There’s a part of my running route, a short and gentle uphill climb that turns a right corner at the top, where the path curves round a busy set of traffic lights.
I’ve come to remember sections of my runs by what I was listening to when I trod each section. Or maybe it’s the other way round – I remember pieces of podcasts and news stories, reports of global events and snippets of heart-warming anecdotes when I think of the places I’ve run. The beach in Queensland that is all about Turing and sentience, the corner of summertime Munich that now reminds me of alien invasion, the Kenyan elections unfolding alongside a corn field in west England.
Maybe it’s the rhythm of my jogging, or the fresh air, or the lack of distraction, but I have a curiously vivid memory of those places and their soundtracks.
The path has got a lot busier than usual, we’re allowed out of lockdown for exercise and the gyms and beaches are closed in this part of Sydney, Australia, so everyone seems to have taken up running, or walking with their families, to escape the four walls of home. I tread from the pavement to the road and up again, skirting around prams and masked couples where I usually pass next to no-one.
And as I tread the warm tarmac, sweep around roadworks and pass boats parked on trailers alongside the golf course, I listen to news from America during the Covid-19 crisis. My runs have become
That’s what I was doing as I approached the small hill a few days ago, and that’s how I learnt how hard it is to run and cry at the same time.
I’m listening to a story about a woman who is barred from visiting her mother who has ALS and lives in a hospital and, with coronavirus spreading, the woman worries about never seeing her mother again. She stumbles with grammar, her syntax muddled by the overwhelming reality that, if coronavirus reaches her mum’s ward, it’s very likely she’ll die. She lives across from the hospital and can see her mum’s window. She’s forced to ask questions she never imagined she’d ask – will she have to stand in the park as her mother dies, and imagine what’s going on behind that glass as she looks up from her safe distance?
And I think of my own mother, in a high-needs unit in a care home in England. She has early-onset dementia and is hoisted from her bed into an armchair and back again each day. Because of the virus, she’s not allowed to leave her room or to have visitors, so, even if I was to somehow abracadabra my way through aeroplane-less empty skies to Covid-ravaged Europe, I’d get no further than looking up at the double-glazing in her window, too.
My chest seizes up as the woman describes her dream of getting her mum the fuck off planet earth and how irrationality sometimes takes over – could her mother’s ventilator be given to a younger, more potentially fruitful patient? She has no breath of her own, and no chance of taking another breath, after all.
It’s happened a few times, now, as I run and listen to what sound like dispatches from a third world country. The hospital worker in New York City who couldn’t be with his wife as she died at home. The immigrant who, sick with Covid-19, is sleeping in his car because he was thrown out of his accommodation by his scared, pregnant landlady.
I struggle for air, my throat clamping down and my chest feeling like it’s buckling under a heap of sand bags. I can’t breathe. I imagine asthma attacks as I try to keep moving. I hear a whimper – it’s me. I stop, fold over and catch my breath as tears merge with sweat, pricking my eyes.
I leave the green of the park behind me and run towards the ocean cliffs. I lean on the railing and suck in big lungfuls of salty air, the foam churning 100 feet below and, in the distance, with the land, people and the virus behind me, I look to the calm, grey horizon.
The accounts go on – ventilators puffing and emptying broken lungs. The suffocating coughing, the good samaritans and the thought of so very many, locked down, locked away and locked out. I miss you, Mumma. I’m not running, so this time, when the tears roll and my face crumples, I can breathe.