Smiling at cats in a Covid world

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During this lockdown I’ve tried to take my four year old daughter to the local cricket ground every day. Once there we both enjoy it. A bit of fresh air and sunshine are very effective treatments for the sense of frustration and brain fog that continual working from home brings.

It’s beautiful there, surrounded by trees leading into the forest. I’ve watched them turn from bare to full green blossom in the last month. It’s in these moments that I’m grateful that my daughter and I have each other. The rather weighty inconvenience of trying to work during lockdown with a young child are quickly whisked away by the afternoon breeze, the purity of the company and the serenity of the environment.

On one particular afternoon I was reminded of how many sad stories this Covid crisis must have created. One of the small benches on the edge of the field was taken by an old man. He sat on his own. It was a bench we’d usually sit at when we went to the field. We obviously avoided him and the bench and went about our playful business. We eventually sat on a bench on the other side of the field. After a while I noticed the old man get up. With his walking stick he slowly ambled his way across the field toward the main road, walking past a small boy playing ball with his mom. Did I note a smile and a nod from him to them? An old lonely man out for a small drop of society and company.

I couldn’t help but imagine him making his way home to a quiet room where he lived alone. Perhaps a wife long passed. No kids or grandkids visiting. No lazy late afternoons in the pub, chatting to his few fellow old regulars, no making some chit chat with the bar ladies. Nothing. Nothing but an old man on his own.

I had work to do, and we made our way home. Together.

A couple of weeks ago our next door neighbor explained to my wife that her mother was close to 90, and lived in a nursing home with a dementia condition. Her mother kept asking why she wasn’t visiting, with no understanding of what was going on. That particular situation is close to home for me, so I’ve thought about it more than once. An old woman in a home, perhaps not knowing anything other than the light that was her daughter. That light suddenly not there anymore. Where is my daughter? I imagine her asking the nursing staff, with no comprehension of their answers.

One afternoon I walked slowly up to the corner shop for milk. There’s something lonely about a windy Saturday that seems to fill your mind and soul with a sense of desolation. As I walked I stared over the rooftops at the trees rustling. Even the birds seem to stay away. Not a raven or pigeon in sight. A beer can rolled down the street.

I walked past a man standing well away from a front door where a very old woman looked out. As he said something his hand movements seemed apologetic. And the distance he kept suggested a desire to not be obtrusive. I only caught a few words from the old woman as I walked. “I’m 85. My husband is 86, and he has a heart condition.” There was a quiet desperation on her face. A morbid fear of the outside world had clearly overtaken her.

Old and young alike. Putting my child in front of Netflix while my wife and I try to get work done is more sad than frustrating for me. What must she be making of this? Abruptly dragged from her preschool where she loved friends and teachers alike. She’s a single child. No interaction with kids for a month now. We try our best, but I as I watch her re-create Paw Patrol episodes with small figurines on the living room mat, I want to shake my fist at the world. There’s a tragedy even in this.

Back in South Africa I read a story about a young man shot in the leg by police. It was in a township. The story went that he was stealing food one night for his family. I once again imagined a very possible scenario. Perhaps he was a waiter in a Sandton restaurant. Perhaps that meager income was all that his family relied on. With the lockdown his income was suddenly brought to an abrupt halt. Within days his family of 5 in their shack starving. Desperate. What was he to do? Now he’ll never walk again.

Finally something has come along and affected us all, wherever we may be in the world. And instead of bringing us together, once again humans have found that within the crisis of the virus, we still have to argue among ourselves. And while I watch with disdain as this virus forces the ugly side of human nature play itself out in its usual style, looking for scapegoats, laying the blame, and ramping up politics, I’m reminded of all the millions of stories not making it into newspapers and TV news. Maybe not even newspaper worthy, but tragic in their own sense.

Some tragedies don’t make headlines. Some rapid declines don’t make the front page of the financial section. And while some work themselves into a frenzy about governments, economies, politics, someone else sits alone at home. Hearing the window blinds clink against the window in the breeze. Watching silently yet again as the day darkens into night. Waiting for the phone to ring.

I myself have much to be dejected about. My beloved football team were marching towards a title I thought would never happen. That got stopped in its tracks. Worse than this, my father was set to visit at the end of April. I’d been looking forward to it for months. I had it all planned out. The walks we would take, the pubs we would visit in between. This morning I went for one of the walks I would have done with him. And of course, it was a beautiful morning. The sun slanted through the trees of the forest and all I heard was the sound of birds. The kind of morning where one finds it hard to believe that bad people or bad events may indeed exist in the world. What a time of year this is. The morning seemed to mock me in a strange way as I walked alone.

Still, what can we do? One can still enjoy the sun rising. Birds singing during a calm dusk. Flowers opening as the seasons change. They can’t take the spring from us. Or out of us.

I was in the queue outside at Waitrose, wearing shorts for the first time this spring and the gentle breeze reminded me of a Mediterranean beach, with that undercurrent of cold in it. Seeming to tell you that you are in fact still in the cold continent of Europe. Every now and then a pleasant burst of greeting pierced the quiet. Green shoots were showing on the trees. A fat ginger cat sauntered up to the blonde woman in front of me. Two metres away, of course. She was pleased to see it and played with it. She watched as it came to me. She smiled. We smiled at each other, and shared a pleasant word about it. I gazed back to the sky and let the sun wash my face. The world keeps turning. And even in strange times, spring still comes around, and we can still smile at cats. And each other.

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