Róisín Ingle and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
It started badly and got worse: a dead magpie, a Scrabble defeat, social media abuse, fear
‘I went upstairs. Got into my bed. Crawled under the duvet.’ Photograph: Getty Images
A day in a pandemic life: I can’t get out of bed. I mean technically I could, but I don’t want to. Thanks.
When my kids were younger, they used to love a book called Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst. It was the story of a boy called Alexander. The story of a day when everything in his life went wrong, from the moment he got up until the moment he went to bed.
I had one of those days and it bled into the following day and now I can’t get out of bed. (And you can’t make me.)
Sound familiar? I’m not talking about the actual Terrible, Horrible, No Good Days, the ones happening in nursing homes and hospitals, in direct provision centres and abusive homes. I am talking about the ordinary extraordinary Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Days the rest of us are experiencing.
Sometimes, there is nothing much to blame for the Terrible, No Good Day. And sometimes there are countless things, each one more trivial and more significant than the last.
For example, my partner whistles a lot. And jigs his leg, an unconscious habit.
Your thoughts and prayers are most welcome at this time.
It’s a kaleidoscope of feelings. Irritation mixed with rage. Apathy folded into expectation. Then there is the recurring fear, if you are a certain kind of parent, that your children are starting to hate your guts. Fear. That you nag too much. That you are eating too much. That you are not moving enough. And then you stopped doing your online yoga or your mindfulness classes with Bressie or whatever it was that was keeping you on an even keel.
And now you can’t even find the keel.
Van Morrison’s Ma never told us there’d be days like this.
On this particular No Good Day I was on the phone to an editor at The Irish Times. And at the same time one of my daughters was having a meltdown so epic that, if it were another child in somebody else’s locked down house, I would have admired it for its volume, variety of tone and creative use of my bedroom wardrobe for percussive purposes.
When there is an outside witness to the less palatable domestic realities of the current situation – I heard of a work video conferencing call being interrupted by a parent saying “have you done your wees?” – the awfulness of everything is somehow heightened.
“Oh, not the best day here,” I said breezily to the editor as the house audibly shook with more misplaced indignation than a Liveline chat about Normal People.
Then two magpie chicks fell out of their nest and into our yard. One died almost instantly but the other lay on our decking, squawking, unable to move, blood shining on its beak. I took a picture and put it on Twitter asking the hive mind for guidance. Not long afterwards it died. Nature’s macabre addition to the No Good Day.
Then there was the No Good Terrible Scrabble game. As part of our attempt to distract ourselves, a group of my friends are engaged in a highly competitive online Scrabble tournament. It’s serious business.
There is talk of batting averages, a prize for The Golden Tile (the highest scoring word) and a complicated method of calculating who is the best player based on use of tiles called, in a nod to the virus, the R Nought.
We have an Up For The Match inspired Zoom meeting once a week where all the game stats are shared. We do live commentary of crucial Scrabble games, which it turns out is much more entertaining than you might think. (If in the absence of regular sporting fixtures RTÉ are looking for something to replace Up For The Match, they can negotiate the rights to Up For The Scrabble Match with my agent).
I had lost two games in a row, having come a respectable third overall in our most recent tournament. And then on this particular day I was slaughtered in Scrabble for the third time in a week, my competitor scoring more than 500 points. The Scrabble assassin is one of the most courteous men I know. He rang me afterwards to commiserate. He wasn’t to know I was having a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
When the first call came, I sent one of those automatic messages in reply: “Sorry I can’t talk right now.” It was true: I had been rendered incapable of conversation by my hat-trick of defeats.
But he has one of those ancient phones that doesn’t recognise automatic messages. So he called again and I had to pretend to not be hating his guts. I didn’t do a very good job.
Then I went on Twitter and saw that somebody who disagrees with my views on women’s rights and abortion had gone to the trouble of manipulating my photo of the dying magpie chick, replacing the bird with a photograph of a dead baby.
It was worse than it sounds.
Sometimes I forget my mother is cocooning. I ring her up to make myself feel better, to complain about things she really doesn’t need to hear. She’s struggling as it is. She needs surprise deliveries of boxes of doughnuts like the one that appeared on her doorstep the other day. She doesn’t need me offloading on her. She’s finding it hard enough.
She listened but her heart wasn’t in it, she was trying to keep her mood buoyant. She needs to be lifted up, not dragged down. I felt guilty after speaking to her on this No Good Very Bad Day,
The next morning, I wasn’t feeling much better. I got up to do some work but was waylaid by some children at the kitchen table doing Irish comprehension. I tried to do my own work, and at the same time help them figure out the meaning of “tuirseach”, but the bad day feeling descended again. I went upstairs. Got into my bed. Crawled under the duvet.
I still had my shoes on. I was, it turned out, totally tuirseach. I had a little cry.
The phone rang.
My mother’s name flashed on the screen. I really couldn’t face hearing about her continuing bad days, and I knew I would only offload on her, making her bad day worse but then again she’s my mother so I answered the phone. Her face loomed into view, too close to the screen as always.
“It hasn’t been the best morning,” she reported and I could only agree. But something had happened that had cheered her up.
It might cheer you up, she said.
I very much doubted it.
Her day had not been going well. For a start, there was something wrong with the newspaper crossword she does online. And it was the crossword that was wrong, not her, she insisted in case I might have been thinking otherwise.
And then, the Poetry Person didn’t call. What Poetry Person?
She said it was Poetry Day Ireland and there was a scheme for cocooning people where if you wanted or felt it would help, a poet would call you up and read you a poem. She had booked a Poetry Person hoping it would give her a lift. But he or she hadn’t materialised. And my mother really needed a bit of poetry on this Terrible No Good Morning.
You see, my mother Ann’s life, even at 80, was so big and full before. And now it has become so small. She feels, sometimes, as though she no longer matters. It’s like when we went on that 10-day silent meditation retreat. I told her at the beginning that we couldn’t make eye contact, or touch. That was part of the deal.
At meals, though, or passing each other in corridors on the way to the meditation hall, she would try to catch my eye. And I would ignore her, as per the rules of the retreat. She told me afterwards, at those times, she knew what it must be like to be dead.
It’s a bit like that for you now isn’t it? I said. Yes, she said, it’s a bit like that.
Anyway, what happened was she had decided to ring Seniorline, the national confidential listening service for older people.The woman on the other end of the phone was a good listener. She listened to my mother about the crossword debacle. She listened to my mother’s disappointment about the lack of call from the Poetry Person. She made sympathetic noises when my mother talked about the unfairness of not having set foot outside the house for weeks on end when she knows other people her age who are going for walks every single day.
When my mother was finished, the woman on the Seniorline said she had a suggestion for my mother.
“Do you have a subscription to The Irish Times?” the woman said. “I do,” my mother said. “Well, there’s a woman working there,” the woman said, “called Róisín Ingle who is writing articles that might be helpful to you at this time”.
My mother couldn’t believe it. “She’s actually my daughter,” my mother said not adding what she was really thinking which was “and I have her on tap whenever I want and it’s not always the most helpful thing in a crisis, sorry to break it to you Seniorline lady”.
We laughed our heads off at this happening. Then we told my daughters and they laughed their heads off too. And then later the Poetry Person, Paddy Bushe, called my mother and it turned out he was in Kerry and he read some perfect poems to her including a beautiful piece he had just finished called the Etymology of Isolation.
In it he is “contemplating that isolate shares its Latin Island roots with insulate”.
We are isolating, but also insulating. In our beds. Under our duvets. In the warmth of our shared solidarity and stories of the No Good Very Bad Days.
We are all insulating together. We may be some time.