If I ever write a memoir, I’d probably title it Survivor. When it comes to my, ahem, eventful life, Grateful Dead sums it up best: What a long, strange trip it’s been. Perhaps that’s why I haven’t written one. I’m not sure I’m ready to hop back on the trauma train. But I’ve been ‘dabbling’, a somewhat cavalier reference for mining my memory banks, occasionally jotting down snippets. And I’ve been thinking – lots of thinking – trying to connect the dots. That was B.C. – Before COVID-19.

Pandemics are never courteous but this one hit at the worst possible time, when my reserve tank was bone dry. The past few years have been an endless blur of family illness, death and heightened anxiety. I had dismissed the latter as a sign of getting older, perhaps also an indictment on the state of the world. Although it may seem counterintuitive (and possibly selfish), I was relieved when the lockdown in the ACT was declared. It was a mandated form of rest and relaxation. And a long overdue one at that.

Our youngest child graduated high school last year and, although she had no firm plans for her gap year, I’m sure she didn’t factor in a pandemic. COVID-19 made travel – and even the simple pleasures like catching up with friends – impossible. But after thirteen years of school, she seemed relieved to not have major expectations or deadlines for the first time in her life. Me, too. I’d been working too hard for far too long, changing careers only about seven or so years ago to do what I love. To write. And that journey, although rewarding, hasn’t been easy.

I had prepared myself in 2019 for the likelihood of ‘empty nest syndrome’ hitting bigtime in 2020. One of our sons was interstate at university, the other intent on heading overseas and our daughter, I assumed, would be traveling somewhere. So it was with a mix of delight and horror that I realised all three of our children would be in Canberra indefinitely in 2020, our son having transferred to a local university and our other children unable to head away.

Yes, the house was loud. And messy. The fridge was a bottomless pit, food disappearing seconds after hitting the shelves. Piles of ‘stuff’ appeared everywhere, and I seemed to spend most of my day trying to find my glasses or keys. But there was new-found joy in the chaos. Family dinners became the mainstay. We played cards and chess. We watched movies together. I learned the art of Netflix ‘binging’ (so many series, so little time!). We laughed. We dreamed. We talked (and occasionally argued, usually about politics!). The kids took turns cooking fabulous meals. In short, we did all the things we should have been doing in recent years but never seemed to have time to organise. And for that, I am grateful.

At the height of the pandemic, I did a lot of thinking. Usually, I can avoid the ‘hard stuff’ by staying busy but lockdown left little space to escape. I thought about my mother’s lifetime of anxiety, which proved impossible to control. Anxiety changed her outlook, personality and way of life, yet although she occasionally admitted it was an issue, she preferred to think everyone else had a problem. I recognised my worsening anxiety, and how I’m so much like her, despite spending most of my life trying to convince myself otherwise. Pandemics have a way of forcing us to show our hands. I thought about other people who I lost many, many years ago, mainly my father. And about how I never really learned how to grieve. In my day, we were taught to push the feelings aside and to just get on with life, a trait I’ve elevated over the years to an art form. Perhaps that’s why when our beloved dog died suddenly and prematurely last year, I wept for days and days. I suspect I was finally saying goodbye to everyone who departed before her.

My friend, who lives minutes from us, lost her husband during COVID-19. We couldn’t visit. Few people were allowed at the funeral. It was heartbreaking to be so close yet so far. As odd as it may seem, I was grateful that my mother died last year when I was able to travel overseas, having made it to her funeral but not in time to say goodbye.

Perhaps that’s what COVID-19 taught me most of all. Don’t wait to tell people you love them. Because when you next try, they may no longer be here. And make time for family, no matter how they may occasionally annoy you. Because, as trite as it sounds, kids grow up all too quickly, and eventually move out. (Please tell me they move out!)

I’m still trying to connect the dots. Music helps when I’m writing. This time, it’s the Grateful Dead, telling me to keep on truckin’.

Maura Pierlot