I have been under the strange variety of self-imposed house arrest we now call “cocooning” since March 26th because of my chronic lung condition, sarcoidosis, which means I’m doubly vulnerable.
I have wonky lungs – at last count they only process 47 per cent of the oxygen they take in – and to counteract the condition I am on strong immunosuppressant medication, Infliximab, probably for the rest of my life. If my lungs were a car they would fail their NCT and be uninsurable.
And before you ask: no, I was never a smoker, at most sampling about 10 cigarettes during my teenage years. And despite being a Luke Ming Flanagan voter in the recent European elections, I only ever smoked a handful of the herbal cigarettes he favours. The Marxist group I was a member of from the age of 15 until I was 27, the Militant Tendency, were hostile to most things 1960s and its leadership saw dope smoking as a step on the road to petit-bourgeois degeneration.
For a person of my generation my lungs have lived an unusually puritanical life, but sarcoidosis doesn’t care about that. It’s an autoimmune condition which happens when some part of your body imagines itself under attack and so your immune system starts firing its missiles against this nonexistent enemy and in the process becomes its own worst enemy.
It’s as if Donald Trump responded to an imaginary Venezuelan invasion of the United States by every day firing Patriot missiles at himself, though the effects are admittedly a little less melodramatic than that scenario would likely be. To leave the hyperbolic metaphors aside for a moment, I am far more likely to die of Covid-19 than the average person, were I to contract it. I know that death can be excellent for both a poet’s book sales and reputation – even the people who never liked you have to pretend for a while – but on balance I’m still against it.
So, complying with government guidelines, which designate me among the “vulnerable”, I hadn’t left the house for 21 days when I went to have my regular bag of Infliximab plugged into my right arm on April 16th. I get the infusions every eight weeks and my previous one had taken place before the lockdowns.
I relied entirely on my wife, Susan Millar DuMars, for everything I needed from the outside world. Susan is not cocooning which means that she can go to the shops and for a walk but also that, the Department of Health recommends, we must stay at least a metre apart at all times, in case she has brought Covid-19 in. In a marriage such a restriction forces innovation. She had an itch on her back the other week and I helped out by scratching it with a socially distancing sweeping brush.
As April 16th approached, I found myself hotly anticipating my hospital appointment. I would get to actually talk to people. I know a number of the nurses there through my work as writer-in-residence with Saolta Arts (formerly Galway University Hospitals Arts Trust) and one of them refers to me as “her only famous patient”; fame, like beauty, being in the eye of the beholder.
What would have been mundane was more like visiting a foreign country, or at times outer space, than just getting a bus to the other side of town. The evening before I found myself fretting about the trip, checking I had everything I needed, double and triple checking that I had the time of the appointment right. The anxious attention to detail reminded me of times I’d prepared to catch early flights to the US, Russia or Australia, though this time I was only going a few miles and to a place I already knew intimately.
As I prepared to leave I put on my coat, and even that seemed strange as I hadn’t put it on in so long. I wore a white scarf Susan lent me across my mouth on the bus. And when I got to the infusion ward, one of the nurses immediately gave me a mask and surgical gloves. I took a photo of my masked self, and posted it to Facebook.
The woman from the kitchen brought me a cup of tea and some Custard Creams. Compared to my house arrest, this was Studio 54. I am a lover of gallows humour and was delighted when the nurse wiring the infusion bag into my vein jokily muttered to me: “Ah you’d be a goner, if you got it.” She also gave me a supply of masks from the store, popping them discreetly into my bag, for use next time I’m out, whenever that may be. I travelled back on the bus looking quite dashing, if I say so myself, in my mask and surgical gloves. I wrote the poem below about the surreality of the entire experience.
Essential Hospital Appointment, 16-4-2020
Death is very small,
Even under your magnifying glass
you still can't see it.
Prohibited by government edict
from going beyond your own front gate
for the past three weeks; being here
is exotic as a holiday to Australia,
during which you might get to visit
a crocodile fondling pond,
or bathe in a hot tub writhing
with redback spiders.
There's enough rubber gloves
and cleaning gel in the building
to construct a new Howard Hughes.
It's like visiting, or coming back from,
outer space. But, yes, you'll have a cup of tea.
Milk, no sugar, with the bag left in,
and some custard creams.
On the way down the corridor out
you notice Our Lady has been replaced
by a small statue of Satan,
then wonder if you imagined it.
But there's no one around to ask.
Apart from that,
everything is as it should be.
Four days after my Merlin Park Hospital adventure, I had another: I made my will and our solicitor and my witness, fellow poet Rachel Coventry, came to sign it with me in our front garden on April 20th, while observing the Law Society’s social distancing rules. I don’t own much. But I know we Irish are notorious for leaving problematic wills behind us and I wanted to make sure that things are as simple as possible for Susan, should I be struck down by the plague; though being the annoying gobshite I am, I now probably won’t be. It is, as the cliche has it, hard to kill a bad thing.
At the appointed hour, my solicitor, Rachel and I met in our unkempt front garden and signed my last will and testament. The solicitor was businesslike and said most of his afternoons were now taken up with visiting cocooning people to have them sign their wills. Afterwards, I sat on our doorstep and Rachel sat on our lawn and we chatted for a bit about the insanity of it all, about her PhD on Heideggerian poetics, about how Winston Churchill got the electoral boot immediately after the second World War and, of course, about poetry.
I said a poem about this day could start with the line(s) “Today is brought to you by the colour yellow.” Yellow being the colour of all the Covid-19 literature and signs but also of the dandelions then overwhelming our front lawn. Rachel went on her way, I went indoors and wrote this poem:
Today Is Brought To You
By the colour yellow
and the concept of annihilation.
By the letter C and a child somewhere
opening a picture-book on dinosaurs.
By the number 19
and a presidential debate
between denial and suicide
throwing your phone about the place
with increasing violence.
Today is brought to you
by another bar of Cadbury Fruit & Nut
and the choice between
burial and cremation.
Today is brought to you
by a man who has something you need to sign,
the woman who's agreed to witness it,
and the dandelions standing watch
around them on the driveway
as they put their names under yours.
Today is brought to you
by the new gods: Zoom and Deliveroo
and by words on a bit of paper
that will be read out afterwards.
Today is brought to you,
and tomorrow is probable.
But next week
and the week after are dreams
in which only the monsters are real.