27th January 2021
Friday, 27th March, in a village outside Birmingham, Brian noticed that he wasn’t feeling right, that he was much more tired than usual. He managed to get himself to work but cocooned himself away in his office, leaving early, just after four. He went home and headed straight for bed, hoping the extraordinary tiredness he was experiencing would soon lift.
The next morning, he found it extremely difficult to get up, but managed to drag himself out the door after swallowing some pills along with an energy drink. He needed to be there for his staff, his customers, his community. He was one of the store managers for one of the big supermarkets in town. He owed it to the people to show up, especially amidst the panic buying. That morning he was hoping the shelves would be at least half stocked for his customers. But he knew that even if this were the case, that still the toilet roll supply couldn’t keep up. It barely made it out to the floor before it disappeared. They’d already limited the amount people could buy. But the rolls vanished nonetheless.
It never occurred to him that he might have the virus. He thought that his body was reacting to the stress of the last few weeks, the uncertainty, the unpredictability.
The pains in his legs started the following Monday. He’d stayed at home to be safe, keeping himself isolated in the small bedroom. Now this leg pain, that didn’t seem right. Checking the NHS website and finding this was not one of the symptoms confirmed his thoughts. Ok, just rest then. But the pain was severe, like a leaden load pressed on his legs, and when he tried to walk to the bathroom they were so heavy he had to drag them one after the other, the short walk causing him great exhaustion, beads of sweat falling down his brow. He took some Paracetamol and stayed in bed.
“Morning Bri, are you feeling any better this morning?” Marie, his wife of 16 years, left the tray down by the door. He knew that instead of talking through the closed door what she wanted to do was sneak in beside him and pull the duvet up over them both. He’d been in the spare room now for over a week and Marie and their three children were obviously worried, but also a bit fed up.
“When’s dad gunna show me the planet thing?” Rory, six, had asked her as she set down the tray on the carpet. She didn’t answer.
“I think am feeling better. My chest still hurts though. But I think I’ll come down today.” He wasn’t playing it up, he did feel better. There was no more aches in his joints and the headaches were lessening. He thought he must be over the worst.
“That’s so nice to hear. I’ll change the bed while you’re up.” Brian heard her fussing in the hall closet. “Mark and Rory will be pleased. And Jess wants help with her science, which is more your scene than mine.” Marie sounded happy, elated at the idea of somethings returning to normal.
Jess, their oldest, was studious, ambitions. Even at the tender age of 13, she had her sights set on becoming a doctor. She was working out what she had to do to make it happen, but often needed guidance and advice. Marie was just a primary-school teacher and felt unqualified to weigh in. Brian and Marie were proud of her determination but suspected that eventually she’d change her mind. There was no one in the family in medicine.
While at home he enjoyed having some time with the family, albeit not doing the normal things they liked to do together, like cycling, swimming, and exploring in the woods near their home. But he got to do other things. He got to build a Lego hotel with Mark, one-on-one time he rarely experienced with this son. And stargazing late in the evenings with his younger son, to the delight of Rory, who didn’t get to stay up so late in normal times. He and Jess usually spent an hour in the morning with her science books. Brian knew that she was watching his recovery closely because she would intermittently question him about his symptoms and immediately look them up on Google.
On the 8th of April, Wednesday of Holy Week, things suddenly took a turn for the worse. Brian awoke with a bad headache and slight breathlessness and turned to Marie in the bed beside him.
“Shall we call a doctor?” Marie asked. “You do look a bit grey.
“That’ll be because of low oxygen.” Jess, from the bedroom door, studied her father’s face. On her own there was a worried frown.
He’d only been back in his own bed for a couple of days, and now took himself back to the little room as much for peace as anything. He could feel her eyes on him in the night, watching his breathing. He thought they’d both sleep better if he went back to the spare room.
“Is dad gunna die?” Mark asked, as he followed his mother round the kitchen. He was on the spectrum and his deadpan face threw Marie, even though she knew this was a logical question to him.
“No, of course not,” she tousled his head briefly. He shook her off. He went to his room and shut the door.
From that day, Brian went downhill rapidly. By Friday the 10th he was looking grey. He could still speak, but had real problems breathing and a cough had started, although he could still walk and talk easily. Despite his protests, Marie phoned 111 and left a message with the receptionist. A doctor rang back the next morning and advised that Brian get checked at the hospital to be safe. Marie convinced him to go but only because he might need some help breathing and at the hospital they had things like oxygen.
Marie drove him the 20 minutes to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.guided him toward the signs for suspected COVID-19 cases which the doctor had told them to look out for, as they would have to enter in a special entrance. After every few steps Brian stopped, bent over, and took some deep breaths. He was relieved when he was met at the double doors by a nurse dressed in a personal protective gear and looking like a spaceman. She took one look at Brian ushered him in, taking Marie’s place.
Marie tried to follow. “Not you, mam,” the burly security guard said. He stood in front of Marie to physically stop her.
“Hang on, wait,” she called to Brian, “Take this.” She held out her crystal beaded rosary, purchased on their trip to the Holy Land last year. Brian knew that she always kept it with her.
The nurse nodded at Brian and he walked back to take it from her. He wasn’t Catholic and certainly never prayed the rosary, but he was thankful for his wife’s expression of love and support, loving him her way.
“Thanks, love” he said. Their shared glance hung in the air for a moment before it was dissolved by the nurse’s voice. He had to go. At the end of the hall, he looked back once before turning a corner. Marie stood there, beautiful, hopeful, worried. With one hand she gave him a little wave and with the other she wiped her eyes.
In the ICU, the nurse escorted him to a single bed and left him to get settled on his own, claiming she would be back in a minute. Brian dropped onto the hard mattress and looked up and down the ward. Eight beds. A man in the next but one bed, hooked up to all sorts of instruments. Brian had not been in an ICU before and did not find the clinical, serious atmosphere comforting. Over the next hour his blood was taken, his oxygen levels checked, and he was sent to X-ray. They must think it’s really serious, he thought. He gripped the rosary in his fingers and sent up a silent prayer. His anxiety increased when he came back to the ward and a new nurse put an oxygen mask on him, saying that his levels were low. Jess was right then. An imperceptible smile broke his tight lips as he thought of his clever daughter. The doctor questioned him on his symptoms, then left after telling him nothing was conclusive and that he’d be back when they had the X-ray results, which shouldn’t be long.
Half an hour later the doctor was back.
“I’m afraid you’ve got pneumonia.” He spoke softly as if that would help ease the pain of the news. “Look, I believe that you are infected with the coronavirus and that is why you have contracted pneumonia. To help your lungs we’ll keep you on oxygen and get you to lie on your tummy every few hours, see how you go. Any questions?
Stunned, Brian couldn’t think of anything to ask. “No,” he said, and the doctor left the room. The words it’s the virus swam round and round in his head. He can’t breathe because it’s the virus. He is so tired because it’s the virus. He wasn’t hungry because it’s the virus. Had he had it this whole time? What about his family? What about Marie and Mark and Rory and Jess? Had he infected them? They didn’t even know. What will he say? Where was his phone? He looked around him. Where were his things, his bag? He squeezed the rosary tighter in his hand and began calling for a nurse.
“I’d like my phone, please,” he said to the nurse when she came to check his breathing, pulse, and blood pressure.
“Of course, as soon as I’m finished. But I don’t want you to have your oxygen mask off for long, so just a couple of minutes. Okay?” she watched the machines, “We need to get your oxygen up, then you’ll feel a lot better.” She was cheerful, positive almost.
“Okay,” he said, a bit more relaxed.
On their video call he could tell by Marie’s voice and her red face (the benefits of WhatsApp) that she’d been crying. He smiled and tried to comfort her. He lied to her, telling her that he didn’t need to stay long, that he just needed to be monitored for a while. He would be home soon.
“Bye, love, love you loads,” he said as her picture faded away. Staring at the blank screen, he was overcome with emotion. His shoulders started to shake and he let the phone fall onto the bed.
“Come on, Brian, you’re doing fine,” the nurse said, giving him some tissues to wipe his face, then putting his oxygen mask back on. It was now one thirty and she’d not left his side since he’d come back from the X-ray department some hours before, not even to have her break.
By midafternoon, rather than improving he deteriorated. His breathing was more labored. They turned up the oxygen levels as he was still only 70%. By next morning, Brian was on maximum oxygen and still not improving.
“The doctor said you may need to go on a ventilator for a while,” the nurse told him. “It’ll give your body a rest. It’s been working so hard.” Brian looked up at her, gently nodding his head.
“We’re going to move you , just now, to a room on your own, to keep a better eye on you.” She released the breaks on the bed
“Your wife can come in and see you through the window. Shall I phone her for you?” Her eyes, all he could see of his nurse now, showed compassion and love. How do they do it, he thought, they are so committed. She’s not even had a break. Does she not worry about catching the virus herself and taking it home to her loved ones. He gave her another slight nod of his head. His thoughts drifted back to Marie. He wasn’t sure he wanted her to see him like this but he knew she’d want to. The nurse picked up his phone, “What name?” she asked, scrolling through his contacts. She tapped her finger over his wife’s name.
“Here, speak to her. You can only talk for a minute, though.” She put the phone in his hand, removed the oxygen mask from his face and tilted the bed so he could see. She then went to stand just outside the door so that he could have some privacy, but where she could come straight back in if needed. Marie was wearing her red dress, the one he’d told her he liked, had she done that on purpose? They both held their phones. He wanted to talk but instead started coughing, struggling for each breath.
“Hello love,” he managed to say in a croaky whisper followed by more coughing
“Hi, love you,” Marie replied, supportive as always, “We’ll get through this. You concentrate on getting better.” She tried to hide a sniffle. “So many people are praying.” She touched the screen with her fingers. “I want to hug you, be beside you, read to you, hold your hand.”
“I know,” he replied, trying to stifle his coughing.
“I’m afraid that’s enough.” The nurse let them say goodbye then took the phone from him.
I’ve had less than a minute, he thought. He felt vulnerable without his phone, without being able to hear his wife’s voice. He looked up at the window, saw his Marie standing up looking in at him, saw the nurse sign to her that she’d come out to see her.
“He’s not doing great, I’m afraid.” The nurse had put Brian’s oxygen mask back on and had come to see her. “We’re going to have to ventilate him.” Brian saw Marie double over, like she had been punched in the abdomen. She had to have been expecting this, right? He had been gone for three days now. He felt helpless. How could he comfort her, if he couldn’t even use his own phone?
Once Marie processed the shock, she blurted out a list of questions rapid fire. “How long for? He will get better? What can I do?”
The nurse remained calm and collected. “We’ll see how he goes. We’re doing everything we can.” Brian watched from the bed, knew instinctively what Marie’s was being told , his mind probably drifted to the medical dramas, Chicago Med among others. He knew she watched them with Jess who ate up every episode. Brian was surprised that people really did say things like “They’re doing everything they can.” Brian hoped that Marie wouldn’t use those same words to explain to Jess, Rory, and Mark what was happening to their dad. They were empty, hollow words and provided no information or comfort. Brian watched as the nurse said goodbye to Marie. He watched his wife put her hand up to the glass, smile at him, blow a kiss, then turn to go. He was heartbroken thinking about what his wife must be going through. He hated to think of her worrying about him. Would he ever see her again? What would that do to her? And the children? It was all too much. His eyes filled up and he tried not to think.
At 5:15 a.m. Easter morning Marie woke to her phone ringing
“Hello, this is Doctor Anderson from the ICU at Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital. Sorry to ring so early. I’m afraid Brian’s breathing got worse in the night, his blood pressure dropped to dangerous levels, and his pulse is very slow now. He’s gone into a coma. We are keeping him comfortable. You can come and see him from a viewing window if you’d like, but I’m afraid we can’t let you in, it’s too risky.”
“I’ll come straight in,” Marie replied.
“I’ll let the nurse know. Also, we noticed he holds a rosary in his hand. Shall we ask a priest to come?”
“Yes, yes, please.” Marie was distraught, caressing Brian’s pillow in small circles where his head used to lay.
Walking through the hospital, Marie was torn to shreds. She’d left the children behind, not telling them much but knowing that Jess would be researching and coming to her own conclusions.
“You can sit here,” a new nurse put a chair in front of the window.
Marie looked into the room, a small room with bare, clinical walls, one tiny window above the bed. Her eyes searched for Brian. A crumpled white sheet covered most of his body. He lay on his side, so frail looking, his face grey, the lifeblood being drained out of him, his dark hair wet and stuck to his skin. A nurse and a doctor hovered about looking at the instruments, talking between themselves.
She stared and stared and stared and waited.
At 6:20 p.m. the priest came, dressed in protective clothing. She recognised him as Friar Anthony from a neighbouring parish. Much later, when she could think straight, she would be very grateful that he had been there, grateful that he was the hospital chaplain and as such, allowed in to give her husband spiritual comfort at the end, that she was there to see it. Before he went in, he gave her a blessing.
At 7:09 p.m. the doctor came out to tell her they were taking him off the ventilator, that he was clinically dead and only the machine was breathing for him now, that they were really sorry, that they did everything they could.
Doctor Anderson offered her the rosary back.
“No, leave it with him, please,” she mumbled.
Marian Green is a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and her greatest love is her large family — nine children, twenty-five grandchildren and four great grandchildren. Her Christian faith is as important to her and informs everything she does. Caring for loved ones meant she came late to a writer’s life. Over the last five years she has developed a passion for writing truth whether it’s through self help advice, real life story, fiction or poetry. She has published many of these pieces on her blog, on medium.com and as comments in women’s magazines. She belongs to a writer’s group, which she’s been with for seven years.