© Susan Browne 2020
Published at womansway.ie on the 23rd of March, 2020. Whilst all characters in this story are fictional, it is inspired by true events of the COVID19 pandemic unfolding.
Author’s additional note, written 22nd January 2022. This story was written when everyone was absolutely bricking it. I was, like the character, wondering about ‘answering the call,’ and returning to nursing. I did renew my registration but never ended up nursing during the pandemic. At the time of writing this today, we’re told we’re almost out of the pandemic and I, for one, am tired of talking/thinking about it. My hope is that this story could be historically interesting in years to come. Hard to imagine today.
Kate woke at 3:33 to the sensation of her grandmother Peggy’s hand resting gently on her forehead and the faint scent of roses. Peggy had died almost forty years ago. Kate lay very still, willing her to stay. She’d been a nurse in World War Two, and Kate had loved listening to her stories. ‘It changed the way I looked at life forever. I was proud to be a nurse.’ And that’s what Kate would become too, she decided some sixty years ago.
But the beloved woman faded as the mind’s cogs began to turn into wakefulness, and Kate remembered the reality she was in. She got up in the darkness and put on the kettle. Waiting for it to boil, she pressed the screen of her phone and push notifications from the news came piling in. More cases confirmed; more deaths and more restrictions. It was like being at war, with each announcement more nerve-wracking than the last.
She recalled the trip to the local supermarket the day before. Perspex screens had been erected to protect the staff from the shoppers, and vice versa. You shouldn’t be at the supermarket. I can drop all you need at your front door. These were the words of her daughter, Noreen, who would have her wrapped in cotton wool and placed in a matchbox for safekeeping if she could. It was no use telling her she was in perfect health and had no underlying conditions. You’re no spring chicken. Stay home, is all she would say. And Kate didn’t need to hear it.
There it was again, the thought that she should answer the call. Come out of retirement and help the nurses at the front line in the international emergency that was COVID19. After a bit of googling she found the online form and filled it. Her hands trembled a little before she hit send, thinking of Noreen and what she wouldn’t say about it.
It was ten o clock that morning when she was just about ready to go for a lie down when the phone rang. It was her grandson, Rory, aged ten with something sticky like syrup smeared around his red cheeks on Facetime. She squinted at him.
‘Hi nanna, Mom’s changing Sarah’s butt, she had a whoopsie,’ he giggled.
‘Good morning sweetie. Well, it’s good to see you. What did you have for breakfast?’
‘Pancakes and lemon and sugar. As a treat for finishing my maths on time.’
‘Oh, good man.’
Kate’s little granddaughter Sarah pushed her face into the camera ‘Nanna, Nanna, Nanna, what’s for breakfast? We had pancakes.’ Her eyes sparkled and Kate wished she could give her a cuddle. They often sat snuggled together on the sofa, reading stories or watching Peppa.
‘I’d my porridge like usual, sweetheart. What did you have on your pancakes?’ But she’d already gone, not interested in a phone conversation with anyone at three years of age. Kate winced at the pain it caused her. Noreen’s face came into view. Her brown eyes looked tired.
‘You okay, Mom?’
‘I’m fine. You’re all well?’ She felt her eyes begin to water. ‘What’s that? Bad connection, look it, I’ll call you back soon, okay?’ and she hung up and wept until her body shook. Then she got up and washed the ware.
‘I can’t just sit around here all day, moping,’ she said out loud. The house seemed so small suddenly. A three bedded bungalow on a country road that led down to the sea. At least she could watch the sea from her living room window. It always looked different, and now you’d hardly see a boat. She felt like a walk down to the strand a few times but didn’t end up going.
She thought about nursing and the way it had become when she had retired, six years earlier. All degrees and masters and forms a mile long. What would it be like in an emergency? All hands on deck or all trying to fill out forms with big fancy words in them that nobody could make head nor tail of?
She held her wrist gently to see if she was still able to take her own pulse. She felt the old familiar thud, like a current of electricity. It wasn’t as regular as it was one time, but she’d do. The only condition she suffered was loneliness. It heaved in her chest like a large feathered bird that couldn’t get out.
A Week Later
The ward manager had explained over the phone that she needn’t buy herself a uniform, that all staff were changing into hospital scrubs at the start of each shift to reduce cross-infection. The long walk down the corridor made her heart race. She still hadn’t told Noreen, because she knew she’d try to stop her. But now she felt her grandmother again.
‘Give me the strength to do this. Please.’
‘You are strong,’ said the wisp of a thought in her mind. And then a warm feeling, like wings of an angel softly wrapping around her, and she pulled her shoulders back and walked a little taller.