Enduring the painful, deadly grip of Covid-19 shook Marie Louise O’Donnell to her very core, and learning that a much-loved relative had died from the disease while she was still fighting it was a devastating blow. But as she recovered, she found solace in prayer, the past and the kindness of others
I felt unwell. Very unwell. I couldn’t source the unwellness. Only that I had no energy. No strength. No vigour. It went on for days and gradually got worse until I hadn’t the strength to go to the back room, turn in the bed or drink a cup of tea. Everything I tried to do was a breathing and moving effort never experienced before. I couldn’t catch my energy. I couldn’t find it. It was disappearing and getting lighter and more vague as the hours passed. I became terrified.
Then the pains in my head began. First at the side above my ear piercing my skull like samurai swords and gradually sweeping across my crown and down my neck. A full scale battle.
I’m going to die.
I have always been afraid of dying. My fear of it invades all my living moments. But I didn’t really care now. I felt too weak and too fragile to be conjuring up great dark arguments about where I was going for eternity, and what it was going to be like when I got there. The fear of all that eternal nothingness now held no sway. Being alive was very difficult and more terrifying. Without physical strength and human energy you can become incapable of decision, humour, care, appetite, reaction, belief and worst of all hope. At least I did.
I am going to die.
I’ll never get better. This will not go away.
It will. It will take its course.
In the A&E in St Vincent’s I sit in a cold corridor. I cannot lift my head.
I’m going to pass out with weakness. It’s as though I’m living in another space watching myself through a hazy orange light. There is a man pulling soiled garments in large noisy bags up and down the corridor. Up and down. Up and down. The lives of people as seen through rotting bundles. They biff off my legs as he passes. I don’t care. I am beyond infection. There are tests and examinations and swabs in this cold room.
You have Covid and a bad dose of it. You can go, but if you deteriorate any further, come back.
I lie in bed. Unable. Unable to do anything. Unable to cope.
Then I heard a new awfulness through lying down muffled ears. Pat Sherry was dead. He died from Covid.
Born in Foxford, Co Mayo, like myself, a cousin, and part of my family that originally settled in the town to direct and develop Foxford Woollen Mills. Frank, Jim and Ann Catherine Sherry (my grandmother) wove with the Sisters of Charity alongside the wool and tweed brilliant families through 75 years of the Woollen Mills.
Their ingenuity saved us all from the boat to England, built a world-class woollen brand through two world wars, a music school and orchestras and educated and gave work to half the town. All our family worked there. From directors to wool carders. From the ware room to the washroom.
Pat was a gentleman. Always. He settled in Dublin and raised a wonderful family. My father said of his father that he was the best buyer of wool in Europe. Anthony Joyce, also from Foxford, succumbed to the virus the following week.
Midwest Radio became our funeral home. Somewhere to go to listen and to grieve.
The pains in my head were now explosive. The sadness and loss became overwhelming. It was inexplicable. These were relations and people I knew all my life. And they were dead because of Covid.
And I cannot get better. And I don’t know what to do with my sadness at their loss and their family’s loss.
And their grief. What about their grief? Where is that? And my waning energy is unable to help. I cannot even help myself.
It hurts to undress and wash. The shooting muscle pains become like new lava eruptions across my chest and arms and torso and legs. I cannot eat. I cannot stand. The only life is lying down.
The next seven days are petrifying. I feel so weak that the only thing to do to feel alive is to cry. And I cry with the pain in my head and in my muscles and in my hands and feet. And I cry because I have no control over the virus. No control over anything and the virus will not relent. And I cry because I am out of control whatever that ever meant. Maybe it was always thus and I just ignored it. But I am drifting. I cannot hold on. It is no longer possible.
I haven’t prayed for years. On the shelf in my bedroom I find The Glenstal Benedictine Book of Prayer. I begin to read it, out loud in a meek whisper listening to myself with a wispy voice breathing my way through the daily prayers and the prayers for the sick. I begin to pray to Our Lady and I recite the Memorare every hour to help me not die from exhaustion and drain. And terror.
And I pray to my dead father. I plead with him for strength. His strength. I plead with him to come back and help me. Come back just for a day. Come back and give me some sense of the ordinary and the strong. Make it all alright. I’m so fragile, and I need him very badly. He was very strong in stature and when we were ill, he was the one who minded us and got us better.
I am 68-years-old and I miss my father’s strength. This is surely the most terrible of sicknesses. It has reduced me to a childlike state. I am no longer a grown-up adult.
I am a faltering weak needy ageless viral host.
I am going to die
You are not.
It will get better. It will pass.
There are huge kindnesses from friends and neighbours. Genuine and useful kindnesses of soup, breads and supplies.
They have noticed no physical movement and blinds pulled all day. Flowers arrive but the virus will not allow me any enjoyment. I cannot breathe easily. And I panic. Big breaths, short intakes.
Dizziness. Weakness. All together. One obliterating and covering the other. The temperature spikes close me down, make me shake and tremble. I cannot stay awake and I cannot go to sleep in fear of all the dark thoughts. The mad dreams of now and yesterday, seas and forests and black witches with high rancid smells.
After six days, I get a window of slight change but it is quickly filled in by unending exhaustion and a residue of despair lying heavy in the air like a Dickensian gauze. What’s the use? Where’s the use? It will never be the same again. Nothing will ever be the same again. What same? Any same. But not this despair and feeling of nowhere and nothing. All this physical helplessness.
Make a promise. What promise will you make? Offer the evil something if it will stretch the respite lifts. Offer it anything, this or that wilful sacrifice or future resistance.
Another breather comes. Longer this time. I can stand. I can move around the small garden, notice the power of nature. I pray that I will keep my promises made. The respite is lengthening. Not just with the light but beyond it.
I am up and I can find some energy. Energy the foundation of my heartbeat, my passion and my hope. Energy seeping back into my sinews and veins. Energy the core of joy and the reason we are all alive. Energy. The great God itself. I had forgotten.
And the energy of prayer. I thank the gods for prayer. All kinds of prayer.
Those I learned on my repetitive knees as a child, those smelt through the Corpus Christi procession, those recited at benediction and burial. Prayer my echo of all voice internal and out loud recitation. And my call out to the ancestors. Ancestors who never really leave us. Ancestors who become the communion of saints.
And I thank my father for answering me as I believe he did.
If I was truthful I cannot manage this great liberal supermarketed 21st century without such implore and ask.
I just cannot do it. I think we are foolish if we think we can.
Why does everything have to be about the future?
It was with prayer and through prayer to the gods and ancestors that I felt solace or at least heard.
The virus has subsided, I am left with a fragile but renewed spirit. I am also left with the humility of knowing that I am in control of nothing. Absolutely nothing.
It is both a freeing and a fearful thought.
What I do know is that our 21st century self-centered vanity and know-all-ness is useless.
The Memorare prayer has more to offer. It always did and it always will.
It is my sustaining source of hope and heart for any kind of personal future.