I wave and watch her open the garden gate. She walks out to a ripple of applause which builds steadily, rising and echoing, adulation as a wall of sound. The neighbours whoop and cheer and wolf whistle. My wife looks faintly embarrassed and comes back inside to pack her work bag. For her, it’s just her job. To the rest of us, it’s a staggering feat of bravery. She’s off for her first night shift on Noble’s Male Coronavirus ward (a recent rebrand). Anxiety nestles neatly in my gut and appears to have taken permanent residence. I can’t even fathom the fear she and her colleagues have right now. She is a soldier out on the frontline whilst I endure the agonising wait for her return, busying myself with minding the children. As ever in our relationship, the stereotypical gender roles have been flipped on their head.
Whilst I sauté onions and write navel-gazing poetry, she will be drilling through walls or watching YouTube tutorials on how to fix things. She owns two separate tool sets – sets? kits? I don’t even know the correct term – and I, well I couldn’t change a hammer…bulb…switch. When I consulted her on this article for an example of my scarcely believable practical ineptitude she responded “It’s like when someone asks you what your favourite movie is. There are just so many to choose from”. Quite.
If I told you it was love at first sight, I’d be lying. Lisa and I went to school together and were, we discovered only upon dating, in the same form class throughout. Neither of us left an indelible impression on the other. We did however, share some similarities. We both sported lurid and deeply awful yellow hair (both barnets were verging on being hate crimes), both always shared a propensity for dry, scabrous humour and had a curious mix of shyness and bravado. I think we spoke twenty words to one another throughout those seven years. How strange to think we are now fifteen years into our relationship, twelve of those as husband and wife. We have shared so much: parenthood, grief, travelling, bags of minstrels; you name it. None of which makes our story particularly special to you, of course.
What sets it apart, I suppose, is this new twist in the plot: The ubiquitous C-word. This looming dread that hangs in the air like a black kite, suffocating simple pleasures, eroding basic freedoms and putting our existence on hiatus. And my wife is doing what she does, what she’s always done: She’s looking after people.
Her job has always filled me with a sense of complete awe and pride. My wife is a nurse. She comforts those at their lowest, she watches people leave this Earth. My proficient use of Microsoft Excel doesn’t really compare.
That wonder has not diminished over the years. It still strikes me as a wild and unique job to have. “Wiping arses and writing notes” is how Lisa described her job to me when we first got together. It was typically self-effacing and droll of her and indeed, symptomatic of the majority of nurses and carers I’ve met. They are a rare and distinct breed. The humour is raven-claw black and piranha-tooth sharp while the capacity for self-deprecation is rivalled only by a quiet, unassuming compassion. They are all – every single one of them without fail – rampant, insatiable chocolate whores. They are absolute vultures round a tin of Celebrations.
We’ve read a lot about those on the front line and it is heartening to see the outpouring of emotion and appreciation for all key workers, not only the nursing fraternity. Applauding and saluting them as heroes is a lovely gesture but it does not erase the worry. The dread and worry that clings like a plucky barnacle to the hull of a ship. It then spirals. Are the masks and equipment up to standard? She is literally treating people suffering with this contagious, deadly, and unrelenting virus. A BBC Alert flashes on the phone: A 36 year old nurse in the UK with no underlying health conditions dies from Coronavirus.
My wife’s age. My wife’s profession. Those four words that instil panic attack levels of breathlessness. No. Underlying. Health. Conditions.
It’s hard not to catastrophize right now. Lisa is stoic, she is modest and she is the strongest person I know. (Not in a Hulk or Andre’ the Giant way but, you know, mentally strong. Just to clarify. Although my money would be on her if we ever had an arm wrestle. It is worth noting I have green string-beans for arms and all the power of an anaemic gnat).
Her mental fortitude is, however, at breaking point. We have wept together, overwhelmed by this unfathomable horror, and unable to articulate the crushing panic that comes and goes, flowing through us, crashing within us, like a river meeting ocean. We are frightened. I’m sure you are too.
However, if there is one thing I believe in fundamentally, down to the core of my withered, cynical, atheist heart, it is love. We must find strength in the selflessness of others. We must not allow paranoia and distrust to trump empathy and human kindness. We must be thankful for what we have for all we truly have is now. And we need each other more than ever.
To my Lis, this is her job, her duty, her calling. To me, her actions achieve the unthinkable. They make me love her even more.