COVID-19 Series: #7

Sep 16, 2020

Author: Tina Tsironis

2020, for lack of a better metaphor, is an onion. A ridiculously frustrating and repetitive onion, with craploads of layers. Yes – I kind of stole this metaphor from Shrek. Sue me. (Please don’t sue me). Honestly, though – the first few layers, as much as they elicit a sizeable sting, are relatively easy to handle. They consist, after all, of the things we’re sad about losing, but which bring with them a strange sense of novelty – novelty which, at least for me, continues to this day.

Who can say they’re mad about rolling out of bed one minute before a lecture or a workday is due to begin, after all? I’m sure some of you can. But many of us cannot.

It’s when we keep peeling, however, that we unearth the potent layers. They elicit the type of sting that feels more like a burn; immediate and forceful enough to pierce through our tear ducts with such force that we can’t help but remark, to nobody in particular, that we’re not actually crying because we’re sad. God no! It was the onion that made us do it!

But then those layers unravel and fall away, against all odds, and now we’re forced to reckon with the layers within. If the shittiness of this metaphor wasn’t immediately clear to you, it sure as hell should be by now – because there’s no onion-core in the world that can describe the feeling of being forced, against all odds, to reckon with your own mortality.

To her credit, the moment the threat of COVID-19 became clear to her, my friend Kushlani Premachandra confronted the pandemic head-on. She practiced social distancing, stayed home after being stood down from her job as a conference producer for an events company, and tried to throw herself into her first semester of postgrad study.

“Before lockdown, I had a semi-pattern of going to work, coming home, and then on Thursdays and Fridays doing my uni work,” Kush told me during a Zoom call.

During the first month of lockdown, when this routine disintegrated, Kush said she “just felt excited.”

“I wanted to go on leave anyway, so this was kind of an extended holiday, except I’m at home. So I [figured] can spend more time brainstorming and doing all this stuff, and study whenever I want.”

In reality, however, the separation from home and study was non-existent. “I was waking up at midday and staying in my pyjamas all day, and then I didn’t feel motivated to do any work…you just want to be a couch potato.”

By the time we sat down for our chat, Kush had been out of work for four months. With a large part of her role involving interstate travel across Australia, her eventual path back to normality seemed like a long way off. At this point, Kush believed she should be picking up more units as part of her course.

“It felt like this internalised pressure,” she said. I should be spending all my time writing…I should be picking up more units.”

The combination of her disintegrated routine, however, and the continued threat of COVID-19, proved to be a potent motivation-sapper. Amidst this upheaval, Kush’s uncle Sumith, a 55-year-old disability nurse, had also been diagnosed with coronavirus in March.

“I was dropping food off at my parents’ house during the week, and while I was over there my mum got a call from my aunt, and she told my mum my uncle was in hospital.”

Sumith was struck with the virus after covering a colleague’s shift at work. “He was isolating at home from the weekend, then within three days it got worse, and he was in hospital by Wednesday.”

The family had been told that if Sumith didn’t improve, he would soon die. But by the time Kush heard from her aunt again, one week later, her uncle “had not gotten better, but he hadn’t gotten worse.” At this point, Kush and her family had no choice but to settle into a strange pattern of distorted familiarity. If you’re trying to imagine what this feels like, imagine the exhaustingly mundane, subtly unsettling “new normal” we currently experience while rolling out of bed for the 50,000th time this week, and multiply that feeling by thousands. This is a waiting game that no family should have to endure – but sadly, thousands of Australian families have.

Kush, myself and another close friend communicate primarily through a messenger group chat that we bitingly, yet somewhat accurately, have entitled Hyped Up Anxiety Corner. During this early April week, Kush stayed silent about Sumith’s illness, instead treating the chat to videos of Ina Garten making huge cocktails at 9:30AM, and WA premier Mark McGowan struggling to contain his laughter during a widely shared press conference.

Despite the seemingly insurmountable dread she must have been feeling, Kush’s warmth and quirky humour remained on-brand, serving as a wonderful source of comfort for our friend and I, who were both wading through our own isolation-driven feelings of dread. But on Monday the 6th of April, roughly two hours before my workday was due to end, Kush sent the Hyped Up Anxiety Corner a series of messages that appeared to come out of nowhere:

“So

My uncle passed away

The 38th Australian death”.

Sumith had passed away the night before.

“When I got the call from my brother I just remember asking, are you sure?” Kush recalled.

With her mind laser-focused on an assignment she had coming up, at first, all she felt was shock. “I remember it was raining that day and I went and sat outside on the back steps and just got rained on, because I didn’t know what else to do,” she explained.

“It was during stay at home orders, so it’s not like we could go and see my aunt, because she still had to be isolated…the two-week period hadn’t passed for her.”

The impact of Sumith’s passing on his loved-ones and friends, of course, cannot be overstated. Every single tribute I have come across has mentioned his kind heart, friendly nature, generous spirit, or a combination of these these qualities. When Kush spoke to me for this story, she not only echoed these sentiments – she built upon them, painting a vivid picture of a joyful man with a witty nature. Much like this niece.

“Whenever he saw you, he would just envelop you in a giant bearhug,” Kush told me. “He was so lovely, he radiated joy.”

“I remember once, he picked me up with my cousins and we went to the movies and watched Spy Kids or something. Then we had a sleepover and he made sure we had snacks and stuff like that. But I just remember at the movies, 10 minutes in, all of a sudden, we just hear snoring. I look over and he’s fast asleep in his chair, and it was loud.”

“He was snoring in the fricking cinema with his head up,” Kush continued, “and my cousins and I were like “shut up!”, and then he’d wake up and say, “I’m not snoring, I’m not snoring,” and then go back to sleep and repeat the process.”

The weekend before I interviewed my friend, she finally got to visit her aunt. Kush worries about her, as she now lives alone, and is scared to venture outdoors due to the continued spread of COVID-19 – especially because, at the time of our interview, cases had steadily been rising again in Melbourne. The family cat, Benji, provides a slight semblance of normality. The British Shorthair, in fact, is dealing with Sumith’s passing in his own unique way.

“There’s a small table in the living room where my uncle’s urn is located,” Kush told me. “[Benji] never used to go to that table, and when the ashes came home, he was really confused, like ‘what’s this?’ Then I think he realised, and now he sits next to the table.”

Sumith’s grandchildren, and Kush’s nephews, aged one and four, have also been deeply affected by his loss.

“The elder one was very close to my uncle. He will go over to my aunt’s house and hug my uncle’s clothes and cry, and say, ‘I miss papa’”, Kush said. “He loved those kids so much.”

Kush’s own semblance of normality comes from connecting with her friends, her partner Lauren, and her partner’s father, who she lives with. Though this support cannot soften the blow of losing her uncle, alongside the stability of regular life this year, it has certainly flittered sparks of comfort throughout 2020’s otherwise tough, incredibly polluted air.

Kush’s partner Lauren, who is a trauma counsellor, has been especially supportive. “She’s been giving me all the cuddles, asking if I want to be left alone, or if I want her to come and stay with me and just be quiet,” Kush explained. “She’s very intuitive. Even without her training, she’s so caring and loving.”

In an effort to deal with her grief and continued hiatus from work, my friend threw herself into her studies. She told me that when she initially found out about her uncle, she thought, “I’ve gotta push through and keep going and not say anything.”

Ultimately, and understandably, staying quiet proved impossible. “I couldn’t do it, so I had to email my tutor Jacqui [Ross],” Kush said. “She was so understanding. She responded to my email quite quickly, maybe within the hour. She was like “don’t even worry, when you’re able to, if you’re able to, you can come back to do your work.” That was great, because it was one less thing to worry about.”

Kush finished this first unit of her course and progressed to the next with the attitude that it would serve as a useful creative outlet. During our interview, she told me that study “feels like a lot sometimes, but it’s pretty motivating and exciting.”

“I’m trying to work out what to write for my next research assignment, with of everything happening with the world,” she explained. “Not just COVID, but the Black Lives Matter movement, there’s so much happening, that’s been kind of motivating and a bit inspirational, and I can use what’s happening and tie it into my fiction piece and the current climate.”

A few weeks after our interview, however, Kush let me know that she had made the decision to take a leave of absence from her studies, due to her mental health struggles. The very fact that she momentarily tried to push through her pain in order to learn and practice her craft is admirable. But ultimately, the kindness and honesty of self that Kush has exercised, by confronting her pain and grief head-on, and pausing her creative endeavours, is far more inspiring.

In fact, Kush extends this kindness to others, stressing that, “most of us have never lived through a pandemic or anything like this, so you’re allowed to be sad.”

“You might be missing a friend’s birthday, an event that might feel small,” she said. “You’ve got to be kind to yourself, but also realise that even if you’re a young, healthy person, you’ve still got to think about your neighbours and the people around you.”

Kush does not want us to forget that all the cases, and all the deaths that have now started happening again, are completely avoidable.

“My cousin [Sumith’s daughter] was supposed to have her wedding the week of my uncle’s funeral. My uncle was 55, he did not need to die. He was called into work because [a colleague] was unable to come in. He wasn’t supposed to be working. These are completely avoidable deaths. The better we all are together, contributing to the bigger picture, the easier it’ll be trying to go back to the norm.”

While returning to the norm won’t happen for a while yet, especially for us Melburnians, Kush suggested that immersing ourselves in relaxing, pressure-free hobbies can ease the blow of our continued lockdown. Her hobby of choice? Quilting.

“I have become my mother. She made me a quilt and so I decided I wanted to make one too. She gives me little tips, telling me “no, not like that,” and I’m all like ‘thanks mum’”, Kush told me, mimicking the pouty, self-deprecating tone of a child who has just been chided – the exact type of voice that I look forward to hearing in person eventually. Hopefully by the end of this year.

“I’ll chuck something on Netflix,” Kush says, “and start sewing for a couple of hours, and it feels really productive – like, look what I’ve accomplished!”

When our eventual return to normality does come, its path will be punctured with strangeness and sadness for many of us, and continued grief and anxiety for others.

Facing these feelings now, as they’re brimming above the surface, is crucial. Face them while flicking on Netflix and weaving needle through fabric, or face them while penning stories featuring shitty onion metaphors – the specifics don’t necessarily matter. Doing so won’t completely alleviate the blow that is 2020, yet it will provide us with the opportunity to take a pause.

So, before we embark on this punctured path to normality, join me in taking a pause. Shut your mouth, take a few deep breaths, and enjoy this brief moment of silence. Remind yourself of all that you’ve accomplished, simply by enduring the last nine months – strangely and sadly, sure, but hopefully with the mortality of others front of mind.

About Tina Tsironis

Tina is the 2020 editor of SWINE Magazine. If being a certified hot sauce/BoJack Horseman enthusiast was a legitimate thing, she would be it. When she’s not obsessing over intense existential cartoons and spicy condiments, Tina is a Masters of Writing student and a marketing specialist/copywriter for a software company. She currently lives in Hawthorn with her partner, and no pets . She wishes there were pets.