Covid 19 – You Can’t Smile Alone

At the hospital, the lady was crying for her mother. She was in her early 80’s. The nurses thought it was a touch of dementia. But it wasn’t! Her mother was still alive, she was 103, and she came to the hospital to cradle and comfort her child.

Moments ago on Radio 4, we shared a similar sadness. The mother is 78 and her daughter in her 40’s – but it is the daughter who is confused and the mother who visits her in the care home, helplessly talking through the window to the daughter she cannot hold and comfort. “She doesn’t understand,” said the mother, “and she is bewildered, can’t understand why I don’t come in to be near her, to sit with her as I always used to.”

Since Covid-19 started sweeping our world we have seen these loving sadnesses – people unable to visit or be visited, lonely for a touch or hug, not being able to understand our changed world. The care and nursing home is its own small world by its nature, but visiting family and friends bring life, a glimpse of the normal everyday, a smile for everyone in the lounge.

So good to see lovely people adopt a whole lounge as their own when they come to visit a loved one, to be aware of the stories the other people have to tell, to offer them the friendliness of a visit, too.

As chaplain to hospital and care/nursing homes, I would see that pleasantness time and again. Someone would walk into the lounge and the people’s faces would light up – it was their friend and they knew they would have pleasant moments to share.

Part of our pandemic loneliness is that these moments are not so available now and our general loneliness, of living or being alone, unable to visit or be visited, not able to see the smile in people’s eyes, to enjoy the way hands move when people are telling a story. “A small pain in my back/leg/arm” they will say and reach to touch that part of them as though we didn’t know where they were! I love those moments. Best are feet or toes as they bend to touch them or raise them so we can see! They are acting out the story, lost in the moment of memory or actuality as they speak.

One of the many features of life in Italy I enjoyed when living there was the drama of conversation: the tones of voice, the wonderful array of signs and gestures, the guessing what was being said without hearing the words. The elderly have a similar gift of wanting to tell us a story – and will act it for us.

But the stories aren’t being told now. The elderly or infirm are in quiet rooms and lounges all day. The staff might be able to make time for a little chat – but the nursing and care are constant needs and they are busy.

A privilege I loved at the hospital or in homes was having people tell me a story. I wanted to share their memories. Same in the lovely hours of visiting people’s homes. I always wanted to listen to the richness hidden in the lives of people. Everyone has a story. What a privilege to hear it or tell it. But the pandemic is taking away the stories of our elderly and infirm, our children, parents and grandparents, so lonely as well as alone.

A mother of 103 cradles and comforts her 81-year-old daughter . . . . A fully alive 78-year-old lady longs to cradle and comfort her child with learning disabilities, out of reach, through a window . . . . The last stories of our elderly fade away in the loneliness of having to be alone, unable to meet, chat or smile. You can’t smile alone. Other people awaken your smiles, and you awaken theirs.

Our young people, too, are hurt – and especially our first-year university students. Their exams were badly assessed, the results confusing, university entrance delayed or refused. Now they are there what poor quality of study, teaching, locked-down accommodation seem to be theirs.

They are 18, full of life and hopes and ambition, excitement as the teen years finish and the mature years beckon – but to what? The young people looking for work, university beyond their dreams, share the same disappointment of lives without vision.

What can we offer our young people that is worthwhile and can be fulfilled? We give them blame and criticism, hooligans not observing social distance, at risk of passing on to the frail and elderly a disease we cannot understand. Do we want to imprison our students in their accommodation, ignore the young people pleading for employment and the dignity of earning a living? Were you imprisoned, hopeless, when you were 18?

The government is bewildered and helpless, hardly knows what to do. Sometimes the speakers sound like ventriloquist’s dolls – but who writes the scripts? You don’t blame the doll if the words are dead, uninspiring – you blame the ventriloquists, the pullers of strings. Who are they? The faceless ones and we don’t trust their anonymous influence. Do they suffer what the people suffer?

Their political dolls and dummies do not smile or laugh. There is no joy in our government, either side. Blame and excuse are not bringing healing. We need hope and healing, we need appreciation of our elderly and our young, and our middle-aged must give it; in their maturity and relative strength they are looking after our country. Let them be heard as real voices, actual lives, bearing the burden of looking after the elderly, guiding the young, not simply living in fear, speaking out as certain parts of the country are speaking: “Do not ignore us, see us as we see each other,” they plead.

Everyone should feel cared about.

Fr John

(18th October 2020)

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