And Let Your Memory Dance: Writing about Separation during Covid-19 Lockdown – Grey Atanda
I am drinking rum out of a small wine glass.
It is so quiet outside. There is, of course, the occasional distant honk, the faint roaring of a neighborhood generator, the clucking of stray hens like street urchins scattering about, but rather than distort the sense of silence, these random sounds only serve to intensify it. Earlier when I stepped out to buy the rum; I was surprised by how normal it was outside, and how, underneath that appearance of normalcy, one could sense a nagging anxiety, a general awareness that a cry of terror was only waiting to break out.
I had not been out of the house in almost three weeks. I joked with my cousin about how it felt like being in America, like being finally free, although the wicked irony strikes me now. LDR’s Lust for Life album is playing from my phone. I put it on before I started writing, because I thought it would help me think, although I’m not sure now if that was a wise thing since the music is so good it keeps distracting me. Sometimes I catch my body moving slowly to the beat. It’s funny, but I don’t feel tipsy yet, even though I’m on my second glass.
OK, maybe I do. It’s a pleasure to get drunk. These days, there isn’t much to do except drink and read things on the internet. This morning I read an article on The New York Times about how the pandemic is changing ‘the way we internet’. The writer seemed to be interested in how, now that most people are staying at home, they are using their laptops more than their phones. I don’t know if it is true. The article was not very interesting to me.
I would have liked to read that people are generally spending more time off the internet altogether. That’s a story: how the pandemic is forcing more physical, face-to-face interactions. How, instead of propelling us into a new unfamiliar future, the pandemic is in fact trying to slow us down, to make us pause and return to an appreciation of how things used to be. But who am I kidding? The future is coming, surely. I have been thinking a lot lately about it. In a conversation yesterday, I made a statement about how, perhaps, the coronavirus is what will kick-start us into the technologized future of ubiquitous robots and AI that science fiction has so religiously explored, making an example of Ake festival and their announcement that this year’s festival will happen online.
I want to, in a wretched, barren bid to avoid anxiety, reduce my interest in the post-pandemic era to a simple intellectual obsession, to think, when I bookmark articles about the coronavirus, that I am only doing research – I am, after all, writing a story set in the post-pandemic era. But when all is said and done, I have to be honest and admit that my interest in the future is just as personal as it is intellectual. What I mean is, I don’t want to be caught off guard. When the future comes, I want to be prepared.
Part of this preparation is steeling myself emotionally for loss. It is not reasonable, I have decided, to expect that this disaster will come and go without any significant personal loss. It’s just simply not logical. Sometimes even, when I think of it, there is a bit of arrogance to it, nagging me in the form of a simple question echoing in my mind: are you special? all the people that have suffered, are you better than them? This week, the global death toll has climbed past 200,000. In Nigeria, it is only 44, but that does little to reassure me.
I don’t think, in any serious sense, that I am worried about my own mortality. I am, after all, only 22, with no underlying conditions that I am aware of. I am not under any serious death risk. My worry, instead, is directed towards my mother, who will be 54 in October, who has diabetes and high blood pressure and perhaps a myriad other health issues. She is the breadwinner of our family and still goes to work.
I have not seen her in over two weeks, not since the lockdown started. She works for a security company and is considered an essential worker. Her bosses decided that it was best to lodge their essential workers in a hotel. There is a company bus that ferries them from hotel to work and back, with as little interaction with the world outside as possible. Her office, she says, is some sort of haven – even before the pandemic they had always been insistent on hygiene, hand sanitizer dispensers installed in strategic locations throughout the building. The arrangement is so wonderful it would appear there is no reason to worry, but I have always been one to imagine the worst. I know there are too many ways to come in contact with the virus, so how can I not worry? In my less sensible moments, I feel a surge of resentment, which is all the worse because I cannot direct it at anything in particular. It couldn’t possibly be her who is just doing her job. Sometimes if I try hard enough, I can channel it towards her bosses: they can afford to work from home! they are keeping her from me! But most times it’s just a bubbling of complicated emotions that I have nowhere to concentrate, and one night when I tried to talk about it with Genius I found that I could not hold back the tears.
Maybe I just miss my mother. I imagine her in the hotel room a lot. In the image in my mind, it is quiet. She is alone, asleep in the large hotel bed. The lights are pretty and warm, but the room is cold because the AC is on, humming softly in the background. I can’t tell if it’s day or night – one can seldom tell in a hotel room. Sometimes she is sitting in bed, a pillow supporting her back against the headboard, her phone in her hand. She has to wear her glasses to use her phone. Her legs are stretched out, crossed at the ankles, her silver anklet glistening. There is probably a second pillow on her laps supporting the hands holding the phone. Perhaps she is on WhatsApp, which means there is the frequent beeping of her phone with each new message that comes in, but my imagination is muffled, like someone underwater. My sister says mother says she is bored at the hotel. One day when I called her, I asked if she was washing her hands and staying safe. She was eager to reassure me. She said she’d been washing her hands every minute, and after the hotel cleaner left her room that morning, she wiped the tables and door knobs with hand sanitizer. She was doing her best, she said, may God protect her. It was a few nights after that conversation that I talked with Genius about my anxiety. I said, “My mother is risking her life for us.”
I have read a number of books since the lockdown began. One of them is Albert Camus’s The Plague. I was first introduced to the book by an article my friend Diekara sent to me. The article is titled ‘Camus on Coronavirus’, which is an interesting title, since Camus, who died in 1960, couldn’t possibly be saying anything now about the novel coronavirus outbreak. But his 1947 The Plague is about an epidemic that engulfs the French Algerian city of Oran, and, more than that, it is an enduring take on the absurdity of the human condition.
In the book’s second part, Camus writes about the forced separation that the outbreak of the plague causes: ‘Mothers and children, lovers, husbands and wives, who had a few days previously taken it for granted that their parting would be a short one, who had kissed one another good-by on the platform and exchanged a few trivial remarks, sure as they were of seeing one another again after a few days or, at most, a few weeks, duped by our blind human faith in the near future and little if at all diverted from their normal interests by this leave-taking, all these people found themselves, without the least warning, hopelessly cut off, prevented from seeing one another again, or even communicating with one another.’
When I read that section, Camus’s words struck me more than I would have liked – I know in a very personal sense the separation he so insightfully writes about. But what even strikes me more now is how little attention this kind of separation is getting in mainstream media. I have read story after story about people that have lost their loved ones to the coronavirus, but I have not read a single story about people that have been separated from their living loved ones.
I am willing to concede that perhaps I’ve just not read enough stories altogether; still, stories of separation are not as popular as stories of death. And it is not that this sort of separation is unheard of, or even uncommon – there is much to be said for the realities of shut borders and lockdowns – but that death, we have been taught, is the ultimate most moving tragedy.
From Aeschylus to Shakespeare, all tragedies involve death, one way or the other. And perhaps this is justified. But at least in death, there is a certain sense of relief. This thing we have feared for so long has finally happened – the mother has died, the lover has stabbed herself in the stomach – and although it is the most painful thing in the world, although we are not sure how we can live now that they are gone, although we will miss them so much we will want to die, in the end, we will choose to live. And now, thankfully, there is no longer that nudging anxiety about losing them – we have already lost them – because there is nothing worse than anxiety.
Yoruba people know this, which is why we say, ‘Omo eni ku, o san ju omo eni nu lo’, which translated means, that we would rather have our loved ones dead than lost to us. Because a dead person makes you sad, but a lost person makes you anxious.
When I said I have personal insight about separation, I was talking about my mother, of course. But I was also talking about my brother Sultan, who was in Abuja before the lockdown started and has remained there, living temporarily with extended family. And Genius, whom I last saw the day I travelled from Ibadan to Lagos, hugging her over and over before I finally boarded the cab that took me away from her. And all my closest friends: Michael, Oluchi, Victory, Simbiat. Almost everyone I love most in the world. I don’t know when next I’ll be seeing them. Or under what conditions. The pain is incredible, even though, unlike the people of Oran, I am frequently in contact with my loved ones. WhatsApp and Twitter have become my religion, and lately I have begun to talk with Genius for long minutes over the phone. But it’s hard not to have the feeling of grasping at straws, of fighting wretchedly and in vain against helplessness, against meaninglessness. It’s frustrating to know that there is nothing I can do about the situation; that, for example, I can’t simply pack up and go to Abeokuta to see Genius, or will my mother to stay at home.
So, I turn my attention to things I can control instead. Like reading. And cooking. And drinking. And cleaning. My room is large; I have shared it with my brother for 6 years, but now that he is away, it is all mine. I take my time to keep it clean. When I returned from Ibadan, I got my books out of my wardrobe and arranged them neatly on the shelf. I opened the windows, changed the bedsheets, washed the bathroom. Cleaning is therapeutic, but being clean is the ultimate therapy.
I like to lie in bed in the afternoon after a long shower, naked and stretched out (perhaps there is a metaphor in this, how time has stripped life down to its barest). It is all the better if I’m on my phone, engrossed in a conversation with Genius, the fan spinning, madly, overhead. I like to be able to decide, on an impulse, to roll over and fall to the bare tiles, not worrying that I will get dirty.
This has become my life. I am mostly locked away in my room, undisturbed, stepping out only at mealtimes, or in the evening to do a bit of socializing with the rest of the family. The house is usually much less quiet then, everyone gathered in the kitchen, or hovering around it, as dinner cooks. The kitchen has always been the heart of our house. It is where we all come together, where we have serious conversations, where the most fun happens. The reason for this is quite simple: on weekends when my mum is home, she spends most of her time here, and we stay with her, to help her, to talk to her, to ask her for things. Even my father descends from his room upstairs and hangs around. Now that she’s away, we have continued to gather there, mostly out of habit.
Sometimes we talk fondly about her, like this morning when we were making toast bread and my cousin commented that the recipe was my mum’s. ‘It’s better than how we used to do it before, abi?’ my cousin asked. I agreed.
I did not think it was possible to miss my mother this much. And it’s strange, because I have been separated from her for much longer before: I school in Ibadan, she works in Lagos. But the situation is different now. Every day, things escalate: Kano has overtaken Lagos and Abuja as the epicenter; Italy has struggled with the disease like a third-world country; Canadians are getting goodwill messages from their friends in Haiti and Zimbabwe; the American government called on medical doctors all over the world to apply for visas.
The world has turned on its head, change is everywhere, and it is hard, in the face of all of this, for the self to remain the same. Perhaps it is what Camus means when he writes: ‘And for every one of us the ruling emotion of his life, which he had imagined he knew through and through … took on a new aspect…Sons who had lived beside their mothers hardly giving them a glance fell to picturing with poignant regret each wrinkle in the absent face that memory cast upon the screen.’
What a tragedy.
(Grey is a young-ish, mushy person who is trying not to lose their mind in these Corona times.)