Flash Tales

Through a glass, darkly: Reflections on a pandemic

By Paddy Palmer and Hugh Palmer . . .

One side of the glass

Paddy Palmer,  16th  April 2020

Three weeks ago, I gave my son a big hug before he left me here in my residential are home.  I thought I would see him the next day but it wasn’t to be.  Lockdown arrived.  Suddenly I found myself wondering if I would ever touch his lovely face again or give him a hug.  I still wonder.  Realistically, at ninety-one,  I don’t stand much chance if the virus comes here, and it is so vicious that it could unfortunately attack Hugh too. 

During the last three weeks I have watched the sparrows enjoying the freedom of coming and going to the hedge where they are building their home.  I have watched the cherry blossom (flourishing when I last hugged Hugh) depart from the tree and blow wherever the wind would take it, and I have watched the daffodils come and go as nature intended.  I saw how all nature is interdependent and lives according to the seasons.  Freedom.  But now, as Saint Paul says, “I see through a glass of darkly”, for I’m blessed so much that Hugh can come to my window, that I can see his smile, know he is alright.  But we can’t touch, we can’t hug.  We can only wave and blow kisses to one another.

Oh!  The cruelty of this virus!  That actually we may never touch one another again!  It seems he lives in another world, walking from his house to here and I feel like an animal he can look at but not touch.

This virus has cast people off from their loved ones in life and death, and the people in this home wonder “How long?”.

The carers are wonderful, keeping the spirits up, though each one of them is left wondering, each has a house, children, husband, elderly relatives, yet they tried to keep us cheerful.

So I am isolated. We are all isolated if we are to help the NHS, but the biggest cruelty for me is to be able to touch the cold windowpane, but not touch my son on the other side of it. I’m looking forward to seeing him this morning and thank God it is possible, but it is agony not to be able to hold his hand.   

The other side of the glass

By Hugh Palmer,  10th June 2020

Reading what my mother has written is hard. All the more so as my mother’s health has deteriorated since she wrote it. She has consciously made the decision not to have further blood transfusions which had helped prolong her life. 

Only being able to see my mother through a window, knowing that these are the last weeks of her life, is incredibly painful. 

I can’t hug her, hold her hand. It is so hard.

And yet knowing that so many other people have already lost loved ones during this pandemic without even being able to see them at all is sobering. Maybe we are lucky to have the contact we have.

When I discussed her contributing some thoughts about the pandemic and lockdown, she wrote these reflections. I find them so poignant. Her appreciation of the interconnectedness of life as she observes the cycle of the natural world outside. Her use of the expression “Through a glass darkly” resonates strongly for me, as it has many layers of meaning, not least the act of struggling to see her face in the glare of light reflected in the glass of her window.  Other meanings relate to SARS-CoV-2 itself, but also broader systemic thinking.

My Mother

My mother, Paddy, was both born in the late 1920s, and my maternal grandmother was very strict, almost cold, with my mother, although my grandfather was very kindly. My mother was christened Sophia and often told by my grandmother that she had wanted a boy and was often very critical and intolerant of her.

Most friends and family use my mother’s usual name of Paddy, which is not a shortened version of Patricia; when she was a child there was a book that was entitled ‘Paddy the next best thing’, and this is where my mother’s nickname originated.

The next best thing.

My mother attended a boarding school, which maybe gave her some relief from her mother (and her older sister, who was disdainful of her) and she eventually met my father, Jim at the Young Conservative’s Club in Cheltenham. My father came out as gay in 1960 (it was illegal then, of course, and he would have used other terminology to describe his orientation) but they stayed together, holding my father’s secret and guilt (he blamed himself for my sister’s learning disability, believing that ‘the sins of the father’ were visited upon my sister) until he died in 1995 of melanoma.

My mother has lived without her best friend for 25 years.  My relationship with her was turbulent when I was younger, probably because I did not appreciate or understand her struggles. Since my father died, we have become very close and able to have candid and open conversations. She is not only my mother; she is my friend.

She has not had an easy life, and now, as the end of her life approaches, she has been living in a Local Authority care home, unable to live independently for a year because of a significant heart condition and cancer.  Since the lockdown in March, I have still been able to see her, but only to talk through a window.

Through a glass, darkly

As a health professional and systemic practitioner, I have been shocked and horrified by the UK government’s response to the pandemic as it has unfolded.

In the 1990s, I ran courses for nurses on HIV and Infection Control and also taught public health and epidemiology. This gave me a basic understanding of virology and knew enough to know that “herd immunity” is an expression that relates to having a significant proportion of a population vaccinated, not exposed to a virus and “taking it on the chin” as promoted here in the UK.

When I began to feel unsafe and untrusting of the government in early March, I decided to stop seeing clients face to face. Since then, I have been working with very few clients, using videoconferencing or the telephone, but I find not being “in the room” exhausting. I guess I am the sort of therapist who needs lots of non-verbal cues from clients, unlike some colleagues who appear to be flourishing during these difficult times with online therapy.

I do not want a thriving practice at this time. I do not have the emotional capacity to work with other’s trauma and distress right now.

I need to acknowledge my own needs and those of the immediate people around me. My daughter, heavily pregnant with twins, my key-worker wife, and not least, my dying mother.

I want to retract and reflect, to experience and honour my feelings of anger, rage, impotence, vulnerability, and betrayal.

I want time and space.

Despite being a well-known expression in popular culture, “Through a glass, darkly” is only found in one version of the Bible, the King James Version, and is taken from 1 Corinthians 13 is the thirteenth chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians  and the full quote is:

“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known”. 

Unlike my mother, I am not a Christian, but she tells me her understanding of this is that our perception of God is limited, but ultimately we will all be able to perceive His glory.

For me, this resonates with my understanding of systemic thinking and practice.  We can never truly see the whole; we work with parts of the whole, and sometimes it is easy to forget that we too, see through a glass, darkly.

The same is true of SARS-CoV-2. This is a novel virus, new to humans, and while much has already been learnt about its structure and transmission, there is still a lot we don’t understand about it, nor the disease, COVID-19, the virus causes.  

There is a great deal we don’t fully understand about viruses, too. There is debate as to whether or not they can be considered living organisms or not. In effect, a virus is a bundle of genetic material wrapped up in proteins. The proteins act as a key that will “fit” receptors on particular cells and then use the host cell’s DNA to replicate more virus particles.  Many viruses become less pathological over time, showing what seems to be innate wisdom in not killing off all potential hosts. However, with SARS-CoV-2, it is too early to tell how it will evolve.

There is both contention and uncertainty about why Covid-19  impacts people with Black and Asian heritage more than Caucasians. There is uncertainly about how children and young people can become ill with a rare Kawasaki like illness. Different countries have responded to the pandemic in vastly diverse ways, from the complete lockdown as seen in New Zealand, to what appears to be allowing a controlled spread of the virus within a population as seen in England. It is unlikely we will know which approach has been most effective for some years as the pandemic unfolds, especially as there is a chance the virus may mutate. However,  I believe that with a new virus, governments and administrations might have responded with far more caution and humility rather than with hubris.

Glimpses through the dark glass

We can never fully comprehend nor see the complexity of the whole system, and as a systemic thinker and practitioner, I accept that can only ever see through a glass, darkly.

Sometimes I experience moments that could be described as numinous; for example, of experiencing “mind” in a colony of ants, or in a therapy session where healing moments can bring forth feelings of wonder, humility and joy.  Even the simple pleasure of feeding and connecting with a wild bird that trusts me enough to come close can give me insight into something greater than I can ever fully understand. These small, fleeting moments of certainty provide some illumination, albeit transient.

Perhaps an attitude of humility and curiosity can help us get glimpses of how details can contribute to the bigger picture, of patterns and connections that may, or may not be helpful.

Paddy Palmer has kindly given her permission for these photos and her story to be shared on this website.

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6 thoughts on “Through a glass, darkly: Reflections on a pandemic

    • I’m finding your mum’s and your writings plus the photos so moving, so upsetting. The piece almost needs to come with a health warning: “This writing contains scenes that some readers may find upsetting”. And of course we should be upset! And moved. It’s about love and life and death. And the strangest of interference. This is the sort of stuff of life that’s unavoidable but is made so many times worse by this terrible pandemic. Thanks a million to Paddy and to you for sharing your thoughts and feelings with us all. It’s very helpful as a reminder of what people are really going through. It’s also a portrait of mother and son love. And that’s so beautiful. Wishing you both well.

    • I have found this incredibly moving to read Hugh, the painfulness of distance and lack of touch set against the vibrancy of your mother and her sense of connectedness and her striking back story. A privilege to read this and a joy to sense the very real connection between you. Thank you.

    • Hugh thanks to you and your mum for sharing such A powerful and painful story of connection in spite of the disconnecting power of the virus which is dividing people, families, friends, communities, politicians….
      This is particularly poignant as I am in Italy visiting my 85 year old mother after so many months of lock down and feel so grateful that I could hug her. A very painfully comforting hug as I don’t know when and if I can hug her again anytime soon
      Wish you both comfort in each others presence at thus difficult time

    • Thank you for the lovely comments about the writing. My mum, Paddy, died in the evening of Tuesday 18th August 2020. Thankfully, I was able to be with her.

    • Thank you, Hugh and Paddy, for sharing with me and us the close connection between you! Your poignant and soul-stirring story found it’s way to Norway and it moved me on so many levels. It feels almost terrifying to comment on this as I lack the flowery English vocabulary to pay my full respect to your text. I lost my grandmother last year and your story has given me more appreciation of how I could visit her in her residential home just as it suited us. It’s a good reminder to me about how we should take a time-out, or time-in, to appreciate they who are closest and dearest to us. And I agree with Gail about the health warning about being upset. And I think you also gave me a warning, even though I don’t know if that is what you meant to do. I am also a kind of therapist who prefer to meet people face to face and I struggle a lot on video or phone. At the same time I think I have sped up a few clicks too much to try to help as many as possible and in doing this I’ve lost sight of who is taking care of me. Thank you again, Hugh!

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