from Nike in Katerini, Greece: Dark Thoughts …

I’ve been having dark thoughts. So dark I’m not sure I should express them. Greece is going to remain in full lockdown for the remainder of April and most likely till early May. We’ve been in Greece over six months now. We come often, we being my parents and I. Every year my father announces he wants to die in Greece so every year we come over spend half the year here, he doesn’t die, and we return to Australia until the next year.

Last year my father fell so ill I didn’t think we’d make it over in time. His doctors all said don’t bring him to us any more, there’s nothing further we can do. It was okay – I wasn’t even sad. The man is 92 years old and riddled with disease and chronic conditions. He’s lived a big life, seen children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. There’s nothing to mourn, indeed it should be a celebration to have lived like that.

The flight over from Australia was horrendous. That long haul never gets any easier no matter how many times you do it. During half of the flight my father kept yelling how dreadful this cinema is and he kept trying to leave. I spent most of the flight restraining him from trying to open the exit door. A couple of the burlier gentlemen on board kindly helped me out a few times. Dad then lapsed into a semi-coma. I genuinely believed he was going to die on that flight and I was absolutely okay with it because we would be landing soon – in Greece. But, we made it to our home and then he bounced back again.

A month after that again he seem to be at death’s door. Another recovery. He fell over on the pavement outside on the road after a dog scared him. He was startled by its loud barking, fell over backwards and cracked his head. I thought he was going to bleed to death right there on the road. He bounced back. That man has been hunted by Nazis, attacked by communist guerrillas, been accidentally electrocuted, escaped a house fire, had two heart attacks, bypass surgery, a stroke, stroke surgery, been in heart failure twice plus myriad other operations, illnesses and incidents and has myelodysplasia, a rare blood cancer. He doesn’t know he has it. Why tell him?

There are days he just stops eating. He’s been talking to people for the last seven or eight months. There’s no one there but he’s having a spirited conversation. I can hear him when he has his afternoon siesta. He is welcoming someone in. ‘Hello, hello, come in and sit down how have you been?’ This is happening every day.

I’ve read the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Keep the environment serene, calm and loving so their passing can be serene too. All very nice advice but it neglects to mention the one who is doing all this for them, how do they stay serene?

He’s in a bad way. He can’t walk, except to shuffle between rooms. He demands a fat juicy steak every day which I supply and he takes maybe half a bite and leaves the rest then demands a fresh one the next day. It took my boy (son) more than 20 days to start to feel somewhere near normal after his battle with COVID-19. It’s a terrible thing to begin to resent someone just for being alive. I came to bury my father yet he’s ordering juicy steaks while my son was battling for breath. Let the dead bury the dead, said Jesus. Am I dead? I must be because I certainly don’t feel alive.

Ritual saves me from my own thoughts. It’s Greek Orthodox Easter. The rituals of Easter are many and mostly to do with food. Ritual and it’s related foods offers the refuge from the surreal. During Holy Week one favourite food is octopus. I see a good large specimen at my regular fishmonger but decide to walk further down the street to see what another fishmonger has in stock. Right in front there’s a case full of smaller cephalopods. One glance reveals to me they are not the true octopus. Every fishmonger warns of buying the small ones with only one row of suckers on their short tentacles. ‘Don’t buy those!’ they warn. ‘They’re not as tasty and they take too much work to prepare. It’s not worth it.’
They’re called musk octopus and they’re 6€ a kilo. The big fellow up the street is 10€ a kilo. I already know that even though it’s almost double the price it will be five times as good so I turn my back on the musky ones and go back to buy the real one with long fat tentacles and double rows of suckers. It’s also the day of Lazarus. The Lazarinas can’t sing and dance
so Greek Facebook accounts are flooded with videos of past Saturdays of Lazarus. The Lazarinas are young women dressed in flower festooned traditional costumes to symbolise the double meaning, that of Spring, the rebirth of the Earth, and the rebirth of a man who had just died.

The Lazarinas fast in the lead up to their dance to be performed in the churchyards. My mother was a Lazarina when she was a girl. She said they could only break their fast for the duration of the pealing of the church bells before the call to come to church. She said the bell-ringers would draw out the chimes to last for many, many minutes to allow for extra mouthfuls of food.

On the way home to cook the octopus I passed one of the many greengrocers. The lady proprietor is named Margarita. She calls out to me, ‘How is your son?’
‘He is well!’ I surprise myself by repeating. It must still be reverberating in my heart. ‘He is well!’
She nods at me with a satisfied look on her face. ‘Of course he is. I prayed for him and I lit a candle for him.’

I left her smiling allowing her to believe she held sole responsibility for his healing. My little outing was beneficial. Grecian sunshine is kissing my cheek, my son is well. I feel alive again.

Nike A. in Katerini, Greece. March 2020

31 March. I’m out of quarantine and preparing to go out for the first time. My father says, ‘I want to come out with you.’ Every day, 50 times a day for my entire quarantine he’d been saying, ‘just pop out and buy me a battery for my watch will you.’ My parents have forgotten all about their own grandson, my son, in Belgium battling the virus. They ask for me to bring them a variety of things including cash, what is this obsession old people have with having lots of cash around them? Anyway they ask for everything and anything but not about their grandson. They’ve forgotten about him. How? The moment he rang me and told me of his symptoms we both fell silent for a few seconds, we both knew he was in one the vulnerable categories and to fall ill with Covid had catastrophic potential. We smashed the silence by verbalising logic.
We went over the statistics chart and looked over the percentages. The serious cases were 5%. That means a 95% chance of a relatively easy experience. We ignored the death statistics. We had to stay with the logic, with the reality and the reality is he’s immunity deficient. Diabetes type one is an auto immune disease. So we studied the Covid symptoms, he had them all. We then discussed the neighbours who had medical backgrounds and how and when to call them in if required. Next, we looked at the closest hospitals and clinics to decide which ones might be more suitable for him. We worked out a game plan. It was the only way to stop ourselves from going apoplectic with worry. He then asked me for my recipe for rizogalo, rice-cream, one of those delicious comfort foods Greek mamas make for their little ones that adults never stop craving. It helped. It took our mind off things. We signed off from our conversation in good cheer and giving each other little encouraging phrases. After I hung up I put down the phone and howled until I couldn’t breathe – and I was delighted. I hoped it was more than sympathy pains I hoped it was some mysterious force removing the symptoms from him and transferring them to me. A voice yells at me from the other side of my door. “Don’t forget my watch battery.”
I get out my phone and look through my photographs. I imagine my son lying down while looking up through the skylight above his bed in his chic loft apartment. He’d made me have his bed for the duration of my stay with him. I’d taken a photograph while lying down gazing up at the skylight. I can’t stop looking at that photograph now because that’s what he’s looking at. Him there, me here but both looking at the same sky.

30 March. Katerini, Greece. 12 days ago I returned from Belgium after visiting my son who lives and works there. I’m still here in Greece in quarantine from that visit. While I was with my son we had extensive discussions of the situation. He works in health, specifically in matters pertaining to infectious diseases. Last year the government of Scotland asked him to put forward a proposal as to how he would move forward with a non-government organisation he was director of at the time. He was thrilled to be asked to do so because what he put forward was a detailed and extensive action plan for a pandemic. He’d been a central figure worldwide for training programs for the prevention of the spread of HIV/AIDS and was excited to put forward a plan for a coordinated response to a new pandemic – Especially because the HIV/AIDS pandemic is still with us, plus there was SARS and MERS and everybody in that field knew it was only a matter of time till another one occurred.
The government responded to his proposal with derision, called it unrealistic, and defunded his organisation.
He was offered a job in Brussels. Fortunately global thinking and global responses are not laughed at there. But – Four days ago my boy came down with a fever, he started to cough, and his body ached all over. He’s a fully grown man in his 40s but he’s also been a type one diabetic since he was two years old which puts him in the vulnerable category. When he told me his symptoms I made him call a clinic. The doctor informed him to just stay home and ride it out as they were saving tests and treatment for the more serious cases. This morning his breathing became laboured he was taken to hospital. Now we wait and see.

I must add that he had been in self-isolation and following the guidelines scrupulously.

Later: Update on my son. The hospital is at capacity. They took tests and found his blood to be adequately oxygenated and sent him home. They wouldn’t give him a Covid test because there aren’t enough and are saving them for the worst cases. Belgium is having an explosion of cases if you are watching the charts. In the meantime my son is still having breathing trouble and he’s lying on his bed alone at home hoping he won’t have to go back in and go through the whole process again. All flights between Greece and Belgium are cancelled for the moment so I can’t go to him and even if I could go I’d be instantly quarantined anyway and couldn’t go out to do things for him. If he is hospitalised I can’t be with him and if I return I’ll be quarantined again. It’s a no win. This is a dreadful situation and there would be many others in our situation too. His anger is fuelling him right now. Please take note of this case because the figures you see on the charts are only the tip of the iceberg. There are many very ill people like my son who need attention and are not getting it because only the extremely severe cases are being treated.

Latest update is that his fever has reduced. The aches and pains are still with him and his breathing is still laboured but he’s feeling optimistic. He’s just resting up, not that he can do much else. He’s trying to sleep and stay hydrated. I’m very grateful his neighbour is a doctor and the person in the apartment below him works in pharmaceuticals and is keeping him drugged up, so to speak.

24 March. Six days of quarantine left. I still can’t so much as step out my front door. And our high level measures of lockdown have become even stricter. I read the Australian newspapers online and I read the heading that a British style lockdown is about to be implemented. I couldn’t help laughing. the British are copying it from us yet somehow it’s seen as their prototype. Please! Their schools were still open until just now. Australia’s still are at the moment of writing. Here in Greece they shut over three weeks ago.
Anyway, I’m told there are police at the end of the street, on the corner, on most corners, checking if we have the correct documents to go buy a loaf of bread. If we don’t it’s a €150 fine. If I break quarantine it’s a €5000 fine. No one is complaining though. There is zero panic buying such as seen in Australia. Supermarkets are however monitoring access and only allowing a certain number of people in at a time so as to avoid crowding and maintain the 2 metre distances recommended here. Luckily, I have a person who does some shopping for me until I’m released from quarantine and she’s been letting me know the situation. Last week the council even removed all the benches from the parks and squares to discourage people sitting around outside.
The difficult part for me is I’m sharing the house with my two elderly parents who don’t understand the concept of quarantine or of lockdown. My 92-year-old father can’t understand why he can’t hobble outdoors to buy a newspaper even though he’s glued to the television during his every waking hour, it’s not sinking in. My mother can’t understand why she can’t come into my room. Finally, I had to sit them down and give them a very stern speech – from the hallway – I said, ‘Do you know why all this is happening? It’s happening to keep you alive because people like you are the ones most in danger of dying. The younger ones have strong lungs, you do not. We mustn’t fill the hospitals with such patients. People still will break bones, need heart surgery, give birth, have car accidents, strokes, and all sorts of emergency procedures. The hospitals must be free to continue these essential services plus manage the virus.’
My outburst worked – for ten minutes. They also have dementia so they were asking me the exact same questions right after and again five minutes later. Sometimes I just feel like banging my head on a brick wall.
The Greeks have a word for this – Psychoplakoma. The closest thing for an English translation would be ‘soul crushing’. It actually means soul flattening.
I felt so flattened I had to step out on the balcony for a gasp of fresh air, I am permitted to do that. Up until recently the balconies were full of people hanging out the washing, drinking coffees, watering the plants now you don’t see anybody. The sight of the Greek flag on an apartment building across a couple of blocks made me so emotional. Our government is being very open and honest with us which I’m very pleased about. And the health spokesman said that the reality is that with any virus we are only seeing the 15% tip. These are the people who actually present with symptoms and it’s only 15%. That means all those numbers we’re seeing about cases are only the cases that have been tested. The reality is we must increase whatever number shown in each country by 85%. Here in Greece our number is currently at 695 and 17 deaths. All our deaths had an average age of around 73 years and 14 of them were men. Our health department says the real number of cases is probably between 8000 and 10,000. They went on to say they expected as much because of the 15% rule. That was why they acted so strictly very early to keep that 85%number as low as possible.
I now have released myself of the need to keep busy. I’m going to give myself a day of malaise. I’ve been cooking up a storm, baking bread, tortes, tarts. Scrubbing, sweeping, disinfecting. Enough. I’m going to do a lot of reading from now on much more reading, and writing of course, and a touch more self-care. It will re-inflate my flattened soul. I brushed my hair for the first time in five days today. Seriously. I put on lipstick for the first time in a week. Nobody is going to see it but I know it’s there. It’s a bit like the tree falling in the forest did it really make a sound if no one heard it? I’m missing my children and grandchildren in Australia desperately but I’m also glad I’m in Greece right now so if you’ll excuse me I’m just going to step back onto my balcony and take another look at that flag.

23 March. Dr Sotiris Tsiodras. All over Greece church services were conducted in empty churches except for the priests and the chanters. In one church the chanter is an unassuming man wearing glasses and a plain grey suit. He’s one of the best Byzantine chanters of Greece. He’s also one of the world’s most respected experts on infectious diseases. Dr Sotiris Tsiodras, father of seven and of deep faith whose hobby is to chant in churches is also the man who helped to close them.
France’s Le Figaro newspaper ran a piece on him today as the man with the 27 page CV who kept Greeks from an early meeting with Death.

Dr Tsiodras understood immediately the impact Covid-19 would have on the world and insisted upon an urgent meeting with Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis. To his credit, the Prime Minister listened. How many times has been the case where experts have advised leaders on dramatic action but were ignored for economic or personal gains or they just couldn’t believe they would have to make such extreme changes? Too hard. Fortunately the Prime Minister saw that not to act would make life even harder. Now, Dr Tsiodras appears on our screens every evening at 6 pm with updates and advice. And every single Greek is glued to the screen at that time.

Our schools have been shut for three weeks. Except for essential services, supermarkets and pharmacies everything is shut. Nobody can go out for any other purpose than accessing one of those essential services and we need to carry identification or other documentation on us at all times to explain the purpose of our outing. The slogan of Greece right now is, Μένουμε σπίτι, We Stay Home. The Prime Minister has outlined tax relief, rent relief, mortgage relief, benefit payments and many other measures to put the citizens at ease so they can feel secure while we are in one of the tightest lockdowns in the world. And it happened much earlier than almost any other country – I think. Thanks to a man of Science and a politician who listened and took early action. Our figures at this moment are 624 cases and 15 Deaths. Terrible. But they’re a fraction of those of our European neighbours, we believe, because strict measures were implemented quickly.
Stay safe. Stay healthy. Stay home.
Stay informed, properly informed. Follow the WHO guidelines. This way you don’t get affected by the pedlars of fear. This is not hiding. This is taking action. And frankly if me being kept indoors for a few weeks to ensure the safety of my family and community is all it takes, I gladly Stay Home.
This will pass.
And to those of you who still think it’s just a silly little flu that only attacks old people and their time has come anyway, I have these words, paraphrased from Dr Tsiodras, Stay away from the hospitals, they are sacred places doing a sacred duty to all patients not only those with The Virus. And these old people are our mothers and fathers. We are who we are because of them.