uniform and work boots caked in mud, John stomps over to the cemetery’s Magnolia Chapel, greeting me with a humble ‘G’day.’ ‘Today is actually a weird day because we have eleven babies being cremated,’ he yells over the piano melody spilling out of the chapel’s service doors. ‘Florist will be busy.’

Playing tour guide, John is to show me the grounds via his company truck, the cemetery’s logo imprinted on the side door that he has opened for me. While buckling our seatbelts and speeding away, John says his goal is to re-design sections of the crematorium into botanical sanctuaries. ‘The Garden of Eternity looks like a skate park. Idiots,’ he grumbles. Through the windscreen, the grey slab of concrete plaques can be seen, desolate of any foliage. Yet the nearby Rose Garden is no skate park. Stepping out of the truck, the sickly-sweet scent of a thousand roses overwhelms as we draw nearer. ‘The standard is to just chuck roses in wherever because that’s the traditional thing,’ John says, sweeping away the ground’s decayed leaf litter with the side of his boot. Flowering buds of white, fuscia and yellow occupy the site, along with dozens of glossy marble headstones.

For centuries humans have found comfort in flowers. Next to each headstone in the 19th Century, white roses were planted, a black ribbon tied to its stem. The black ribbon may have been left behind in the pages of history, but our appreciation for the rose has carried on. With bushy eyebrows raised, John reveals that gravesites near flowers sell quicker. ‘If the gardens around it look nice, you can ask for more money,’ he chuckles in his ocker twang, a grin spreading across his tan face. Still in the Rose Garden, John tends to one of the memorial site’s rose bushes, the tips of the leaves shrivelled and brown. Susceptible to black spot and aphids, roses are temperamental, needing to be trimmed around the clock, not to mention their sharp thorns. He notes that complaints have been lodged recently as a result of the dying flowers. ‘Water restrictions have made it really difficult. Each person you imagine would think their loved ones’ gravesite should have priority or get personal attention, but unfortunately, it’s just not possible,’ he sighs.

With the clouds looking sombre, we decide to retreat to the truck. John’s shoes squelch in the manicured grass sodden from the previous night’s storm. Driving through the grounds, there are no visitors to be seen. Pointing this out to John, he shrugs that he too doesn’t come across many people. ‘What I do notice on Monday mornings is lots of fresh flowers.’ From the car window, he points out a bouquet placed on the edge of one grave over the weekend. ‘I may not see the visitors, but I know they are there all the time.’

Our conversation is interrupted by a horn beeping furiously. Groaning, John pulls the truck off to the side of the road, letting the car behind zoom ahead. With his blue eyes narrowed, John swears under his breath. ‘That’s some arsehole funeral director there. He’s probably running late to a burial.’ Exhaling, he stretches while running his hands through his dark crew cut. Soon after, a pickup wagon hurtles down the hill toward the route of the funeral director. The vehicle’s tray is filled with excavator equipment, and John smirks, knowing his assumption of a late burial is correct. ‘Once the coffin has been lowered, they compact the dirt and wait a few days for it to settle. It often drops after rainfall and needs refilling again,’ he says, parking the vehicle next to the entrance of the Baby Garden.

In this memorial section, ornaments are scattered around the various plaques, a toy aeroplane slumped against the trunk of one rose bush. Standing in the centre is a stone sculpture of a mother and child embracing. With a lopsided frown, John says, ‘when there’s a child and a parent grave you know something violent has obviously gone on there.’ The speckled pink windmill wedged into one of the garden beds spins feverishly in the chilly air. ‘I try to disassociate myself from it,’ he says with a shiver and shake of the head, as we take one last look at the dual gravesite. On the outskirts of the Baby Garden, two plants immediately grab our attention. One bush has been hedged into the shape of an elephant, but the other animal is unclear. ‘It is supposed to be an emu but looks like a duck. Probably better off having it as a duck I reckon,’ John snorts while inspecting the beak of the emu. Walking among the rows of infant headstones, the sweet aroma of flowering shrubs carries through the air. Engraved in between each of these plaques is the emblem of the rose – its petals, thin stem and thorns etched delicately under each name. With one last look at the Baby Garden, we head back to the truck to explore the grounds further.

Driving towards the Rose Chapel, I ask John about the reasoning behind its name. ‘It’s very traditional. They name the chapels after the certain flowers that surround its neighbouring garden.’ Slowing in speed, John notes that he and his team try not to drive by a chapel when a funeral is underway. Even amidst the pandemic, intimate services continue to take place at the cemetery. As we sit in the parked car, half-a-dozen mourners walk into the Rose Chapel, service music inviting them in rather than the usual hugs and shaking of hands. ‘As a team if we’re having a good day and share a laugh, we have to make sure we aren’t ‘too happy’ near a funeral. Making jokes and stuff isn’t cool. No leaf blowers that’s for sure!’

Near the chapel is the florist. ‘All the flowers around here are white, white, white,’ John notes. With white lilies and roses being the most common funeral flowers, the shop is abundant with white bouquets perched in silver display buckets. Seen as an emblem of spiritual love, the white rose has been given in circumstances of grief for over 12,000 years. Metres away from the florist is a magnificent ‘Teddy Bear’ Magnolia tree, its white petals open like a lotus. I ask John whether he prefers certain flowers over others. ‘That’s like asking a true horticulturalist what their favourite plant is. They shouldn’t be able to tell you because each one has its own use and beauty.’ When it comes to redesigning the gardens, roses will still play a role in the cemetery’s grounds according to John. ‘I’ll keep the monumental sections with roses, but I want to branch out, excuse the pun, and do something different,’ he tells, turning the truck’s engine back on.

Sweeping down the hillside is the Chinese Monumental section. The lawn is teeming with maroon granite headstones, each inscribed with gold Mandarin characters. ‘A normal grave here would be maybe $20,000 – $30,000 easy.’ John tells me that for many Chinese buyers of these gravesites, they do not like certain flowers. ‘Yellow is superstitious. No eucalyptus. They love gardenias,’ he lists. Driving past the Jewish section there is little planting to be seen, except for the freshly cut lawn. For Jewish burials, flowers are not as common. Instead, the placement of stones on a loved one’s graves is custom in Jewish culture, seen as a symbol of humility and respect. To them, these stones are their white rose.

Countless gums tower over the garden, some of the trees older than the deceased buried here. John is still taken aback by the fact that 20 to 30 bodies are buried here at the cemetery each day. It is a volume that is confronting. The cremation schedule and florist orders for today come to mind. Wandering down the trail, I ask John whether he would want to be buried somewhere like this. ‘You can put me anywhere I don’t give a shit. It’s up to my kids really, they can decide what they want. Maybe a staff discount would encourage me,’ he smirks. I notice a small sign requesting visitors bring fresh flowers in lieu of artificial varieties. ‘The natural appeal and beauty of our park’ is advertised as the reason for this request. ‘When you start to think about the 100,000s of graves all with fresh flowers that’s a lot,’ John says shaking his head at the thought of the price tag.

Arriving at the last leg of the morning’s tour, the rain has eased slightly. This memorial is lined with plaques. Some have tiny ceramic images of the deceased welded into the granite, others opting for engraved motifs of angels or single-stemmed flowers. Each of the graves here are privy to their own rose bush, a pastel canopy framing the lengthy pathway. Tiny nibbles in some of the petals can be seen up close. ‘There are caterpillars around a little bit,’ John sighs. He leans down, his face millimetres away from the shrub, picking off the wriggling pests one by one. Stepping back to admire his handiwork, he quietly examines the rose’s perfectly pruned petals, before continuing onto one of the cemetery’s countless other blooms.

*For privacy reasons, names have been changed.

Download PDF

Tagged ,

Tightrope Walking 2020, Jacqui Greig

Photo by Elisabeth Wales on Unsplash

Michelle’s grandson has told her he’s too old to need band-aids. So now, leaping from stone to stone of the dragonfly shimmering creek, Samuel knows a fall means he will have to grit his teeth and wish away the hurt. It’s their favourite walk; eucalypt scented, dotted with yellow boronia and the jewel-red of mountain devil calyxes. They keep constant watch for the elusive lyre bird singing near his nest in the fern bed.

Samuel is six and for a third of his memory life has lived in a Covid world. He invites his grandmother into his cubby-house shop, with sharp reminders to wear her mask and stand on the X taped to the wooden floor. The lounge room has been taken over by his Lego Covid rescue centre with ambulance, fire-engine, and police car at the ready.

‘Granny! Granny! Come immediately to the rescue centre. You are needed urgently!’

Sunlight falling through the window washes them in its glow as she awaits instructions.
‘These are the Covid dead. You must take them to the cemetery,’he explains, pointing to a pile of Lego figurines heaped in a pick-up truck.

‘I am busy fixing up the Covid sick,’ he adds, busying himself with laying the afflicted on their hospital beds.

On completion of her gruesome task, Granny makes lunch and seats the Covid doctor at the dining table.

‘Granny, how long does it take to get to heaven?’

‘I think it happens pretty quick,’ she reassures.

He nods and, between mouthfuls of cheese and tomato sandwich adds, ‘I’m going to live here, with you, until I’m as old as you are.’

With the meter ticking toward a million dead, and epidemiologists suggesting the number is ten times that, children will live with the effects of the 2020 pandemic year for the rest of their lives. On a global scale this means increased poverty and less health care, the latter already evident with the downturn in vaccination rates in developing nations. Children face decreased access to education and possible loss of family, particularly loss of family elders who are often primary carers for the young. While children seldom become severely unwell with Covid19 the pandemic’s broader ramifications magnify with passing time. The World Health Organisation warns that the improvements in maternal and child mortality made over the past few years could be wiped out as a result of the pandemic.

The effect of stress on pregnant women and young children is already known, as far back as the Dutch potato famine and the 1920 Spanish Flu long term negative consequences of stress have been recorded. In recent years studies have increased our understanding of how these effects occur. Stressors as disparate as a Chilean earthquake, the September 11 attacks, or the sinking of a Swedish ferry, show an association with low-birth weight babies. This likely results from the placenta going into overdrive and producing lots of stress hormones which may slow down foetal growth and increase the risk of early labour. Possible consequences of low birth weight include obesity and childhood diabetes. In the field of epigenetics, a relatively new science which studies small changes in DNA due to environmental factors, the effects of stress on generations to come is also being monitored. These DNA changes potentially pass from mother to baby and further. This new science has blurred our long-term dichotomy of nature vs nurture with respect to children’s physical and psychological health and warns that stressors such as the pandemic should be taken seriously. Government investment to decrease financial burdens on families and to prevent families being rent asunder by pandemic deaths will reap benefits in the long term.

On the penultimate day of September the clock radio wakes me with the catch phrase of this year’s news. At the million mark we have reached another “grim milestone,” as if this death and disease is purposefully leading to a destination. While the Reaper scythes down the elderly, the 2020 New York Film Festival awards its gold medal for ‘best social documentary’ to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s series, ‘Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds’. This unlikely success story won the hearts of Australians and left many tears at its completion. Remarkable for a program about preschool children visiting some, not infrequently grumpy, retirement village residents. The enthusiasm of geriatrician Prof Sue Kurrle, of the Intergenerational Care Project, was infectious, but it was the endearing relationships between the elderly and the children that stole the show.

Intergenerational care is relatively new in Australia whereas other countries have already successfully incorporated it into their care models. There are several studies underway to assess the benefits of these models which vary from frequents visits, as portrayed in the TV series, to shared campus arrangements. The benefits for the elderly were clear to any viewer of the series, as weekly the muscle strengths, personal interactions, and depressions scores of the participants improved. More difficult to measure was the benefit to the children but many parents commented on the youngsters’ improved sociability and empathy. Psycho-geriatrician Nancy Wadsworth writes that programs of this nature decrease harmful intergenerational conflicts and problems of social equity. Covid19 has laid bare just such a social equity conflict.

Nine months into the pandemic my social media feeds, with regular monotony, still posit the brilliant idea of simply isolating the elderly and the vulnerable. Then everyone else can get on with their lives and the economy won’t be trashed. Covid19 has brought to light swathes of armchair experts who have stumbled on blindingly simple insights that epidemiologists, medical experts, statisticians, and modellers have unfortunately missed. US Fox channel’s Tucker Carlson trumpeted the ‘isolate the elderly’ notion just shy of April 1st but he wasn’t playing a prank. The elderly are scattered throughout the community and often live within family groups. The latter is particularly the case in multicultural and disadvantaged communities. How, in Australia, would we isolate all these vulnerable people? Do we reopen Sydney Harbour National Park’s Q station? The views of Manly and The Heads are undoubtedly spectacular, but Victoria’s recent and bitter lesson has emphasised that Covid kills the elderly most efficiently if they are housed together.

Aired on the same US TV show a few weeks later was Texas republican governor Dan Patrick who believed that the elderly were entirely willing to die for the cause of keeping the economy running. This brave, if oblivious of his personal privilege, 79-year-old governor complained that no one had reached out to him as a senior citizen and said, ‘Are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’

‘If that’s the exchange, I’m all in,’ he enthused, adding, ‘There are lots of grandparents out there like me.’

Senator Patrick may have been a trifle short of the mark as it didn’t take long for #NotDying4WallStreet to become the top Twitter trend. Grandparents were apparently not quite ready to stand in line waiting at the Soylent Green factory. Their generation knows that the year 2022 hasn’t yet arrived. When actually asked their opinion many elderly said they would die for their grandchildren but not for the economy.

In 2017 former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott vehemently opposed the euthanasia bill stating, ‘I think we’ll regard this [bill] a sad milestone in our decline as a decent society.’

Covid has apparently adjusted his opinion which now seems to be that nature, presumably in the form of the virus, should be allowed to take its course and families should elect to keep their elderly relatives comfortable. This is a clever, if transparent, conflation of two different issues. One allows passive euthanasia, which in blocking the bill Abbott effectively vetoed, and the other sacrifices healthy and productive elderly for the mirage of economic stability. Abbott has apparently not looked to the consequences of unchecked viral outbreaks in countries like Brazil, India and, the ever-controversial Swedish model. His notions seem neither epidemiologically sound nor humanitarian.

I was Samuel’s age when I spent half a year living with my flamboyant, tousle-haired grandmother. A teacher, artist, writer, and feminist who carried her opinions like a standard before her. Those six months, the clearest memories of my childhood, remain wonder infused. The dawn excursions that saw us set off across the veld to the river while mist still hugged the hollows. She sketched and I discovered brilliant Agama lizards, more rainbow than creature, and watched the yellow-black weaver birds construct their intricate nests. Nests that clung precarious to the thinnest of willow twigs and danced above the water. At night, drowsy under the crazy-block quilt she’d sewn, she wove tales to drift me to sleep. The spy she’d met during the war. How fossils were discovered at Sterkfontein. Why her Pekingese was called Xiao-xiao. She wrote a book about elves and owls, mice and carrots, and dedicated it to her grand-daughter. The hard cover edition retains pride of place on my bookshelf.

South Australia – Flinders ranges – Ikara. Photo by Jacqui Greig

In the year before this nightmare one of fire and pestilence, I visited Wilpena Pound, a natural amphitheatre within the Flinders ranges, known as Ikara, the meeting place, to Adnyamathanha people. They have been inhabitants of this rugged red-rock landscape of mountains and sheltering gums for tens of thousands of years. The fossils at nearby Brachina Gorge speak of further life forms so ancient they are mere swirls inscribed in stones.

At night, with stars burning holes in the darkness, there is a welcome to country in Yura Ngawarla, Adnyamathanha language. Children from the city and local kids, who must have heard the tales a hundred times, sit with knees clasped before the fire and listen, intent faces lit by dancing shadows. Not one stirs as elders pass on culture and life advice the way humanity always has. Next day in Bunyeroo Valley, a red-capped robin, Awi Irta, alights on a reed and I know his brilliant feathered head is a consequence of ignoring his wife. Stories stay with us.

Western society, increasingly obsessed with the young and the beautiful, is quick to discount and discard the elderly. It isn’t surprising that in, Three Uneasy Pieces, Patrick White laments, ‘The callous see us as dispensable objects, like broken furniture or dead flowers’. In contrast, Australian aboriginal communities nurture the importance of elders and their contribution to family life. In aboriginal lore age is less important than wisdom. The Australian Institute of Family Studies tells that, “[elders] hold stories of dreaming, culture, and injustices suffered in the past and keep them safe for youth to understand their place in the world.” In some communities the elders are the only remaining people who speak the local language. Sole survivors to pass on a legacy of words.

The city of Leganes, located on the outskirts of Madrid, is prosaically named after the slime the town was built on and is where suspects of the 2004 Madrid train bombing blew themselves up to evade capture. It is also the only place outside of Melbourne with a street named after Australian rock band AC/DC. In Leganes a group of researchers from Montréal collaborated with doctors from the Autonomous University of Madrid in a human longevity study. They found that elderly who were connected with strong family and social networks had longer ten-year survival. However, merely being part of the family isn’t enough, those people who were respected and who felt they played an important role in family life benefitted most. Blue zones are areas of the world, such as Okinawa in Japan and Icaria in Greece, that boast the highest number of centenarians. These super-elderly have many dietary and exercise habits in common but they are also respected and socially active members of their families and community. Mutual dependence within families increases longevity and decreases depression in the elderly while the young benefit with culture and wisdom.

These days the waiting room chairs stand spaced and the friendly baskets of tattered magazines have disappeared. Patients wait behind masks, absorbed in their phone screens. The silent glide of the door admits a young boy and his grandfather. Hands cup at the sanitation station, clear solution pumped and dutifully spread. The old man sits with the slow deliberation of age and his grandson leans against him, his small hand resting on the man’s arm. The tan of youth as brown as the liver spots of age. Who is looking after who?

I comment to my GP, we’ve known each other since hospital resident days, on the boy and grandfather. He frowns, concerned that the pandemic will leave a generation of anxious, germophobe children in its wake. Psychologists reassure us that if we talk openly and honestly with children, and are not afraid to sometimes say, ‘I don’t know’, they will keep trusting the adults around them and feel safe. Learning to regularly wash our hands, and cough and sneeze into our elbows, are likely long term positive public health measures. Children should not be shielded from the truth, rather they need honest answers and simple, concrete explanations with positive messages. ‘Let’s wash our hands so we can stay safe,’ being better than threatening with the risk of infection. Australia’s 2020 children’s laureate Ursula Dubosarsky captures the essence with her Covid kitten poem:

‘What can we do?’ ‘Well wash your paws,’
Her mother said, ‘And all your claws.’

‘We’ll stay inside a shut the door.
You’ll laugh and hide and read and draw’

And wait until the morning when
Our big old world is right again.

Michelle rings to discuss the latest news, President Trump’s admission to hospital with Covid. Despite deriding and ignoring all scientific advice this elderly man will receive the latest antibody and anti-viral treatments.

Michelle tells me Samuel has created a ‘torch thermometer’ to temperature check each customer entering his Covid-safe shop. Samuel, whose home life is a chaotic mix of itinerates, dogs, cats, processed food and late nights, needs his grandmother more than ever during this pandemic. Not only to decently bury deceased Lego figurines, but for stability, and reassurance, and simple joy. When our grandchildren ask us how we lived now, will we with confidence reply that we walked the pandemic tightrope fairly?

When my son was six months old I bundled him onto the long Sydney to Johannesburg flight to visit his great-grandmother. Each day of our time together she held him in her arms. Weeks later, as the smoke-hazed veld dipped below the wing of the plane circling away from Tambo International airport, I knew I would never see her again. My son grew up with stories of the woman who wrote the “carrot- elf” book and we have a photo of four generations together. At ninety-three my grandmother’s hair was still not grey.


References:

“Aboriginal Cultural Tours: Proudly sharing Adnyamathanha culture with you.” Wilpena Pound Resort, www.wilpenapound.com.au/do/cultural-tours/.

“Australian Birds.” Red capped Robin – Aboriginal information, mdahlem.net, 3 Sept. 2019, mdahlem.net/birds/19/redcrobn_abo.php.

“Strengths of Australian Aboriginal cultural practices in family life and child rearing.” Australian Government: Australian institute of Family Studies, Child Family Community Australia, Sept. 2014, aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/strengths-australian-aboriginal-cultural-practices-fam/theme-3-elderly-family-members.

“Tony Abbott joins Paul Keating in opposing Victoria’s euthanasia bill.” The Guardian, 21 Oct. 2017, www.theguardian.com/society/2017/oct/21/tony-abbott-joins-paul-keating-in-opposing-victorias-euthanasia-bill.

Armitage, Richard, and Laura Nellums. “COVID-19 and the consequences of isolating the elderly.” The Lancet, vol. 5, no. 5, 19 Mar. 2020, doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/S2468-2667(20)30061-X.

Baker-Jordan, Skylar. “Thanks, Mr President, but I asked my grandparents and they don’t want to die for your economy.” The Independent, 24 Mar. 2020.

Dubosarsky, Ursula. Ursula Dubosarsky: Australian writer – Children’s laureate 2020-2021, ursuladubosarsky.squarespace.com/.

Fitzgerald, Anneke, et al. “A new project shows combining childcare and aged care has social and economic benefits.” The Conversation, 3 Sept. 2018.

McArdle, Megan. “Here’s why it won’t work to just isolate the elderly and vulnerable.” The Washington Post, 4 Apr. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/04/03/heres-why-it-wont-work-just-isolate-elderly-vulnerable/.

Schiele, M., Gottschalk, M., & Domschke, K. (2020). The applied implications of epigenetics in anxiety, affective and stress-related disorders – A review and synthesis on psychosocial stress, psychotherapy and prevention. Clinical Psychology Review, 77, 101830.

Torche, F. (2011). The Effect of Maternal Stress on Birth Outcomes: Exploiting a Natural Experiment. Demography, 48(4), 1473-1491.

Wadsworth, Nancy S., and Peter J. Whitehouse. “Future of Intergenerational Programs.” The Encyclopaedia of Elder Care, edited by Eugenia L. Siegler, Elizabeth Capuzeti, and Mathy Mezey, Fourth ed., Prometheus Books, 2004, p. 188.

White, Patrick. Three Uneasy Pieces. First ed., Jonathan Cape, 1988, p. 41.

Wintour, Patrick. “Tony Abbott: some elderly Covid patients could be left to die naturally.” The Guardian, 2 Sept. 2020, www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/sep/01/tony-abbott-some-elderly-covid-patients-could-be-left-to-die-naturally.

Yoshikawa H, Wuermli AJ, Britto PR, et al. Effects of the Global Coronavirus Disease-2019 Pandemic on Early Childhood Development: Short- and Long-Term Risks and Mitigating Program and Policy Actions. J Pediatrics. 2020;223:188-193. doi:10.1016/j.jpeds.2020.05.020

Zunzunegui, M., Béland, F., Sanchez, M. et al. Longevity and relationships with children: the importance of the parental role. BMC Public Health 9, 351 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2458-9-351

Download PDF

Tagged , , ,

The End as We Thought It, Briana Symons

Photo by Josh Hild on Unsplash

My name is Bri. I’ve been sitting at my desk, looking at a blank page for ten minutes as I listen to my neighbour struggle to pull out of the driveway. Every scrape of tyre against pebble resonates in my chest. My neighbour always takes ages to get out of the driveway, but it feels different now. Everything outside feels different now. It feels as if I have to appreciate the little things.

Sometimes it is the little things that matter. Stop to smell the roses and all that. Stop to hear the tyres scrape. Stop to feel your chest inflate. My chest has felt tight for months.

I’m lucky, I know. All tests negative, all scares thankfully false alarms, all my loved ones still alive and well. Not everyone is so lucky. Not everyone is so unlucky. That makes me sound ungrateful. I am grateful, but since that day in late March when Peter Overton told us over dinner that the coronavirus outbreak was at a peak in Australia and yet increasing, I’ve felt unlucky. After we heard the news, my mum turned to me and told me firmly:

‘You cannot get sick, Bri. If you get sick, it is going to be very, very bad. We won’t take any risks.’ In that moment, I felt a different Bri emerge.

*

When I was a kid, I loved apocalyptic books and watching end-of-the-world movies. I wanted to be the heroine who would fight off hordes of zombies single-handedly, scavenge supplies for my family in harsh conditions, maybe even be the one to find the all-important Cure, and protect everyone. It was sort of a morbid desire of mine to die in a heroic and sacrificial manner. Perhaps that’s not the most normal aspiration to have, but I was a weird kid.

One of my favourite apocalypse series was the ‘The Last Survivors’, by Susan Pfeffer. There were three books in the series, ‘Life as we Knew it’, ‘The Dead and the Gone’, and ‘This World We Live In’. The second book was always my favourite, and not just because it taught me that tall buildings trap heat. I was ecstatic when one of the protagonist’s sisters was named Briana, just like me. It was the first time I’d ever shared a character’s name, and her nickname was Bri too. Not only that, but she also had asthma, which I’d had since I was a baby. My mum told me she used to have to stay up through the night with a nebuliser to make sure I could breathe.

I felt like her character was written just for me, answering exactly what I wanted; my own place in this grand adventure to save my family from certain doom. Even though she wasn’t the protagonist, I felt seen. I would ramble on and on about Book Bri at the dinner table to my mum and dad until my older sister got sick of my chatter and would tell me to be quiet.

Book Bri was everything to me. I devoured the book, reading as much as I could each day; and getting caught with a reading torch under my bedsheets at night. I loved that she was like me. She had such strong, unwavering faith, and as I was raised Catholic, I really looked up to that. She had faith in God and her parents, and as children do, I had faith in myself. Even when she didn’t appear in a chapter, I kept reading, just waiting for her return. Maybe she would learn new and exciting ways to survive on her own that she could bring back to look after her family. Maybe she would grow strong and dependable and exciting. Maybe I could learn new things, or become strong, and dependable, and exciting – instead of weird.

Maybe she would find their parents.

Maybe I could make it up to mine.

*

Dear Prof.

I’m writing to let you know that my doctor has advised me that due to my medical condition I am considered to be in a high-risk category to be infected by Covid-19, and the effects of the virus could be exceedingly detrimental to my continued health…

Thank you for your consideration,
Briana Symons

*

I began to self-isolate a week before the official lockdown. Everything up to that point had just seemed like a little bit of an inconvenience, but then suddenly, I had to email my teachers, reorganise my rheumatologist appointment to be via video call, and stay house-bound for weeks on end.

‘Miss Symons here has a case of rheumatoid arthritis in several joints, which was diagnosed as juvenile idiopathic arthritis when she was seven.’ I watched my doctor speak to the medical student observing our video appointment, nodding along as they took down notes like I was something to study. ‘And as such, Briana, you must be careful with this whole pandemic business. People with immunodeficiencies and those on immunosuppressants – like you – are at greater risk of contracting a respiratory infection. Take every precaution.’

My mum was terrified for me. The more we learned about the coronavirus, the scarier it seemed. An acute respiratory disease spread through droplets is high up on the list of worst-case scenarios for those with respiratory diseases like asthma. Adding on to the stress was the fact that I’d just recently increased my immunosuppressant dosage. I felt very unlucky.

It hung like a dark cloud over our family. I was alone in the house for a while until my dad had to start working from home, and every day when my mum and sister came back it was almost a ritual to see them put down their things, throw their disposable masks away, and wash their hands before they even said hello. We all knew, if they brought it home, the disease would hit me very hard. This strange, overwhelming disease was already killing perfectly normal, healthy young people – it would ruin me.

To put it lightly, lockdown was very difficult for me. Even as a person who was used to spending a lot of time locked up in my room watching inane YouTube videos or working on various projects, I felt trapped. The front yard became a haven to me. I watched my dog run along the fence, back and forth, back and forth, as my mind ran with her. Caged in.

*

I want to see my friends. I want to go to class. I want to catch the train. I want to go to my internship. I want to go to the doctors. I want to go shopping. I want to go to the local café. I want to get my hair cut. I want to go outside. I want, I want, I want.

*

Bri died. The very first time I’d ever read about a character just like me, in a genre I loved, and she died. It wasn’t heroic. It wasn’t sacrificial. It was slow, and lonely, and she was scared.

My unwavering faith faltered.

*

When the Covid-19 pandemic had just begun, I remember thinking to myself at least it’s not zombies. But even then, I felt I would be more prepared for zombies than an inescapable illness. I had plans for zombies. If the apocalypse happened, we would have to do this, and this, and this. In every plan, I’d think about what I could do, where I could tell my family to go, who we could team up with, how I could fight if I had to. I’ve never thought of myself as being one of the vulnerable in a group, the one needing protection.

Covid-19 isn’t a zombie apocalypse. In some ways, it’s worse. It’s real. And I can’t fight it. I read an article called ‘COVID-19 in Immunocompromised Hosts: What We Know So Far’, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the word host. Am I just a potential zombie?

*

I want to move. It hurts. I’m hot. I’m cold. I want to play outside. I’m so sweaty. It’s been three days: mum has to go back to work. I want my mum. I can’t breathe. My lungs are heavy. I’m missing school. My knees are so swollen. My eyes ache. I want to read. I feel sick. I want to move. I want my mum.

*

I read about a character who was just like me. Now I feel like I’m just like her. She could only leave her house once a week to go with her siblings to church. I went out once a week to sit in the car while my dad got food. She cried when their apartment was snowed in and her brother told her she couldn’t go to Sunday mass. I nearly screamed the day it became too cold for me to go pick up Wednesday night dinner without suffering aches through the night. She took it better than I did.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I know everyone is suffering. It’s just I feel so trapped. Sunday is the only day I’m outside. I guess God could tell my motives were impure. I’ll pray for His forgiveness.’

She thought to pray for forgiveness on page 238 of 301 of her apocalypse. They found her corpse 51 pages later. I’ve been trying not to count my own pages. I don’t want her death. I feel as if my fingers are holding the next page but are afraid to turn it. I’m afraid to keep reading. With each word I read, with each day that goes by, I fear I am running out of pages.

*

Dear Prof.

Did you know that Covid-19 was declared an official ‘pandemic’ by WHO on the 11th of March 2020, and according to the Australian Medical Association, as of the 2nd of October there have been 34,162,732 confirmed cases worldwide, with 1,020,932 deaths? 27,109 of those confirmed cases have been in Australia. How many of those people do you think were like me?

Hope you’re well,
Briana Symons

*

I get sick quite often, and I have since I was a child. It wasn’t an unusual sight for the school nurses to see me laid up in the sick room while they waited for someone to come pick me up. And some of that, of course, was just me trying to avoid bullies, but most of the time I was just unwell. I think they thought I might have been lying, considering how often I was there. But I just always felt bad. Whether it was a cold, or a stomach-ache caused by anxiety or my volatile medications, I just always felt bad.

I think that’s why I got so into apocalypse books. They were another level of escapism that my dinosaur books just couldn’t provide. It feels strange now to think of the apocalypse as a mode of escape, as the closest thing to one I’ve experienced so far has just trapped me.

Sometimes I feel like the outside world is moving to a place where I won’t be able to reach when this is all over; if there’s even an ‘all over’ anymore. Apparently, a lot of other immunocompromised people felt the same when we all huddled down in our bunkers while the rest of the world kept turning. It’s a funny phrase, isn’t it? ‘The world keeps turning.’ The world will always keep turning, no matter what happens to those who live on it.

There’s a lot of funny things like that popping up with this pandemic. It’s funny that half of the news we get from the outside world is about people who don’t believe in the thing that has us locked away. It’s funny that the requests we’ve made for years about accessibility and working or studying at home have been met with firm refusals and statements of impracticability from the rest of society – until they needed it of course.

It’s funny that an influential person could suggest a ridiculous ‘cure’ to this disease that just so happens to be one of the medications keeping me inside.

*

To whom it may concern,

In a tragic turn of events, my dear sister and dedicated student, Briana Symons, has passed away due to COVID-19. I know she may have been just another student to you, or even a number, but she was the light in my and my family’s life, and I would appreciate her passing being portrayed very seriously and respectfully to ensure your students are aware of how serious this pandemic is.

If you have any questions do not contact her emergency contact which would have been our mother, contact me on 61+

Stay safe,
Tashani Symons

*

The page isn’t blank anymore. I’m still scared. I almost feel like it’s as bad to write on the page as it is to turn it. Have I accelerated my fate by recording it? I guess there’s no way to tell. But still, there are little things to appreciate. My neighbour is long gone, but there’s the tac-tac-tac of my sister’s keyboard, the dog pressing her head against my closed door to beg for dinner, the clink of cutlery as my dad sets the table, my mum sighing as she packs away the console I left on the coffee table. Maybe I’m not one to hold off hordes single-handedly or find the all-important cure, but at least I’m a master at social distancing now.

Download PDF

Tagged , , ,