A week into March my mother, Denise, texted to say she was back in hospital. It wasn’t a surprise: she’d been in and out for months, caught in an exhausting and often traumatic cycle of release and relapse as her cancer worsened. This time it was different. The week before she’d been admitted twice as a result of intestinal blockages caused by tumours and adhesions from previous surgeries. She was now so weak it was obvious things could not go on as they were. The next day doctors told her they were going to discontinue treatment. There was nothing left to be done.
Because she had been sick for so long, and had survived so many crises already, it was difficult to believe we were finally at the end.
“She’s got better before, perhaps she will again,” my older daughter said when I explained the situation to her that evening.
“Not this time,” I replied.
Although she was not afraid of dying, in the eight years since her diagnosis my mother had fought hard to stay alive, continuing to work and travel and engage with friends and colleagues. But now that there was no longer any way of delaying the inevitable, she just wanted to be with the people she loved. And so, as we waited for a bed to be arranged for her at the hospice, I spent many hours at the hospital, driving back and forth between Marrickville and Randwick once or twice a day.
They were unsettling days. Around the world Covid-19 was spreading fast and listening to the radio in the car, or scanning social media at home, it was impossible not to feel as if the world had stepped off a precipice. In Europe and elsewhere, infections and deaths were rising exponentially, and the scale of the economic fallout was growing worse by the moment. On the morning she was admitted to hospital the FTSE dropped by an unprecedented 7.8%; simultaneousl the Saudis cut the price of oil, triggering a global economic shock. Meanwhile, here in Australia, Scott Morrison stumbled through press conferences in which he offered hopelessly contradictory advice that suggested he had little to no idea of how to proceed.
We discussed all of this in those final days in the hospital. But although she was still present intellectually, and lucid despite the morphine, it was obvious her world was contracting. And as it did we talked less about politics and events, and more about friends and family, about values, about her life and mine. When my father was dying I thought about recording an interview with him about our family history but it never happened, mostly because I knew he would hate the idea. One afternoon at the hospital I asked my mother whether she would let me do something similar with her. She wasn’t interested. “If you want to know about family history you need to ask your cousin Amanda,” she said. “She knows it all much better than me.” I suspect what she really meant was none of that really mattered to her any more.
Instead we talked about her life, the things that had shaped it. My mother grew up in Maroubra and attended Brigidine college in Randwick. After finishing school she studied at the University of Sydney, where she was part of an unusually talented cohort. She knew Les Murray (30 years later my grandfather was still scandalised by the fact that the one time they met Les was wearing thongs), and was friendly with Clive James and the novelist Madeleine St John, who later based the character of Lisa in The Women in Black on their mutual friend Colleen. At 20 she met my father, 10 years her senior and recently returned from Oxford. When he took a position in Adelaide she followed him and they married in secret; my grandfather was so angry when he found out he tried to have the marriage annulled.
Later my grandparents would move to Adelaide as well, but her relationship with them was always complex. Shortly after my mother’s younger brother Richard was born, my grandmother suffered an embolism in her leg, a medical catastrophe from which she never recovered. For the rest of her life she walked with a stick, and was in constant agony from the swelling in her lower leg and foot.
In the aftermath of the embolism my grandmother began to drink heavily, and continued to do so right through my mother’s childhood and adolescence. Finally, around the time I was born, she was admitted to Chelmsford hospital, where she underwent several weeks of deep sleep therapy. These days Chelmsford’s name is synonymous with death and disaster, but my grandmother’s time there was an unexpected success, and she emerged sober and remained that way until my grandfather died 25 years later.
Growing up, I was always acutely aware of my grandmother’s physical vulnerability; only later did I recognise the anger and frustration that had shaped her life. But while I never doubted she loved me, my mother’s relationship with her was much more difficult, and far less resolved. Although we had talked about it before, she said in those last weeks that my grandmother’s alcoholism meant she arrived in adulthood without any real model for how to be a parent. And so, when I was born (followed, relatively quickly, by my three brothers) she found she had to learn to be a mother, a process she found far harder than she had expected, but ultimately transformative.
Being a parent also taught her to be more disciplined. “Having kids forced me to grow up,” she often said. She started her working life as a high school teacher (on two-thirds of the pay of her male colleagues because she was married), before taking up a position as a teacher-librarian because she could fit it around minding me and my brothers. She then went on to teach librarian studies at teachers’ college. By the time I was in high school she was dean of her faculty; by the time I was in university she was a vice-chancellor and a leading figure in Australian higher education.
These achievements didn’t happen by accident. She was formidably intelligent, and possessed a remarkable ability to synthesise vast amounts of information and think strategically, as well as having a passionate belief in the importance of equity and education. She also worked harder than anybody I have ever met, and even in retirement was working more than most people do when full time. Less than a month before she died and already on high doses of morphine, she attended an all-day board meeting from her hospital bed. When I asked her how it had gone she told me it was fine except that they’d made her have a brain scan in the middle of it.
I suspect that for many of us, those first weeks of the pandemic already seem like a strange and vivid dream. Not just because of the confusion and the panic, but because of the eerie, almost uncanny normality of it all. One afternoon on the way home from the hospital I bought a coffee and sat outside a cafe near my home. The global death toll had just passed 6,000 and South Africa had announced it was closing its borders. Yet sitting there, in the sun, so tired I could barely think, there was no sign of any of that. Instead it felt like there was a tsunami heading toward us, a disaster we could see approaching and knew we could not outrun, but which had yet to strike. And, as the world began to buckle and shift, it had become harder to ignore the fault lines running through our society. Many of these had been apparent for some time: the corrosiveness of a culture that privileges self-interest and material wealth over community and sustainability, the growing alienation and anxiety caused by economic precarity and technology, the steady erosion of the civic institutions that sustain our lives. But the looming catastrophe had thrown them into even starker relief. One night after I left the hospital I went to the supermarket to buy some milk. It was raining outside and the supermarket was crowded, its shelves stripped bare of pasta, tinned food and toilet paper. I remember standing by the checkouts and watching the people around me, the way they kept their eyes down, avoiding each other’s gaze, suddenly aware how fragile this all was, how easily it could go down.
Eventually a place for my mother became available at the hospice. Despite its finality, we thought this was a good thing: although she had been comfortable and felt safe in the hospital, she needed specialised palliative care. But when we arrived we discovered the hospice had just instituted new rules restricting each patient to one visitor a day, with each visit limited to a maximum of 15 minutes.
That first morning we argued our way past reception but that evening the staff told us that while they weren’t going to enforce the time limit, we couldn’t have more than one person in the room at once. When we tried to abide by that rule by doing shifts in her room, the nurses made it clear they weren’t happy about us sitting in the hospice cafe while we were waiting, and later that day one of us overheard a doctor telling nurses it was time to start enforcing the 15-minute rule. Since my mother was already confused and distressed, this was not a situation any of us could countenance.
The rolling uncertainty about our ability to care for her as we needed to took its toll on all of us but it was hardest for my stepfather, Bruce. Already exhausted by months of grief and worry, he was extremely concerned that the hospice might ban us altogether, and terrified she would be alone when she needed us most.
There were other problems as well. My brother David had flown up from Adelaide the week before, but with each new day the travel situation became more and more uncertain, as countries around the world banned international arrivals and airlines declared bankruptcy. On my mother’s third day in the hospice, Tasmania announced it was closing its borders and the other states and territories announced they were considering similar restrictions; that same day the palliative care doctor told us that despite the fact she was only intermittently conscious she might survive another week or even two. Faced with the prospect of being unable to get home, David elected to stay, but it wasn’t an easy decision. The next day I had a similar conversation with my uncle Richard, who lives outside Gympie in Queensland. He’d spoken to my mother on the phone the week before and wanted to see her one last time, but was now worried about the risk of infection if he got on a plane. I told him that even if he came she probably wouldn’t know he was there. He didn’t get to speak to her again.
My mother died the next morning. Only 11 days had passed since she had been admitted that last time but it already seemed like forever, or no time at all. After we tidied her room I went home to see my partner, Mardi, but once I was there I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t want to be still but it was too hot to go walking, and the thought of doing anything normal seemed not just surreal, but somehow wrong. I am familiar with the way loss dislocates us: the day after my father died I went to my friend Malcolm’s 50th birthday party. I realise now I was still in shock, deranged by grief, that although I talked and laughed, I was somehow outside myself, not really there.
This was not quite like that. Instead it seemed as if she wasn’t gone at all, as if the world had simply stopped and she was still out there somewhere. It’s possible this was partly because we had all been grieving for so long already: as a friend said a few weeks later, often the pain of losing somebody begins long before they actually die. Perhaps it was also because there had been so many crises along the way, so many times we had prepared ourselves for her to be gone only to have her recover against the odds. After the worst thing has almost happened so often, sometimes it no longer feels like the worst thing.
But it was more than that. As I tried to make sense of her sudden absence the world was unravelling. On the day after she died, still numb with grief, I watched images of army trucks transporting the dead to mass graves in Italy and Spain, while here in Australia governments announced school closures and the police ordered swimmers off Bondi beach. Every hour, every minute, brought some new and usually terrifying development. In the face of all that my private grief seemed if not irrelevant then somehow incommensurable, impossible to parse or process.
Perhaps it would have helped if we’d been able to hold some kind of ceremony for her. But with funerals effectively banned, and my brother David and stepsister, Laura, back in South Australia with the borders closed, that was not possible. Even seeing my stepfather, now alone in their apartment, was incredibly fraught: although we had decided early on that his need for company and comfort outweighed the risk of infection, every visit to him was charged with the knowledge that we were breaching the rules.
A psychologist friend of mine talks about the idea of frozen grief, a phenomenon that occurs when people are denied the normal communal rituals associated with grieving, meaning that their feelings cannot be expressed or processed. And indeed, as the weeks passed, I found myself lost in a hinterland of loss, a strange no man’s land I could not seem to escape. In the evenings, after we had finished trying to work and school our kids, my partner and I would walk by the Cooks River. By the time we got there it was always dark, the streets deserted; often it felt as though we were the only people left in the world.
Grief is always isolating. It cuts us off from the world, confines us in ourselves. Yet, as I watched the people I know on social media and elsewhere trying to express the confusion they felt at being pitched into a world where they were suddenly vulnerable and alone, it was hard not to wonder whether this wasn’t also a kind of frozen grief. Like the climate crisis the pandemic has altered time, making it elastic, permeable, destabilising our futures and erasing the boundaries between past and present. Our senses of loss and isolation, of confusion and fear, are themselves forms of grief, often inchoate and inexpressible, but real, and profound.
I want to write what my mother meant to me, about the way her honesty and her belief that the world can be a better place has shaped my life. I want to write about my love for her. But I don’t know how, not yet. Because like all of us I feel undone, unmade, as if time has been suspended and the world I know is gone. As if I am falling, and have not yet hit the ground.
• This essay will be part of the anthology Fire, Flood and Plague, edited by Sophie Cunningham and published by Penguin Random House in December