COVID-19’s Collateral Damage

I’d like to blame Daniel Andrews for killing my Mum, whom we buried on Tuesday, but that wouldn’t be fair. She was 93 when I found her at the end of her bed, dead and cold but a lady to the end, or so I imagine from the drape of her limbs on the carpet, one arm frozen in what I take to have been a last-breath effort to pull down to a modest knee the hem of her dressing gown. A recent history of what the doctors called ‘mini-strokes’, a heart given to flutters, especially if the Bulldogs were in a thriller, and blood pressure that required the constant tweaking of medications to raise or lower it — no actuary would have said she had much time left, nor would any bookie have offered any but the longest odds on her replicating her own mother’s 99 years and dying just days short of the anticipated telegram from Buckingham Palace.

No, Premier Andrews didn’t kill Billie Elizabeth, but he’s not off the hook for hastening the inevitable.

It was the lockdown that did for her, as far as I can see and saw. She withered mentally and physically in the isolation of her home. In January, before the China virus hit and panic swept any hope of a rational response before it, she’d been her usual bright self, always keen to get her hair done, to be ferried to Coles or take in the pensioners’ matinees at the Sun Theatre in Yarraville.

There was the local RSL, too, where they did a full roast dinner for $18 that was almost as good as the ones she produced before the legacy of an earlier lifetime in fashionably uncomfortable shoes ruined her feet and made extended spells at countertop or stove an ordeal. Are you going to have a punt, Mum, I’d ask her as the waitresses cleared the table? They knew her well at the RSL and some still remembered Dad, a stalwart member and perennial volunteer who died in 2012. And, yes, she was always up for a flutter on the penny pokies — an excuse, as I always saw it, to natter with the other old girls as they pushed the buttons and lamented how the Queen of the Nile’s four Magic Pyramids hadn’t come up for quite a while. One day they did, and it almost killed her. I heard a gasping cry from across the gaming room and saw the players to either side leap from their seats to assist. It wasn’t a heart attack but a $7000 jackpot that caught her breath. We laughed as I drove her home about the fuss she prompted, and I had a particular chuckle when she observed that plying a woman in suspected cardiac arrest with a cup of coffee probably wasn’t a recognised medical protocol.

Well the RSL was shut by government edict, the local library too. The Sun darkened its screens for the duration, and her weekly lunch date at the golf club with “Mary from Poland”, Connie and Alma had to end as well. On the day Victoria’s first lockdown began I shared a pot of tea in her front room and listened as she recommended Barrow’s Boys, an account of British explorers’ derring-do in the early 19th century. She was halfway through the book and loving it.

When I found her on Tuesday, that book was by the bed but her bookmark had barely advanced. To put it simply, even as her heart continued to beat, she ran out, if not of life itself, certainly of the zest she had always brought to it.

The mini-strokes, meanwhile, began and kept coming, so there were frequent trips to scanning labs for surveys of the damage done. Then home to the lonely silence of the lockdowns. Her only permitted visitors, apart from me, were the magpies who carolled by the door for their two or three handouts of mince per day. She’d been feeding them for generations and joked that they were like the government: pay your taxes and you won’t be penalised; feed the maggies and you won’t be pecked come swooping season.

The medical problems never wore her down, even as clusters of rupturing brain cells began to affect her memory.  Sometimes she would refer to the Prime Minister as “Mr Fraser” and, shortly before the end, noted that she would have to pay “the Gas & Fuel” for the latest power bills. It was worrying to hear these little lapses, moreso when she saw the truth about herself and said “I’m losing my mind, I think”.

And the truth is that she was losing her wits, that mental decline accelerated by the lockdown. Mum’s was a ferociously intelligent mind, and often a combative one. Forced to leave school at 12 to help her own widowed mother pay the bills, she retired at 60 after decades of secretarial bookkeeping, immediately enrolled in university and aced an English/History degree, with a particular emphasis on the Regency. A Sandhurst lecturer would have been hard pressed to better her in any discussion of Waterloo.

Yet day by day I watched that intelligence and acuity wither. I’d stop by most afternoons  just to check everything was OK and, increasingly, find her sound asleep in the comfy chair. She was, she said, thoroughly bored, and it showed as each featureless day in solitary confinement melded into the next. What day is it, she would ask? Not that it mattered because, when Victoria entered its second and current lockdown, all days became the grey same. I’d bought a roast, a half leg of lamb, to cook and take over with the spuds and all the fixings, but the 8pm curfew and no-visitors rule made its delivery and my return to my own home problematic.

“I’ve lived too long,” she told me the week before she died, adding that she just wanted “to be with Dad.” It hammered the heart to hear the last residue of vitality ebbing away like that.

Could those final, locked-down months have been made less of a burden, reduced their erosive impact on a vulnerable mind? It seems to me they could. How hard would it have been for Andrews & Co., to have encouraged COVID-free volunteers to stop by the homes of the elderly and see how they were doing? How difficult to dilute the Premier’s daily press conference threats of fines and dire punishments with some considerate words for those whose will to live was being demolished by loneliness?

Daniel Andrews didn’t kill my Mum, that I’ll concede. But never will I forgive him for making her last days a wasteland behind drawn curtains, where a mind was, quite literally, bored to death.

16 thoughts on “COVID-19’s Collateral Damage

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    So sorry that your mother has passed away in such circumstances, Roger.

  • ianl says:

    > ” … those whose will to live was being demolished by loneliness”

    So much pain and anguish, Roger. So sad.

    Yet there are still quite a few loud voices insisting this is the way to national recovery. Lock up the 70+ cohorts, no visitors, no out-of-house activity, utter withering sacrificial loneliness, to let the younger cohorts rejoin life outside. For a brief time a few weeks ago, Boris Johnson (UK) pushed the barrow of locking up the 50+ cohorts – to be sure, to be sure. This notion had a density several times greater than lead, to everyone’s surprise.

  • Citizen Kane says:

    If I can be so presumptuous as to detect a full, often challenging and authentic life in Billie Elizabeth and insight into the compassion she embodied through the written word of her son in which it is so evident. May her legacy live on.

  • March says:

    Thanks for sharing Roger, sorry to hear. No doubt in my mind though that she’s gone to a place Dan Andrews will never be able to visit.

  • Lewis P Buckingham says:

    …..been for Andrews & Co., to have encouraged COVID-free volunteers to stop by the homes of the elderly and see how they were doing?’
    Now if aged care were ARL then visitors would be tested every three days given ppe and let loose.
    Where not infected, aged from lock down institutions would be isolated in 5 star accommodation, where able,and looked after by home care.
    As long as this was not under the auspices of the Victorian administration.
    One close to me, on NDIS has four services a day, otherwise she would be in aged care.
    Aged care simply does not attract the benefits of the younger cohort in the NDIS.
    Love always means suffering because if one does not love, nothing has intrinsic worth.
    Slowly losing one’s mother is painful but necessary, as a mother’s pain on losing a son is so much harder to bear for her.
    Visiting my own mother was an exercise in finding some of her innate self.
    She too was smart,topped Wales in the Junior Oxford, went on to Manchester Uni, was in Intelligence during WW2, ‘There are some things that can never be told’.Classics background.
    On one occasion, when diagnosed with ‘atypical dementia’ I asked her ‘Do you know who I am?’
    With a broad smile she answered ‘Of course I do’, avoid using my name.
    Towards the end she let me into a secret ‘ I’m dying, but, you know,I am a Catholic, its not the end’.
    Actually knowing people close to us who have worked hard on national or worthwhile causes, such as raising us, makes the Victorian administration such a sad failure in that respect.
    Having had to watch the premier for so long recently, as he outlines what he is doing and answers everyone questions, has driven me to some insight.
    He has no real insight into what he is doing.
    The things he touches turn to dross.
    The other day he realised his mother was on the front line vulnerable age and told us.
    As such he showed his ‘inner child’.
    He finally ‘got’ the connection between putting key competents into quarantine control and the life of the vulnerable.
    He acts as if making some direction, especially in quarantine, crowd behavior or policing, that ‘all will be well’, yet fails to verify.
    He can’t be across everything, yet chooses his key functionaries in his own mould.
    Dysfunction radiates through administration.
    In the latest irony, TikTok, the darling of the Chinese CP, has started replacing ‘The Education State’, on Victorian number plates, with ‘The Disaster State.’
    Perhaps even the Chinese have seen the trend.
    In the meanwhile we carry on what the ‘Builders’ did for our country, those in aged care.
    We need time , as the Irish would have it, for a wake and a good bonfire, once Daniel gets his act together or mercifully bows out.
    Unless one or t’other, we will never get rid of this virus.

  • Peter Smith says:

    Roger’s story of his Mum sums up what is wrong with the way many governments, none more so than the Victorian, have mismanaged the pandemic. Providing support and protection (and let me emphasise the support part) to the vulnerable was the principal thing to do, alongside ensuring adequate hospital and medical preparedness. For a virus that poses no material threat to those who are reasonably healthy, it was a gross overreaction to prevent such people (i.e., almost everyone under sixty-five) from going about their social and business affairs. How can so many public health experts and governments around the world be wrong? It is a mistake to think they acted independently of each other. International group-think explains it; aided, abetted, prodded and threatened by hyped-up ghouls in the media. That’s why some renegades like the Swedish epidemiologist Anders Tegnell was so castigated for standing outside of the group. Of course, providing top-quality support and protection to the vulnerable would have been extremely expensive – say, a twentieth or less of what lockdowns have cost.

  • Robyn says:

    A wonderful tribute to your mother, Roger, while providing a painful and articulate reminder of a situation being replicated for thousands of elderly across Victoria. The mother of a good friend, small but feisty in a nursing home, is slowly fading away, alone in her room. An aunt has had two falls in the confines of her nursing home room where she spends all of her day, crying for the children and grandchildren she has not seen now for months.
    I wish you the strength to endure the difficult journey of learning to live without her physical presence in your life, and hope you find the love she had for you from beginning to end lights the way ahead.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    A lively mind in older age needs the nourishment of social interaction with one’s own friends. My 99 year old aunt in Louisiana, whom we visited at the start of Covid lockdown in March this year, lived alone alert and physically mobile, surrounded by loving visiting family, but to us she declared this was ‘monotonous’. She missed her Canasta gatherings, and all of her friends and the sense of being out and about. She was so pleased to see us, from Australia, bringing with us the ‘outside’ world. She was waiting for us with her wig on and all dolled up, looking her best. Some people say we shouldn’t have gone, should have cancelled out and returned home pronto rather than chancing it till late March, but I don’t regret what we did one little bit.

    Roger, Billie Elizabeth was one in a million. Your mum, and you have done her proud here with your memories and reflections, sharing her life and your love for her.

    Lockdown is no way to live, for the old or for anyone else. We are social beings.
    Covid19 can be managed in many other ways.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    It could break anyone’s heart to consider the isolation and loneliness being experienced by so many older people, especially those in aged care homes, and particularly if they are bewildered by what is going on.

  • Helen Armstrong says:

    Heartbreaking, Roger, thank you for putting a face and feelings on what must be replicated all over the country be it nursing home or own home. It is criminal negligence ‘for their own good’ and we need to hold people accountable for both death through boredom and murder through denying use of medications that would save lives. ‘For your own good’ well maybe Mum would have preferred to go out on another jackpot win – how dare this government decide what is good and not good. We are adults – give us the facts and let us make our own decisions.

    And I am sorry your Mum’s end was thus. What a champion woman. One I would have loved to meet. Thank you for being such a great son.

  • mgldunn says:

    A moving tribute that honours her memory. It is very oppressive to prevent or impede close friends and family from visiting the sick, the elderly and the lonely.

  • Greg Williams says:

    So sorry to hear about your Mum, Roger. My Mum actually turned 100 in May this year, but the COVID rules prevented her family (6 children, 18 grandchildren and 23 great grandchildren) from attending a much-anticipated party for her. We compromised with a Teams meeting, which had about 50 participants. Nothing like the face-to-face thing tho. Mum still has visits, but much diminished due to the COVID rules. No doubt, as Elizabeth above has so eloquently opined, the diminution of social activity in her life is hurting her.

  • Lawrie Ayres says:

    My mum was in her 92nd year as she proudly stated but only just, her birthday being two weeks before, and she was ready. My father had died of cancer 25 years before and mum was looking forward to seeing him again. She said she had had a wonderful life and had told the doctors to stay away and just let her go. She died very peacefully. Your mum sounded much like mine down to the little flutter on the pokies. Sad for sure but not the end. Thanks for the words Roger. Your mum would be very proud of you.

  • Simon says:

    Sympathies for your lovely Mum, Roger.

  • DG says:

    Clearly when governments reduce people to mere numbers, we know humanity has left the room.

  • Stephen Ireland says:

    Thanks again, Roger, for this poignant story. Paraphrasing several of those who have already posted comments; your Mum was clearly one of the adults in the room.
    When one thinks about recent times one recognises that ‘adults in the room’ were a relatively normal phenomenon of the previous generation.

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