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The Year of Living Distantly: A Letter to My Mum

Otto English pens some thoughts to his 89-year-old mother, who he visited this week in the Coronavirus chaos.

A Letter to My Mum

Otto English pens some thoughts to his 89-year-old mother, who he visited this week in the Coronavirus chaos.

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Dear Mum,

It feels odd writing to you, especially since I’ve seen you so recently. We used to write to each other all the time didn’t we? Or mostly you’d write to me. All through my time at university and even in those early years in London when we didn’t use email. You’d cut out clips from papers that you thought might interest me. News stories, things about theatre or life and you’d post them to me and write a note, encouraging me or just telling me that you loved me.

I don’t think I thanked you much, or certainly not enough, for any of it. So thank you Mum. In a way, I appreciate it more now, through the passage of time, than I did back then.

You wouldn’t believe what’s going on out there. As you were so very fond of saying, “the world has gone mad”. The gymnastics involved in getting just those basic things you needed was extraordinary. It reminded me of your stories of childhood wartime rationing. That time you saw some bananas in a shop window and asked the man if you could have one and he said you couldn’t, so you grabbed them anyway and ran off – only to find, once you’d got round the corner, that they were plastic. You were a great storyteller and you loved telling that story as much as we loved hearing it.

Aldi had completely sold out of washing detergent so I went to the superstore on the way up to see you and it was exactly the same thing. Empty shelves apart, weirdly, from cauliflowers and some bags of Brussels sprouts. In among the face masks and bad-tempered people grabbing things, there was a slightly bewildered looking older woman with an empty basket, lost in it all. I smiled at her and made a light-hearted comment – the kind you might have made – but she was too preoccupied to acknowledge it or perhaps didn’t hear me.

In all the chaos, it’s easy to forget that ordinary lives are going on. People are still worrying about other stuff, struggling with loneliness or old age; still getting ill with other things, still experiencing grief, still falling in and out of love, still having babies, still trying to carry on with life. There’s just this other thing now, hanging above us all.

It’s a bit like those Bruegel paintings, in which great events are unfolding; crucifixions and holy births – but life is continuing regardless and people, like that bewildered looking woman with the shopping basket, are lost in the crowd.

At the check-out, my self-satisfaction came crashing down.

“It’s no more than two items of each product,” the man said and I stared into my trolley and saw that I’d placed 10 cartons of apple juice and a similar number of yoghurt pots there. 

“I get that, but this is different,” I said. “You don’t understand, my Mum has Alzheimer’s and I have to get these things. I’ve driven up from London and I don’t know when I might be able to come again.”

In my head, this wasn’t me panic-buying because it’s the stuff I always get you, but he was having none of it. “It’s no more than two items,” the man repeated.

“But please listen,” I said – and I could feel my voice breaking – “these things aren’t running out and, if London gets shut down, or the care home, or if I get sick, I won’t be able to come again.” I stopped. “My Mum is stuck in bed. I have to get this stuff for her.”

“I haven’t seen it,” he whispered.

You were on brighter form than usual. You stared at me intently and randomly said my sister’s name and even laughed when I talked about the world outside and those cauliflowers. You’ve missed so much. The children growing up; the birthdays and big events. You wouldn’t believe what has gone on in the ‘big bad world’ in the years you’ve lain beneath that duvet; and now all this.

I played some music off the little speaker I’d bought. Some of the old stuff we used to listen to growing up at home. Moon River and Bing Crosby and then Jimmy Durante popped up in the playlist started singing “I’ll be seeing you, in all the old familiar places”.

Sometime later, I kissed you goodbye and half-said, half-sang said “I’ll be seeing you” not knowing, of course, when that will be. I walked out into the empty car park and drove away.

Down the road and into town I passed people, lost in their own dramas, struggling under the twin loads of their shopping and their fears. As I pulled onto the motorway, the traffic was stationary. There had been an accident and soon yellow response vehicles were zipping down the emergency lane to the scene.

Eventually, we moved and exasperated drivers jostled to get past the crash. An elderly man had gone into the barrier and was being attended to by paramedics in his driver’s seat. His wife looked on in quiet desperation as the throng of traffic rushed past, indifferent to this human tragedy, playing out on the hard shoulder. 

You were always so good at noticing the small stuff Mum; the incidents of life and the people in it. Empathy poured from you, people mattered to you, even those you didn’t know. You may be lost beneath that bedding now, as the world keeps turning and all the drama with it, but you taught me that lesson, along with so much else, both big and small. 

So I just wanted to thank you and reassure you (and more myself), that I’ll be seeing you very soon. 

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