Clover Stroud on love in a time of Covid-19
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Lying in bed scrolling through iPhoto, my phone, possibly sensing my thoughts, sent me a video of this day in time, a decade ago. It was, for a few moments, like peering through a looking glass to a vanished world from an entirely new reality. A series of photos floated past me and suddenly I was there, laughing into the camera outside a Tube station in the rain, holding up a pink birthday cake for my daughter’s sixth birthday as her nine-year-old brother looked on, snuggling up to my new boyfriend, and then the final shot, an image of my sister and myself, hugging one another in a buttercup field as we looked straight at the camera.
It was beautiful and disarming; these slow-moving images of a past that’s now gone completely undid me. Within a few short seconds, I’d moved from mindlessly scrolling Twitter to snotty and tear drenched, trying to reach back to a past from a present that looked so different to that vanished world.
The six-year-old daughter, Dolly is now pushing 17, all long limbs and swingy hair as her 19-year-old brother Jimmy drives her away in his car to meet a friend. And my two elder children have been joined by three more, Evangeline, seven, Dash, six and Lester, three, a tangle of apple cheeks and blonde hair, so that I am now the mother of five.
That boyfriend, Pete, is my husband of almost decade. Time moves on. Life changes, inexorably, in the course of a few moments and utterly in the course of months and years. My sister – my beloved sister, laughing at the camera as we hugged each other – is gone; she died from breast cancer in December. The unreality, and global, collective grief of the past few months, for the lives, as well as ways-of-life, lost, has taken her even further from me.
Seeing her photograph makes me cry some more, since the stark reality of her physical absence is something I’m still trying to understand. I put the phone face down on my bed and close my eyes. This year has brought with it so much change, and such intense hardship for so many people. And while it’s been bleak, there has also, in the darkness, been chinks of light, enabling many of us to see ourselves, our lives, the people we love most, as if through a bright and completely unexpected new lens.
Because while the silence and stillness of lockdown has been hard and sometimes disturbing in so many ways, there have also been aspects of it that have been a strange blessing. Many of us have been forced, quite suddenly and without warning, to pause, and in doing so step away from the frenetic culture of often self-imposed ‘busyness’, which had been moving faster and faster in the past few years.
Confined to our home for two months with Pete and my five children, inwards was the only direction I was able to look, and what I found there has reminded me what that nothing really matters in life but love. Love is always the thing that get you through.
It would be a lazy cliché to say that this time has made me appreciate the simple stuff in life. I have not embraced gardening or bread making, although I had a good crack at it to start with. And being locked up at home as a large family isn’t simple; there where times when the claustrophobia and straightforward boredom made me want to scream – which I did, now and again. And while it’s certainly made me question a lot of my habits, like the money I waste on pointless crap I don’t need, or the amount of cash I spend every week in petrol (well, we do live in rural west Oxfordshire, and there is the school run), it hasn’t made me want to make such radical changes in my life that I’d give up my car, forgo foreign holidays or actually have the patience to handle a sourdough starter.
If anything, being deprived of outings and treats made me value them in a way I’ve never truly done before. Just before lockdown happened, but sensing it was coming, I was in London for a final meeting. That evening, as the streets of London seemed to empty in front of us, Pete and I left his office on Edgware Road and sat in Maroush, our favourite Lebanese restaurant, lingering longer than usual over plates of smoke baba ganoush and bowls of bright green tabbouleh studded with jewel-like pomegranate seeds, toasting a last night of freedom for what would be several months.
Weeks later, utterly sick of yet another plate of my own home-cooked pasta, it was a bright memory I pulled out and gazed at as a moment of complete togetherness in my marriage, totally separate from the tangle and noise of our large family. Marriage and long-term relationships need special times like this to keep them strong and sprinkle a bit of magic, especially since there have been far more moments in the past two months when what my marriage has really brought me is frustration and anger. (You know you need to rein in the rows when you realise you have developed a reflex which allows you to pause for a split second before smashing the mug in your hand, in case it’s one of your favourites.)
But I think it’s the challenges of isolation – the very boredom and frustration, the anger that has flared up and made me want to smash cups, just not my favourite ones – which have also given me an entirely new perspective on what my marriage and family life does represent. It’s relatively easy, after all, to all get along when the good times are rolling forward and life is all high days and holidays; learning to, quite literally, live with each other, day after day after day, when a trip to the supermarket counts as a big day out, is much harder.
So lockdown taught me about how important it is to step down from an argument and turn back to face one another, right at the moment when what you really want to do is walk out. It’s shown me that, while I’m definitely looking forward to day I can drink fresh orange juice in a café in Seville, or walk through a market in Morocco, or swim in a glittering stretch of the Med with the green pine scent of the south of France around me, I’m also deeply grateful for the sweet security of home, the place I really love the most. And watching the photos of my past float by has also shown me, again, that time is precious and life is quick. Hold on to the good stuff and value today. Give those sugary children another hug, even when they’ve just tipped a massive box of Lego onto the kitchen floor; shrug off an argument with your husband rather than keep it going, just for the sake of being right. And tell the people that you love that you really do love them, as often as you can. I would do anything in the world to see my sister again and tell her one last time how much I love her. All we have, after all, is today.