What living with high-risk parents during lockdown taught me about the power of kindness

Marie-Claire Chappet
·4-min read
Photo credit: Erik Madigan Heck for Harper's Bazaar
Photo credit: Erik Madigan Heck for Harper's Bazaar

From Harper's BAZAAR

"I can’t go out. My parents won’t let me." This was a refrain of my younger years. When friends would petition me for my attendance at parties I knew my mother would be suspicious of, or nights when both of them could see straight through my ‘promise there will be no alcohol or boys’ schtick.

It’s a phrase I thought I would never say again, in fact, have rarely-if-ever used since probably my late teens. But from the minute we launched mask-first into this pandemic, in a wholly different and unsettling way, I have found myself thinking it, saying it, living by it daily.

The reason being that, aged 31, I am living with my parents once more. My boyfriend and I moved in to save for our flat deposit. People at the time said, "what about your social life?" and I thought they were mad. What about my social life could possibly change by living with my parents? We are in our thirties! Nothing can stop us!

And then Covid hit.

My parents are both 70. My father was, until a few years ago, a lifelong smoker. They are incredibly vulnerable to this virus and, as I soon discovered, when you live with people in a vulnerable category, you yourself become a vulnerable person in society. You are forced to see life through their eyes. You become painfully aware that your actions can have a direct consequence on another person, and not just any other person, but two of the people you love the most.

The rules that applied to everyone else this past year - even the limited freedoms - came with caveats for us. We stayed at home long after the first lockdown lifted. We did not venture out when the pubs opened in July and when we eventually did dip our toes back in, it was with an abundance of caution and an ever-present, slowly simmering panic. We ‘escaped’ to France in August and quarantined on our return away from our parents. It was the first time I felt myself again, the first time I realised what it was like to take a break from that omnipresent fear and responsibility. But my parents did not have the luxury to do that. The guilt weighed on me.

Now, back in lockdown once more, we have not seen anyone in person since mid-December, leaving the house only for essentials. I miss my friends powerfully, but I know we will be like this until they get the vaccine. Until then, my life is on hold.

Yes, it has been blisteringly frustrating. My mental health, like so many others, has never felt more fragile. This experience has given me an anxiety I wasn’t aware I was capable of, torn somewhere between a petulant sullen teenager who feels her parents are ruining her life and a terrified adult who would do anything to keep them safe. But what it has also given me is an unfettered understanding of what it means to live through a pandemic as someone with a very real risk of dying from it.

Too often it is easy to feel invincible because of the fortune of your age or perceived good health. I have seen so many people succumb, understandably, to Covid fatigue, have seen them shift from the quiet panic of early lockdown in March to a salivating enthusiasm for the pub in July, to constant eye-rolling at the Rule of Six come September. I have found myself on this very same journey with them, but always with that anchor around my neck, the fact that - whatever numerical arrangement in whatever outdoor heated terrace is at my legal disposal - I must still think like a 70-year-old. I cannot stop being afraid. I cannot stop living this pandemic through my parents’ eyes.

We could all stand to think this way more often, to not just see the world through the prism of our own circumstances. This is of course true of more than just Covid. This past year has heightened our awareness of the disparities of life, be that marker one of race or money, age or health. Never before have we noticed the haves and have nots in our society so much, the stark divides between privilege and disadvantage. Yet conversely, never before has our society so demanded we think and act like a collective, that we consider all lives, not just our own. That we put the safety of others first.

While I am clamouring for my freedom and crossing off the days until that vaccination call comes through, while I cannot wait to start my life again, I will not so readily forget the lessons of this pandemic: the importance of living for other people. I hope none of us do.

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