My memory strains. My sister asks, ‘Remember that cake you made last Christmas?’ Nope. 2019 Christmas. I don’t remember a thing. She shows me a photo. ‘Oh, that cake.’ Vaguely. Not really.
My words tangle. ‘Bussel spouts for dinner, looking for a par cark.’ I am dimmer. Christmas cracker jokes pass undeciphered over my purple paper crown. Hand the pork crackling. I’d fail a mini-mental test. Person, woman, television—how did it go again?
2020. What was the name of the Monty Python guy who died? And Black Panther, the famous basketballer? Reach for my phone. No small forgotten fact emerges without digital assistance. A year unhinged in digital cosmos. Addicted to Twitter, mechanical Instagram scrolling, erratic online shopping. Bleached light, sounds all out of tune.
I can’t find the melody.
My eyes hurt. I must get them checked. If I wear my low prescription spectacles, will my eyes mend and will the haze clear and will I remember the small things? I can’t remember the small things.
I write a timeline. Month by month, 2020. To try and remember. A year so colossal and yet over in the blink of my failing eyes. Months tenuously laced together by borders and limitations.
January: Bushfires separating us from relaxing Summer beach holidays. Know no borders. The roads close. First holiday cancelled.
February: I go to Gaza. Hardest and most irrational of borders. Don’t let the virus in, shut the border. I get out quick. Gazans can’t. My bags go through the conveyor belt and I wait on the outside for a long time. They are spat out in plastic tubs, everything dissected. Gaza’s best baklava intended for home treats lies in a honeyed mess strewn with my tampons. A giant satellite jellyfish with a thousand camera eyes suspended in the sky watches. A gun fires.
March: I make it home. Our country closes its borders. The confines of home and hotel quarantine. The 1.5-metre border between you and me standing on the pavement or in the post-office line.
April: Stay in your car. Wind down your window. Do not get out. Stinging stick up the nostrils and down the throat.
May, June: Sshh. Be still. I can’t remember.
July: The states slam shut their borders. A city sealed off by the Ring of Steel. The five-kilometre border. Bordered by masked faces. Second holiday cancelled.
August, September: Discordant weeks troll on. I cannot remember.
October: We did it. For now. The kids go back to school. Only children permitted to enter. No more helping the little ones hang their weighty synthetic bags on the highest hooks. Forced to grow up faster as anxious parents glance hesitatingly back. The bordered gates.
November: In the hospital, patients stay inside. To keep them safe. No visitors in, no patients out. I take a dying refugee outside his yellowed walled borders for the first time in months. To hold the sun, breathe decent air. ‘Don’t let your pale head sunburn,’ we joke. He cries. A life of borders to the end.
December: My friend had COVID. He is young, healthy, strong. His heart is now fringed with the thick scars of virus.
We yearned for our year of crappy beginnings and middles to be bookended by defined endings. We dared to dream a timorous fancy that we could let our kids break out and sprint free and get just a little sun-kissed on Aussie beaches. Nothing changes on New Years’ Day. Third holiday cancelled. Lost delights and a finish line we cannot see. Don’t dare to dream.
We keep searching for the melody.
We greet our good friends from across the border. Our eyes reflect briny. We fondly share stories, laughs. Then voices lower. Mutating viruses, wild animal trade, the last of the Northern white rhinos, gas masks and food stockpiles, locusts stealing cereal from starving mouths, scary coups and messed up democracy. An uncomfortable energy. We start to sound unbalanced. Not quite hysterical, but frayed conversation. The wounds of lockdown continue to rankle. We cannot compare, we feel misunderstood. Sound bites around us are noxious again. Let’s not talk borders as friends. And then we say goodbye, a frenzied sturdy hug, it’s 2021 so we can, can’t we? We shouldn’t. But we do, hastily. And our friends drive away, over the border, and will it be 2022 before we see them again?
The borders of our minds constrict, losing alacrity like my friend’s COVID heart. Coated in a film of oily sadness, the Summer’s saltwater can’t wash it all away. On with our digital swiping and submitting to boundaries like humanoids. Is this our artificial future? What other new borders will we surrender to?
The fire-soaked sun dawned in January. Dusk fell over snake-infested foamy high seas in December. We ache. We are weary. And still beautiful melody exists, out there. Tugging us away from disillusion. Jupiter and Saturn transform from distant neighbours to draw ever closer to a near embrace. Turning, borderless, turning, beyond our delicate world.
Rachel Coghlan is a palliative care physiotherapist and PhD candidate at the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership, Deakin University.