by Nicole Smith
Blinking back tears brought on by fear and self-criticism, I looked pleadingly into the eyes of my doctor, a specialist in adolescent health. Leaning forward in his chair, hands clasped, he looked at me with a fatherly care and presented me with an image that is forever imprinted on my brain.
‘Do you know what my favourite tree is? Those wintery oaks whose twig-like branches sway with each gust of wind and pelt of rain. They stand tall, their strong roots helping to weather the storm.’ He reassured me that those who withstood the heaviest storms went on to radiate the brightest colour.
Years later, I had a skeleton-bare oak tree tattooed on my left forearm with ‘Resilience’ inscribed in cursive underneath. It serves as a symbol of hope whenever I feel beaten down by life, that my time is coming. That my potential is soon to blossom.
7:54am – my vibrating phone woke me from my slumber. Dread filled every fibre of my being. There was only one person who would be calling me at that time, a support worker due at my house in six minutes to assist me in getting out of bed.
‘Nic, I’m sorry but I just found out someone I was with at a party on Saturday has COVID. Do you want to see if someone else can come?’
7:55am – Flicking through the files of my fourteen support workers in my mind, the desperation grew. At work, at work, babysitting, at uni, interstate, at work… ‘Have you had a test? You came last night as well.’
‘I’ll have one today. I’ll wear a mask.’
‘You might have to come, no one else will be available and I have a busy day. If you have given me COVID, I would have caught it last night so technically I’m already a close contact, we just weren’t aware of it. I’ll go and get tested today as well.’
Until then, COVID was like an overseas war, omnipresent and anxiety-provoking, but distant and yet to have any long-lasting detrimental effects on my life. As such, I had naively neglected planning for this moment. Perhaps there was a touch of ego: my support workers are also my friends; someone will come through for me. The following days served as an unwelcome reality check: while my support team had sympathy for my situation, understandably people weren’t willing to take such a significant health risk coming to support me as a close contact before a negative result was returned. While this was my life, this was their lowly paying casual job. The week before Christmas when many see elderly or immunocompromised relatives also didn’t make assisting me an attractive prospect.
The following evening, the affected worker sent her friend, whom I had never met, to assist me. Meeting one minute, being showered and assisted to bed the next, the kind stranger left my house with a wave and an offer.
‘If you still don’t have your results back and need help tomorrow, here’s my number. I’ll come, so you don’t have to worry.’
I took her up on that offer: ‘Please come at 10pm.’
9:48pm – ‘Nic, I’m still coming but I’ll be closer to ten thirty.’
A few moments later, the phone dings again. Her roommates had found out I was a COVID close contact and were uncomfortable with her visiting me that night. She wasn’t coming anymore. Engulfed by guilt, she sent through results from a Google search. ‘Maybe these organisations can assist you.’
‘I’m sure they can.’ I sighed out loud. ‘But not at 10pm on a Saturday night when I’m not signed up as a client.’
While I require a support worker at least twice a day, with the COVID hotline unable to provide any information on test results (aside from the fact that centres were experiencing delays), in my mind I was looking down the barrel of days without disability support. My dad is actively involved in my life, but with him in his sixties and me in my thirties, him assisting me physically is no longer practical. There was undoubtably also some pride and boundaries involved, pride because I live by myself and for the most part it gives me a tremendous sense of independence; I don’t want to give the impression I don’t have everything under control. Friends would drop everything and offer to help, but I’m not prepared to be toileted, showered and put to bed by friends, that’s not, nor should ever be their role in my life.
What next? A call to the local hospital informed me I could only be assisted if I was an in-patient. Then calls to friends with lived experience of disability, who founded a support service said if I was OK staying up the night, they could arrange someone for the morning. In a last-ditch attempt to sleep, I contacted a past support worker via voice message and could hold the tears in no longer. Without hesitation she agreed to assist. Her smiling face appeared at my door at midnight after she had travelled an hour to see me.
‘I understand people’s hesitation, but you need to go to bed,’ she said, enveloping me in a hug, and passing over the hot chocolate she had bought me on the way. In her arms, the storm subsided. I felt safe again and while her hands were on my back, I felt someone once again had my back.
Upon waking the next morning, I saw the message I had been praying for: Result: Covid-19 virus NEGATIVE. The relief washed over me like a warm dip in the ocean. I was free to attend my friend’s wedding that night. At the reception, I danced free of the storm that I had experienced the previous week.
With the first rumble of thunder, my phone dinged: ‘Nic, don’t worry about the storm, Thor is just angry.’ The irony struck me that while my friend knew me so well, he knew exactly the message I needed at that moment, he had no idea of the COVID storm I had just navigated. And neither of us had any idea of the storm that was soon to come, the biggest storm I had yet to weather.
In mid-January my mother passed away. I had been visiting her place of rest every day, sitting under a big oak tree like the one that adorns my forearm, talking to her with more openness than I had in recent years. The first time I skipped a day, I was stopped by a severe storm:
‘You don’t need to go today. How do you think Mum would feel if you got bogged next to her? You don’t need to be near her to talk to her.’
The next day I went and spoke to her again, parking myself under the oak tree. I later answered another call from Dad: ’How did your tyres go? The ground would still be muddy.’
‘It was fine, it takes more than a storm to stop me.’
Nicole Smith is a writer, wheelchair user, coffee addict, AFL footy fan and improviser. She has a blog where she interviews social entrepreneurs: www.blankpagesandemptyspaces.com. She has a Bachelor of Behavioural Science and a Graduate Diploma of English from La Trobe University. Nicole won a Writeability Fellowship from Writers Victoria. She is currently a Storming the City mentor with Writers Victoria.