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Living in limbo, unable to leave

It is exactly six months and one week since my mother died on a raining November evening in England. The country had just been thrown into another lockdown, this time with schools open and pubs shut. The sun shone once that day, a curtain of silver that poured from a split in the deep grey and dissolved as quickly as it appeared.

Read my latest for The Guardian here.

Or my version in full here:

It is exactly six months and one week since my mother died on a raining November evening in England. The country had just been thrown into another lockdown, this time with schools open and pubs shut. The sun shone once that day, a curtain of silver that poured from a split in the deep grey and dissolved as quickly as it appeared.

I know, because I was there, under the West Country sky. And I was there because I had, in a haze of panic and sick with fear five days earlier, somehow mustered enough clarity to fill in an exemption to leave application and satisfy the Australian government’s unique and harsh border restrictions. I had scrambled for letters from doctors, submitted images of my dying mother, bought flights I knew wouldn’t fly, flung winter clothes together for myself and my two toddlers and kissed my husband goodbye, not knowing when we’d get back to him. I doused my children in sanitiser as we made our way through darkened, hushed airports, bus terminals and train stations in three countries. By the time I reached my mother in her care home, I knew only to strip away my regulation top-to-toe PPE and climb into her bed, resting my head on her shoulder and stroking her soft, cool hand.

Tonight, here I am, half a year on, listening to the news of another Australian man and his Indian mother dying from Covid in India. In Sydney, her remaining son is pleading to allow his grieving 83-year-old father, who survived Covid, to join him in Australia. He would have heard, of course, that borders will most likely stay tightly shut until June 2022 – and that, as a non-citizen, even as a parent of an Australian, his chances of gaining an exemption to enter the country are next to impossible.

Last winter, I wrote about my fears of being unable to get to my sick mother in the UK and how, for better or worse, my life in Australia depended on the air traffic that blights the skies but delivers so many of us to our loved ones. It turned out that the very worst did eventuate – but, in a perversity of norms that could only be wrought by a deeply human crisis, it also turned out that I’m very fortunate, given this moment, in this place, in this pandemic.

I’m Australian and I got to her in time. For every story like mine, there are hundreds, if not thousands, that end with a computer-says-no thud.

I have heard of babies who haven’t met their fathers and wives who haven’t seen their husbands in 18 months. There’s a friend whose father passed away from Covid and couldn’t get to him in time. And another, whose Czech father hid the extent of his stage four cancer from her so that she wouldn’t have to confront the risk of no exemption and dumbfounding costs of flights, given all he had heard about our isolationist way. Then there’s my British father, who’d very much appreciate coming to scatter his Australian wife-of-nearly-50-years’ ashes, sort out her affairs and spend time with his Australian daughters and grandchildren. Yet, parents don’t count as close family and so, the answer, once again, is a no.

Like so many here without family overseas and those looking on from abroad, he doesn’t get it. They can’t get their heads around our border closure. Is that even allowed? they ask.

I completed hotel quarantine with a two- and a three-year-old while grieving. It wasn’t hard compared to the haze of uncertainty that came before it on Australian soil – not being able to freely visit my unwell mother, the fears over how I’d secure an exemption and afford flights, the predicted (and extremely pricey) battles to get seats home to Sydney. No, quarantine was fine. Quarantine makes sense. It’s the lack of a plan that really wears a soul down.

November feels like a bad dream, but the perversity continues, because, now, after my mother’s death has come a sense of grim relief. The limbo of watching from afar, helpless and desperate, is over. I will never have to submit another exemption to travel request to the heavy machinery of the federal government moments after seeing her, supine and hollow-cheeked, as a nurse held an iPad over her deathbed. And with that knowing, that immensely sad knowing, the stories of the missed deaths and illness and human moments strike me with the force of a body blow. I got out and came back when so many couldn’t and won’t – and their limbo stretches on. For now, they must wait for the too-slow vaccine rollout to unfurl and for confidence to nudge away fear on one hand and easy, gilded disconnection on the other.

The virus will reach us, no matter how long we are kept apart from family and loved ones, no matter how long we are prevented from finishing university courses and starting jobs and maintaining businesses and giving safe harbour to refugees. Keep us locked in and the world locked out until Doomsday and the virus will still find us, smug hermits, suntanned but alone.

When I was a little girl, my school motto was ut sibi sic alteri. Treat others how you’d like to be treated. Nowadays, I’d add: even, and especially, when fearful. It’s what makes us human.

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