Author: Natalia Sokolovskaya
Translated by Tatiana Bonch-Osmolovskaya
In memory of those Petersburgers, who were infected with Covid-19 in emergency chambers and hospitals
A year ago, in March 2020, it became “normal” to smile at cheap alcohols’ instant disappearance from shop shelves, at the absence of toilet paper and pasta, at the rising price of buckwheat… It became “normal” to share life hacks like “make soups and you won’t be hungry”, to scoff at the lies of officials about the numbers of sick and dead and laugh openly at the foolish construction of a Covid hospital in LenExpo, with its mind-blowing greenhouse effect and its boxes assembled from plastic walls left from the past book fairs…
At that time we had only begun our anxious whispers on Facebook: how are you? and you? is everything fine with your family? hopefully it will be fine? are the friends of your friends feeling well? then who is sick? but the hospitals are filling up! oh, your neighbour is sick? oh, his whole family?! okay, but we are keeping fine (chuckle), huh? but in Italy… that’s where the real disaster is, entire nursing homes are dying out…
Anticipating our imminent future, we saw the daily quarantine photo reports made by Katya from Venetia. We peered into the beauty threatening with death and felt that here it was – rapture at the edge of gloomy abyss. We grieved and grieved and, simultaneously, we admired this empty city in the centre of the pandemic, a city overflowing with time, its paving stones crossed by the shadow of a dove caught by Katya’s photographic lens, which looked like the sign of the cross…
Katya was permitted to walk around: she had a white-ginger (prosecco + aperol) spaniel with a funny cocktail nickname Spritz. Leaning over our gadgets, we heard Katya’s lonely heels knocking in silence on the stones of Fondamenta degli Incurabili… the heels knocked like knuckles of an old abacus, morbidity and mortality grow, and the azure Lagoon sparkled under the Venetian sun, easily splitting time into atoms and shaking the mixture so that the Middle Ages appeared from galleries, museums, basilicas and monastic libraries into the streets and squares of all cities of the world at the same time…
* * *
…During the spring, doctors began to die in our hospitals due to the catastrophic lack of individual protection equipment against the new virus… And now, as it has become established in our past / present tense, the city had acquired its own Wailing Wall, a wall where new names and new photographs of people who died performing their duty appeared every new day…
And we no longer asked each other on Facebook: who? because now we knew that “who” was us … And there were more and more of us, sick and dead, and the Facebook wall resembled a battlefield, where shells fall closer and closer… And our tongue resisted the terrible abbreviation MVL, mechanical ventilation of lungs, the abbreviation bulky like the mechanism itself… And local officials reported about the opening of Covid cemeteries outside the city, where special grave diggers’ brigades, not accompanied by our relatives, would bury us in sealed coffins.
* * *
A year ago, in March, they began to build a nest on an old elm, in front of my window. A year ago, in March, we both were looking at it from that window. It was at the beginning of the pandemic when it had just reached us. A lockdown was announced, restricting people to go outside only to the nearest stores and to the nearest rubbish drop-off spot. “You sneak through the streets, as if you were going to a lover,” at that moment I could still make a joke of it. Mandatory mask wearing was introduced. But masks, as well as antiseptics, had disappeared almost instantly from shops and pharmacies. The supplies of essential PPEs, personal protective equipment, a popular abbreviation in the times of pandemic, were insufficient even for doctors in hospitals that would soon be overcrowded by sick.
Walking around was prohibited. We all ended up in something similar to a little Chernobyl. The virus was invisible like radiation. At that time no one knew anything about the infection’s consequences. The city emptied. “I don’t like it,” said my mother, “I don’t like seeing empty streets. It reminds me of returning from the evacuation in 1944. We went by tram from the Moscow railway station to the Petrogradskaya suburb in a completely empty city.”
My mother was not scared by the flashy voice from the loudspeaker installed on top of a car wandering the neighbourhoods, just like they did during the war. The voice warned the residents against leaving their apartments, except for the cases of direct threat to their lives and health. It advised going outside exclusively to shops, to rubbish drop-off spots, and walking their pets at a distance no more than a hundred meters from home. It said something else about self-isolation and age, and again about the obligatory mask wearing, masks that had already disappeared from all pharmacies.
The loudspeaker car made no great impression on my mother. The threat of a fine did not frighten her either. Possibly, she thought her age would be her safety certificate. From time to time, I brought her bags of groceries, left them in the hallway and left, acting in accordance with the regulations. However, my mother secretly went to the shops herself during her daily walks, unaltered under any circumstances, under the pretext, “I know better what I need.” She just frowned in annoyance in response to my screams, “Leave me alone. Of course, I wear a mask and gloves.” I brought her more groceries, left them in the hallway and left. It was forbidden to hug and come close to each other, and I managed to obey this requirement: what if I was already infected and could infect her… Six months later, when I finally violated this ban and we hugged, she started crying and said she had thought I disliked touching her.
…At that time, a year ago, in spring 2020, our window replaced the entire world for us. A group called “Outsido” appeared on Facebook. Another pandemic new-speak. People posted the photographs taken during short walks outside their houses: not able to look far in the distance, they began to look inward. They uploaded the views from their windows. This was now part of the inner life.
Outside my window the crows were just starting to build a nest on an old elm, though they did not much “build” it. They made their nest by placing short twigs found on the ground into a fork of two thick elm branches. After that, they intertwined these straight sticks with others, thinner and more flexible ones. Then I saw them carrying in their beaks pieces of furniture upholstery, ripped off from a thrown out old chair, and covering the bottom of the nest with these pieces. Nothing got in my way of staring at the bustle of two crows, as the elm foliage had not blossomed yet, its buds had only began to swell.
A little time passed, and one of the crows sat in the nest. I saw its tail, flat like a kid’s paddle, a frozen sticking out tail. I even took a photo of this crow sitting patiently in the nest and awaiting its offspring. I thought of posting the photo in the Outsido group, but the picture was not good: the crow appeared almost invisible among the branches.
For two or more weeks I looked at the nest several times a day. Once I saw a flock of outsider crows. There were ten of them, or more, and they all sat down on the branches around my nest. The crows sat there and, opening their beaks wide, yelled loudly. Sometimes one of the crows took off and jumped on the branches next to the nest. Suddenly, as if on signal, the whole flock has flown up into the air, like black mud clods flied up when hit by a shell. Silence came after… The crows flew away taking my crows with them. Only the nest, like a funnel from an explosion, stayed there hanging on the old elm tree.
For several days I waited for the crows who built the nest to come back. But nobody ever returned. An empty, instantly frightening nest hung across from my window until the fresh foliage hid it completely. I thought about the bluish-green eggs with small dark specks that were left on the crumpled upholstery snippets, soft bird fluff and calcified droppings. There were four to six of them, these unborn crow chicks, in the nest, as I read later in Wikipedia.
…Our apartments were turning into prison cells which we couldn’t leave. I thought already it would be better to catch it than to wait in humiliating fear. But in that case my mother and I would be separated from one another.
The hospitals were overloaded. Queues of ambulance cars lined up to the emergencies. And in the waiting rooms… What a stupid phrase: “emergency rest chamber”… What is “rest” here? Is it the state of mind and body of a sick person? Or does is come from “rest in peace”, a promise to the sufferers?
Oh! My mother and I were already firsthand familiar with places called “emergency rest chambers.” The experience of being in an emergency room is a specific initiation for the locals. We went through it a year before the pandemic, when, within a month’s interval, my mother was hospitalized in July and August. She experienced twice the hand-made hell of an admission ward. After that we decided that henceforth we would avoid this life-threatening place at any cost… It was scary even to imagine that the unbearable three-four-five-six hours of the painful waiting period would repeat again. No, no more “rest,” from now on we would stay at home only, no matter what, only at home, until the very end…
Those first two emergency rooms merged together in my memory, and, just reconstructing the events, I recalled that in the first room there was a half-naked old man sitting in a wheelchair with shabby armrests, and in the second room, there was a half-naked woman lying on a wobbly gurney without barriers. I recalled that I was focusing my attention on these two people, so that I would not think about the fact that next to me was my mother, and I could do nothing to help her, while she, in front of my eyes and my helplessness, was getting worse and worse every minute. How could I help her? I asked her to be patient and I ran out of the main room, where women and men of all ages, but mostly old people lay on trestle beds covered with torn oilcloth, or on old gurneys, in supposed separated boxes. I ran to the reception, where, I thought, were the special people who knew how to speed up this passage through the circles of hell. Maybe they would tell me how much longer we had to wait after several hours that have already passed, during which, at seemingly huge intervals of time (and they were huge indeed), they took blood from the patient’s vein, then, in the other corner of the room, they measured the blood pressure, then, again in another compartment, did a cardiogram, then, at the end of a long hallway (a wheelchair bounced on the crooked linoleum), did X-ray, then on another floor (a hallway, bouncing, an elevator), did CT, then… then… But those at the reception told me not to “shout and wave your hands here,” and I told them that my mother was getting worse and she required help, and they answered me that “everyone is that way” and that “we don’t have enough staff”, and they said also, “wait until the results of all tests are ready”… Then I run again to where I left my mother, and looked into the eyes of doctors and nurses with only one question, “when will all this end, who can tell me?” And I noticed with horror that they all looked right through me, that now those nice “people in white coats” for some reason could not look into my eyes, and I wanted to shout at them all, to call them the most rude words, and suddenly I realised: this was their only defence, to not look at me. To not look. Because they couldn’t help us in any way, because it was not in their power to help, because they also were hostages of a routine invented not by them, because all together we were just fuel in a huge and heavy mechanism, which moved at a set speed put in motion by someone in given direction, and none of us could change anything in this motion, and, it turned out, all this was just the order of things…
I bowed to my mother, rubbed her cold hands, whispered that she must be patient a little longer, and my mother replied with a whisper: “I will be patient, I will be patient, just don’t worry…” Then I, to not howl across their entire emergency chamber, focused on the old man in the wheelchair. He was alone, no one accompanied him, just from time to time a nurse took him away for the next examination and brought him back to his place by the wall and left him there. I said earlier that the old man was half-naked. This was not entirely true. A huge diaper swollen with urine could hardly be considered clothing. The old man was small, his skin resembled crumpled brown parchment. The old man had narrow childish shoulders and protruding collarbones, a bare skull and a nose that almost touched the sunken upper lip. He looked like an ant with a bulging back part of the body, or like the famous image of Mahatma Gandhi. The old man had a serene face and gentle eyes. When we came to the emergency room, he was already there, and now we have been sitting there for over four hours.
Sometimes a nurse ran into the separated by boxes room or in the hallway filled with a queue along the walls and waiting for this or that examination, and shouted someone’s name. The remaining in the queue people saw off the called lucky one with envious glances, at least someone’s waiting time in the emergency room was cut.
It was stuffy, and I noticed that my mother was turning pale and sinking into her chair. I squeezed her stroller into the next over box with an ajar window. I looked into her face all the time, and suddenly I was struck by her sharp stare directed to the upper corner of the window, I even turned around to find out what was there, and when I looked at my mother again, I saw her eyes closed, and her head down on her chest. A woman sitting next to me on the trestle bed called me and pointed at the floor under the wheelchair on which my mother was sitting, where a small puddle was spreading.
With a cry, I rushed across to a nice, as it seemed to me, neuropathologist, who had examined my mother three hours ago, and together in hurry we (not a single nurse was around) rolled the rattling gurney down the long hallway, with the intensive care unit at its end.
I stood at the door, imagining everything that we knew about reanimation from books and movies… I stood shocked by the thought that came into my head, simple and terrible thought, and at the same time a comforting one: “Lord, maybe right now the whole nightmare will end…”
However, fifteen minutes later, the same gurney was rolled out into the hallway, and my mother was still sitting on it, looking around herself with a dull wandering gaze.
We were returned to the same room with the boxes, where a nurse flew in from time to time again, shouting another name, where the friendly ant-Gandhi was sitting against the wall in his overflowing diaper, and where we waited for about an hour more, neither alive nor dead, for some papers needed before we were taken to the medical unit.
A month later, all of this repeated in almost exactly the same way. We ended up in a similar emergency room, in the same hell. What else can I call a room below ground level, with windows against the bottom edge of the asphalt sidewalk, so that if someone from outside were like to look at what was going on below, they would need to bend over or squat, as if looking into a grave. Who – who – who – had decided that all these warm, human, miserable, tender, quietly crying – have to be hidden in the deep, who put them into a stuffy narrow space that drained of last strength and hope?!
There were other, but same doctors there, and the same procedure: messaging of blood pressure, blood test, cardiogram, ultrasound, X-ray, CT and something else and more something else, for which the state granted funds to the hospital, and therefore sick people, before receiving real help, must come through a full circle of tests at any cost, even if they lay on crappy oilcloth gurneys in their own urine and choke on their own green vomit, muttering between bouts of nausea that they wished to die, die, just let it all be over as soon as possible, and this person was my own mother.
Suddenly I began to see everything that was happening around as from above, as if it was me who had freed myself, who died here myself instead of my mother. I saw a long room filled with sitting and lying people, I saw our box, and a nurse running past it from time to time shouting someone’s names. In the box there were two gurneys parallel to each other. Two women were lying on the gurneys. One lay hunched over and facing the wall. This was my mother. The other one lay on her back, covered with a thin wet sheet. No one was with her, she was lonely, like the Gandhi ant from the previous hospital. Under the sheet, the woman was naked, a diaper they put on her many hours ago was soaked through and through, and the urine flowed down in thin streams to the floor. No one cared about the woman lying on the cold oilcloth slippery with urine.
I saw myself standing between these two women. I saw myself holding my mother by her shoulder with my left hand, because I was afraid she would fall, hanging over the unfenced edge of the gurney, as she continued to vomit. I saw myself holding the naked woman by her shoulder with my right hand. She was in her late sixties, with grey roots under black hair, and suffering intelligent eyes. The woman behaved restlessly, she rushed about in an attempt to fall off the gurney, and mumbled something inarticulate, her face was partially paralysed. I noticed that she was trying to tell me something, but I shook my head, “I don’t understand,” and asked her just not to move. From time to time the woman screamed out loudly, in some special way, but again I didn’t understand what that meant. Sometimes I stopped holding either my mother or a stranger’s woman, and shook my numb hands in turns. This went on for another hour.
A nurse, running past us, again shouted out someone’s surname, and the half-paralysed woman leaped forward with a cry of despair with her last strength, then it dawned on me: this nurse has already called her name many times, he just hadn’t noticed her miserable attempts to draw his attention to herself…
“This is her,” I shout. “That’s her!” and by this screaming I returned to my own body. “So why didn’t you answer before, then?” the nurse was displeased, pushing the gurney into the hallway, and I had just a moment to fix the sheet slipping away from the woman.
…In this way four hours have passed. I noticed that my mother started freezing, even though she was covered by both her coat and my jacket. She muttered something. I bent over her. “I think I wet myself again.” She began to shiver. I asked a nurse where I could get a blanket, and heard a response: “Where would we get the blankets from?” Then, unforgivably late, I recalled the “telephone right”, this Soviet and now past-Soviet habit. I dialled the number of my friend who was well-known in some circles. It turned out my friend was not on the best terms with the chief medical officer of the hospital, which did not surprise me at all. But he earnestly called them and called me back: “They promised to do everything.” I did not know what this “everything” meant, but another forty minutes passed before an imposing-looking administrator in a white coat and bow tie appeared in our box. A nurse came with him and rolled the gurney with my mother out of the box. While we walked along the long hallway, the administrator condescendingly and mockingly explained me that I had probably seen too much of American movies, where a team of doctors with defibrillators and IVs waited for each patient at the entrance, and everyone was hurrying at a run – sure, like down this hallway – and fluorescent lamps flickered before the patient’s sight, quickly, on the ceiling, like carriage windows in a subway, and everything finished with a happy ending, but in fact, you know, my dear, everything was not quite this way…
Why did this fop drag America into this? Who could doubt even for a moment that here everything was completely different? Suddenly I understood. The reason was my friend, a liberal and human rights activist, the one who called the chief medical officer. That officer did not dare to ignore him, a media personality, but sent his subordinate with a correlating comment to sort out the problem. The latter, not without reason, having decided that I was very much the same with the liberal guardian for the little ones, and started his routine pseudo-patriotic song for me.
I was sick of his words, but even more I was sick of myself, because, trying to keep up with the fop, I jumped slightly, even nodded mechanically, but in reality I dreamed of only one thing: that my mother were in a medical ward. When it finally happened, once again we gave ourselves the promise, “No emergency chambers, never again…”
* * *
We spent most of the year 2020 calmly, except for the dire reports from the Covid battle front and my fear that one of us would get sick. Girdle pain regularly tormenting my mother, caused by spinal injuries, intensified during that autumn, and a few times she suffered such strong attacks we had to call an ambulance. Ambulanced helped with painkiller injections. Now my mother only went out for her walks, “to breathe”, with my help, and not as often as before. A doctor seeing my mother said that it would be better to go to a hospital to check the reason for these “strange” pains… I suppose she said that mostly to whiten her conscience: what kind of examination would be performed at the peak of the pandemic second wave? What hospital would we go to, if almost all of them worked only “on Covid” during the autumn and winter, up to the end of the year. Moreover, back in summer, my friend’s old mother had returned from a planned surgery in a so-called “clean hospital”, with Covid she acquired there, and infected the whole family before dying. There were hundreds, if not thousands of such cases in the city.
Nevertheless, my mother and I went out for short walks when her condition allowed. Sometimes there were long pauses between out walks. Then my mother would look around, in hope of seeing someone she knew, those with whom she usually met nearby, all these “ladies” whose dogs she knew by names, or “pensioners” with whom she walked slowly around the nearest school. She needed them to know that “nothing wrong” happened in her absence, and she was still there, one among them, and she was alive. But we met almost no one ever, because the mother was “an early bird” who used to go out early in the morning, and I was “a late bird” working late into nights, and my mother had to reconcile with my routine, and I, I probably did not have that much compassion and delicacy to adapt to her not so complicated wishes.
During one of our last walks, maybe the last one, my mother saw one of her friends and even pulled me in that direction, calling her friend by the name and patronymic, and I tried to call her out too, this Ekaterina, either Sergeevna or Andreyevna, but she was walking far away, on the other side of the courtyard blocked by cars, and of course has not heard us. “This is fine,” said my mother, “fine, most likely she went to the shop, and we will meet her on the way back.” But we have not met her again. Ever.
* * *
…In February of the second year after the beginning of the pandemic, it did happen. Our third emergency chamber.
We could not stay at home with a stone blocking the bile duct. The waiting period for an ambulance was not long, as Covid calls had diminished at the time. A young doctor understood immediately what the problem with my mother was and advised urgent hospitalization. A nurse was fast and attentive, she did necessary injections, and together with the doctor they helped my mother to go down to the ambulance car, while I was packing her things and documents with trembling hands.
We were taken to the nearest hospital, a “clean” one, “not Covid” one, so to speak, the type that had reappeared in the city for a month now. On the way to the hospital I was able to exchange a few words with the doctor. When he heard about our experience in the reception chambers, he just shook his head and noticed that those before-Covid reception rooms were merely purgatory, and added, “Well, you will see for yourself” …I could already predict the answer, but asked him anyway, hoping that my mother could not hear us, “But those sick with Covid are not taken there, right?” The doctor looked at me sympathetically, “And how do you separate those with Covid from those without it, if some people are taken by ambulances from home without testing, and the others are taken straight from the streets…” …Probably, the expression on my face was terrible, and even a mask could not cover it, because the doctor touched my shoulder with his hand in a medical glove and said only, “Do not lose your hope, everything will be fine…”
…The third emergency chamber was no different from the previous ones: the same semi-basement, the same long hallways, the same floors covered with uneven linoleum, the same room with boxes fenced by oilcloth curtains one from another… Only now there were even more people there, and everyone was wearing masks… No, not everyone… Far from everyone. But the medical staff did not pay any attention to this: every person who had entered this room had to take care of their own safety, whereas the doctors were not afraid to be infected as most of them went through this already in the spring, during the first wave.
In a stuffy space with closed windows, crowded by people, no prescribed distance of one and a half meters was obeyed, and could not be obeyed, and there was — not one — not one — not one – not even a cheapest quartz lamp to disinfect the air. There were dozens of people lying there, sitting there, standing and scurrying about there, and many of them coughed and blew their nose, and they all breathed – and breathed – and breathed… The damned virus was here in such numbers as probably the number of people on the platforms of the railway station rushing straight into the city and walking in by solid lines, not paying attention to the locals pressed into the walls.
But I tried not to think about it. I tried to think about good things. After all, everyone taught me to think about good things. Then, they said, and bad things would not happen. Hell, not a chance. Before thinking about the good things, I had to find a place to let my mother sit at least, if not lie down, my mother who could hardly stand on her feet. Two young, stiff-looking people, a girl and a boy, sat on a trestle bed closest to us, together with a small old woman between them, probably a grandmother of one of these people. Next to them lay a bundle of her things.
Panting in my disgusting mask, not quite aggressively, but still not friendly either, I asked them if their things were feeling cramped on the bed. Young people looked at me with stunned eyes and suddenly woke up, quickly removed the bundle from the trestle bed, so I could settle my mother there. I asked them how long they had been here, and they replied that it had been a long time, much more than an hour, but they (they turned their heads at once to the old woman who was sitting quietly between them) they were not called out anywhere and they did not understand at all what was happening here and what they should do… “I guess you need to find the doctor to whom you were assigned at the reception,” said I, and immediately realized that I myself had not seen the doctor to whom we were assigned. I also realized that I have to look for a wheelchair, because my mother could not move on her feet through these damn rooms. I put down my bags and asked these young people to look after “another grandma,” and looked around the room again. Filled with people, most of all it resembled a waiting room on a railway station during the war… There definitely were no extra wheelchairs here. So I went around in search.
There were people standing and sitting along the walls in all the hallways. Mostly there were old people, some were sitting in wheelchairs, and beside them, bending down, soothing, admonishing, stroking their heads and hands like children, stood their families: daughters, sons, grandchildren, sometimes the compassionate neighbours… Quiet and frozen as if pupated, these old people waited obediently for when they would be finished with being moved from one room to another for the tests that took away the last, perhaps, time of their life, without bringing any relief. They tried their best to keep their dignity, some tried to joke, because this was the only way they could cheer and calm their relatives, seeing despair in their eyes.
From time to time a nurse looked into the hallway and shouted, “Ivanov, where is Ivanov?” But Ivanov did not answer her, and someone else went to the next test.
Sometimes I smelled alcohol fumes and saw gurneys occupied by men in dirty clothes who came there after street fights. One of them with head covered in blood was tormented by a dry, tough cough, and was taken for ultrasound and X-ray to the same rooms where the others were taken after him, and I have not noticed them disinfect the rooms.
Finally, at the far end of the hallway, I found an old wheel-chair, without a footboard (my mother would have to keep her feet lifted when moving), but with working wheels and a strong back. When I returned, my mother was still sitting motionless on the bench next to the old woman. But I noticed a vacant trestle bed in the box nearby and quickly threw my things onto it, then rolled the wheelchair that I had found with such effort and pulled my mother there, and she could finally lie down and stretch out her numb legs. I felt ashamed for the young people with their grandmother, who were here before us… Yet I did not hesitate to take a vacant place, catching myself thinking that, it seemed, for the first time, I arrived at the situation where truly “every man is for himself”… There was no sense thinking who lay on this trestle bed before my mother, because all alcohol wipes taken from home had long since run out, just like the sanitizer with which I watered generously my mother’s hands and mine, just as the masks… A long time ago we had lowered our masks to the chins, as there was nothing to breathe even without them.
Doctors constantly came to the emergency room, but instead of streamlining the process, they just increased the confusion, when every now and then some patients or their relatives rushed to them begging to explain when a nurse would come for them to take them to the next test.
Again the nurse called Ivanov who again was not there.
…When four young men in identical blue robes and hats appeared near our trestle bed, I joked wishing to cheer up my mother, you see, a complete medical council was here gathered for you. I helped her to undress to the waist, and these guys, one of whom, as it turned out, was in his internship, and three others turned out to be foreign students of a medical university, crumpled my mother’s belly for a long time, apparently managing to acquire some skills, but clearly unable to distinguish a suffering ninety-year-old woman from a guinea pig. My mother smiled trustingly to them and endured the pain. I hadn’t understood straight away what was going on, but when I did, I was ready to tear these “studying youths” to pieces, not worrying at all with which country our diplomatic relations would deteriorate.
When I was taking my mother’s wheel-chair into the hallway to continue the tests, an elderly woman on a trestle bed in the next box fell to the floor with the sound of a sack of potatoes. She fell flat, face down, and remained there, and I yelled for this entire poorhouse that now they would have a morgue here, whatever they thought of themselves before.
The first to react were the young people accompanying their grandmother and some of the patients waiting in the queue. They lifted the unfortunate woman by her arms and legs, and put her back on the trestle bed, and only then a nurse came up to her. After making sure that the woman was alive, the nurse left her there just pulling back the curtain of the box.
…Sitting in the hallway, we had waited for a while until we went to the ultrasound room, then to X-rays room, then… An old obese woman moaned nearby, her head thrown back, reclined sideways in a wheelchair. She was moaning for the fourth hour already, at least I have heard her all the time we were there, and her relatives, most likely a son and daughter-in-law, no longer comforted her but, exhausted themselves, stood obediently next to her, with their heads lowered and silent, as if it was not a gurney with a still living creature in front of them, but an open coffin with a deceased person.
I looked around the emergency chamber, at these men and women, at these old people, and thought that all of them, including myself, were just a statistical error that had been taken into account long ago in some office, that we were all pre-planned figures of fatalities, that we were all counted and crossed out. Decades of years from now, either meticulous experts digging in the archives or our grand-grand-grandchildren thirsty for justice to find out “what has really happened there?” would confirm my hypothesis based on the knowledge of our history. Yes, exactly. Suffocating in this cramped emergency chamber, full of contagion, we were a state secret, we were a document labelled “top secret” which, sooner or later, would be made public. Then our descendants would learn everything about our today’s mute hecatomb.
…I continued to pull the gurney from room to room, and my mother held her knees up without another reminder, as our gurney did not have a footstep. Again the nurse put her head into the hallway and shouted out for Ivanov. We spent another hour waiting for this Ivanov-Godot, which, following the lines, never appeared.
Finally, we were brought to the last room where they took the Covid test. I asked a nurse why everything is so terribly organized. After all, what was happening here was a direct crime against humanity… The boy looked exhausted, he had been on duty in the emergency chambers since early in the morning. He just sighed heavily and replied, “We ourselves (by “we ourselves” he probably meant doctors and nurses), we ourselves do not understand why everything is happening this way.” Looking at my mother, he added, “I’m sorry, I’m very sorry…”
Twelve days later, I read in a hospital document emailed to me that my mother had a negative Covid test on admission. This meant we arrived “clean” to the hospital. The virus, which was everywhere there, hadn’t yet begun its destructive deed in her body.
* * *
… What else would I like to talk about? The surgery was not successful. The surgeon could not remove the stone located in my mother’s bile duct, just put a bile-diverting stent there. A nurse, a young guy who was doing alternative military service in the hospital, brought my mother to the ward on a gurney. My mother lay on her side with her eyes closed, holding a bag in her hand, the most ordinary orange plastic bag from a grocery store, and she mechanically wiped the flowing bile from her mouth with this terrible bag. With my help, the nurse moved my half-naked, wet mother from the gurney to the bed, then left, leaving her lying on her back. Then she began to vomit with bile. “Put her on her side, turn her on her side!” someone shouted from the ward. But I was already doing this myself, at the same time opening the bags with diapers and napkins to wipe and dry her. The nurse, who was not in a hurry at all, watched me do this.
Half an hour later I figured everything out here and found a nurse who was looking after two similar elderly patients, this was a paid nurse, a professional one, and my mother needed her professional help.
As the stone was not removed, another surgery had to be performed. For this, my mother had to get better, after leaving the hospital she had to spend a month and a half at home. It was very, very bad, considering her age and concomitant diseases. But we were determined to fight. We had no other choice. My mother was gradually getting better, she even started to get up, and asked me to bring her newspapers and a small receiver, and we listened together to some radio station.
One day she said, almost without reproach, “You know, my hair is still unwashed and uncut.” That was exactly what I was afraid to hear from her, and what I want and cannot forget now. In the evening before the hospitalisation, she indeed asked me, “Help me to wash my hair and please cut it,” and I replied with, “It is too late today, let’s do everything tomorrow, okay?”
On February 17, after a meagre hospital breakfast, she was sitting on the bed in her clean T-shirt and her favourite downy shawl, and I took a picture of her. She frowned in embarrassment, and smiled at me and waved her hand, why, don’t, I’m an old and bad looking woman… Leaving the room, I kissed her head, and she kissed my hand which I didn’t have a chance to pull back.
…In that evening I realized I was getting sick. It was a condition unlike anything else. Never before have I felt myself in such a way: emptiness inside me and loss of energy. The next day my temperature went up, but I brought it down and ran to a medical centre next door to take a Covid test. I was still there hoping for the best, because I had an appointment with the doctor: my mother was going to be discharged from the hospital the next Monday. All evening and all night I made plans on how my mother would live three weeks without me: who and how would bring her from the hospital, where I would get a nurse, doctors, how I would organize food delivery… I thought of everything. In the morning, when the positive test arrived in my mailbox, it seemed to me that I was almost ready for the new reality. I just needed to call the hospital and explain everything and ask them to understand my situation.
When I told the doctor about the Covid test, he exclaimed, “Oh, you too?” And I felt that I could not breathe. It was as if the damned “frosted glass” in the lungs of which we all were frightened to death, filled my lungs immediately and completely.
Now the worst lay ahead of me: a conversation with my mother. At first she refused to understand what was happening, why I could not come to her and why it was necessary to move to another hospital, and how she could do all this without me. Not believing a single word I said and hoping only for a miracle, I spoke and spoke, not letting her argue with me, that the hospital where she would be taken was very good, especially for patients with Covid, and she had nothing to worry about, so in a moment a nurse would come to collect all her things, and she would not have to do anything herself, and she would be taken on a gurney to a car that would take her to another hospital, and there she would be met and treated well… I said that now I would organise everything, please just don’t worry… And I began to call the nurse. The nurse, calm and familiar with everything, told me to “stop freaking out” and assured me that she would do everything as it should be done. She added, “Nothing surprising here. There are at least two patients with Covid taken there from our department every day.”
Indeed… nothing surprising…
The paperwork, packing, and moving to another hospital took a long time. Waiting for a call from my mother, I rushed by the apartment, swallowing antipyretics, reading Facebook, trying to figure out what to do with myself, who I could ask about the treatment of this terrible disease with an open ending.
Four hours later the phone rang, and I heard a voice in the receiver, an unrecognizable thin voice repeating in a childish sobbing matter, “My dear, my darling, take me away from here, oh daughter, my little daughter, take me out of here…”
I will remember her voice until the last day of my life.
A week later, I ended up on a hospital bed myself. For a short time I managed to bring down the high temperature, then I lost the sense of smell, and panic attacks began, and the expression “cytokine storm” hung over me like the sword of Damocles that is either going to fall on me, or not, but I still hoped to take care of my mother when she was discharged from the Covid hospital.
I decided that the hospital for me would be the best, they would help me faster and more reliably there. It truly turned out this way. I should especially write about the brotherhood of the sick, all of them, serious, medium, and lightly sick, and the doctors and nurses who already suffered from Covid themselves, I should write about them some other time. I would say we suddenly became a nation. Exactly, there and for that period of time, we became a nation, one people, and for some reason this feeling vanished outside the walls of the hospital.
Yes, there were torturing (though cheap) metal beds with hard rubberized mattresses, and this caused a lot of suffering, especially for elderly people. Yes, drips were put in and blood tests were taken from veins with thick needles (“they didn’t give us thin ones”), so our hands were covered in blue-yellow spots, but one day a young nurse came with her own thin needles, she bought them with her own money, because “it’s a shame to look at these people…” Cheap Chinese thermometers did not show the correct temperature, and the patients asked their relatives to buy and bring them the “normal” ones…
I was lucky: in a side corridor, on the outskirts with the utility rooms, there was a window. It looked to the east, and in the evenings lines of houses on the other side of the wide avenue looked like carmine letters that formed the words: sunset, sunset, sunset…
I loved this window, besides, it was quiet in that corner, and I called my mother from there, pretending I was calling from home, because she did not know I was in the hospital too. My mother thought I was sick at home, this pleased her and at the same time was the reason for her involuntary envy, which she hid from me and almost never showed it. To come home felt like happiness for her, and she no longer believed in it…
I am not sure why I hid from her that I was in the hospital. I was probably afraid to scare her. After all, “when a person is put into a hospital this means the situation is bad”… These thoughts would only increase her anxiety… But I needed to be in a hospital. Not only to recover more quickly and reliably there. I just didn’t feel I had the right to “sit at home, in comfort.” The hospital became my consolation, allowing me, at least to some extent, even the most insignificant extent, to share the fate with my mother.
* * *
I was discharged from the hospital two weeks later. The first two days I was afraid to go outside: my head was spinning and my heart ached. They said these were post-Covid panic attacks. On the third day, I overcame my fear and went to the hospital to bring her something. Most of all I was struck by seeing people in public transport. There were many of them, and only a third of them were wearing masks, and the faces of the rest radiated with a state of calm. The same peace was on the faces and in the voices of officials telling people about the current situation in the city.
My mother spent almost a month in that new hospital. For the first three weeks there was a nurse around her, and I knew at least partially what was going on. I knew from the nurse that they put a lot of IVs in my mother, and that she was eating a little, and that the surgery to remove the stone would not be performed because of Covid, and they would see what happened next… The nurse also told me that sometimes my mother “was going into her memories.” I understood from this that there were still good moments during my mother’s martyrdom, when she wanted to tell “Tanyukha” (she called the nurse Tatiana, as the long-dead friend of her youth) about herself, how they, students, ran to dances in Naval School next to them, and about her favourite dark green pan velvet dress, and how she wore an amber pendant with it, and how much she had to help her “un-housewifely” daughter…
The turning point for the worse came when my mother asked the nurse to take away her glasses and the receiver. She no longer wanted to be connected to the world. She began to call me less often. It was mostly me who called her. Her speech became more and more disordered, and I realized that I was losing her and at the same time I felt I could do nothing to change it, I couldn’t even hug and comfort her. I realised that she was no longer “mine”, and I rushed around my apartment in a frenzy and howled…
One day she called me and began to tell me in an almost joyful voice how she would take a shower, how “water would pour on her,” and “what a pleasure it would be”. “I don’t need anything, anything else, just the warm water pouring on me,” she repeated.
When a part of the hospital was closed for disinfection, the remaining Covid patients, and there were many of them, were transferred to another building. The nurse was not allowed there. I called the head of the department, and he said that they did not make any exceptions, and the nurse would not be needed there, as their nurses were taking good care of everyone, and that as soon as the negative test came, my mother would be ready for discharge from the hospital.
Telephone conversations with my mother almost stopped. But one day she called me in the middle of the night. She said with a terrible intermittent voice, that she could no longer endure this, and that she wanted to kill herself. “What are you talking about!” I shouted, “the doctor said that in a week you would be discharged! Don’t you dare, don’t you even dare telling me so!” But she didn’t hear me and kept repeating that she didn’t want to live anymore and she was ready to throw herself over the bed fence to crash on the stone floor.
It was past midnight, but I dialled the number of her previous nurse. The thought of my mother dying so ordinary, so lonely and so painfully in this damn hospital drove me crazy. But the nurse did not reply.
Barely able to wait till the morning, I called the head of the department. I said crying that they shouldn’t make a person suffer, that they shouldn’t do this, that they needed to help her somehow… But the doctor replied that they were doing everything needed, and my mother was just being such a “troubling patient”…
Then I called my mother. Against my expectation, she answered the phone after a few rings. Her voice was very weak, but it seemed to me that she was better. She asked me, “How are you?” At that moment I admitted that I spent two weeks in the hospital myself and had only recently been discharged, and immediately began to tell her that I was at her home, and cleaned it, and it was clean and bright now, and everything was ready for her return, and even flowers bloomed brightly in the pots. I repeated for so many, many times that I loved her… I wanted her to hear this and, maybe, remember it…
…Three days later, in the morning, a call came, and the head of the department, the one who was talking about the discharge, said that my mother felt bad at night and was taken to the intensive care unit, but they couldn’t do anything. “It was a heart attack. She fought, but she had Covid, and also, you know, her age…” Of course, I knew.
…Among the things that were returned to me was a T-shirt cut from the neck to the bottom, the one in which my mother was brought to the intensive care unit. The entire inside of the T-shirt, especially at the stitches, was covered with some white ash, or the smallest fluff of not even a bird but a chick. It was actually the peeling skin of my mother. “I gave them shirts for changing. And he said they were looking after her”, I thought, folding the T-shirt neatly. For several days it lay on the couch, among other things that had been returned from the hospital. Then I washed it and put it in the closet, next to my things.
…Then there was a spring again. The second spring since the beginning of the pandemic. I remember how some years ago a damn bag, a white plastic bag stuck high in the branches of a nearby birch and dangling in the wind indecently and impudently, looking like underwear, was an eyesore to me. None of the storms that for several times ruffled the trees of our yard could pluck this horrific thing that would decay in a thousand years. The fact that the birch lifetime is almost ten times less than the time of decomposition of a plastic bag was of little consolation for me, as I did not expect to outlive the birch either. But one fine day the bag disappeared, it seemed to dissolve into thin air, as if these thousand years had passed already, and I was still alive. I felt a relief similar to what you experience when a tormenting speck comes out of an eye along with tears.
But the crow’s nest was different… Abandoned by its birds, it turned out to be surprisingly strong. Summer showers did not wash it away, autumn stormy winds did not blow it away, winter snowfalls did not crush it…
Now it is mid-May, soon the foliage will completely hide the empty nest. But it will still stand there before my inner sight like black flashes stand before your eyes when you look at the sun through lowered eyelids. It will stand still in front of my inner sight, like that two-hundred-years-old mighty elm felled down by a hurricane at the Serafimovskoye cemetery last summer, and a cross torn from the ground hung from its rearing roots.
 Emergency rest chamber – in Russian, emergency room is literary called “emergency rest chamber” (приемный покой), the word with the same root as “rest” as in “rest in peace”. Natalia often refers here to this meaning in contrast to the actual “emergency disorder” she and her mother experienced there.