by Jordan Aramitz – an autobiographical piece
Lachesism is the desire to be struck by disaster: to plunge into a burning house, to rise from the wreckage of an earthquake, to drive towards a tornado in the storm-chasing frenzy of a bored life, salivating at the idea of adventure – even an adventure that might kill you. Disaster films initiate a sense of heroism within me; that rush, that spike of adrenaline that gets the heart racing and the blood pumping until my mind is a hazy soup of fight and flight. When I am in that space, I am ready to lead a group of resilient survivors to seek help after an earthquake levels my city, to blow up a meteor hurtling towards our planet. In fact, I have had vivid nightmares of an approaching tsunami ever since I watched Interstellar but in my waking hours, I would combat that fear by imagining myself jumping, Spiderman-like, from skyscraper to skyscraper while the wave attempts to level everything lower down. Of course, I would save countless strangers on my journey to the highest peak of the city as any good superhero would – and my family would magically be waiting up there for me, out of harm’s way entirely. I was ready, even the might of the ocean was stoppable.
I was not ready for a pandemic.
I began writing this while recovering from COVID-19. At least, I thought and hoped that I was recovering – when you have it, it is difficult to tell what is a cause for concern and what isn’t. A study on patients who were in Wuhan, at the epicentre of the pandemic, ]details the day-by-day progression of the disease. Unsurprisingly, I had been pouring over it ever since my parents tested positive three weeks prior to my own unwanted results. By the study’s timeline, I was on day eight of running this gauntlet.
As an asthmatic, I’m no stranger to shortness of breath, but that used to be induced by the various sports I used to take part in before the pandemic begun. Two inhalations of Clenil and I was always ready to test my balance and reflexes in a fencing duel or rework the steps of a demanding choreography at dance practice. By now, a month after ‘recovery’, just sitting up and typing on a keyboard while the harsh, white light of my laptop screen sheds onto my bagged eyes makes breathing difficult. For every paragraph break you read, I most likely will have had to take a moment to lie down and regain my breath. At least, attempt to regain my breath. Two years ago, I was almost hospitalised with severe bronchitis that had been left untreated for weeks, but COVID makes that seem like a mild cold. Both left me gasping for air and unable to take deep breaths because of the excruciating constriction around my lungs, but the novel coronavirus is far more insidious. Bronchitis had me bedridden and made every inhale painful but subsided in a few weeks due to antibiotics – just as my doctor had promised. With coronavirus, all the doctors could offer my parents and I were condolences.
Unlike an impending zombie apocalypse, there is no cure that a rugged team of uninfected can traverse dangerous terrain and take down nefarious forces to gain access to. Lachesism,and the god complex of perceived immortality that comes with it, disappears quickly in the face of real danger.
Not real danger to myself, mind you. At the start of the pandemic, I was baffled at the idea of giving up the pleasures of university student life for something that seemed less deadly than the yearly flu. Parties on campus were still in full swing as Valentine’s Day came and went in February and on the evenings they weren’t, nightclubs would more than fill a building to bursting. Lecture halls where we sat shoulder to shoulder in the hundreds, sports tournaments where we would share water bottles in wild celebration after a victory. These were just facts of life to me and as a healthy, nineteen-year-old athlete, it was unfathomable that a minor illness wreaking havoc on the other side of the world could take away my routes to happiness. Looking back now, that mentality was even more comically stupid considering I was in a high enough risk group for the common flu to be vaccinated against it every year.
A month after the last party I attended, I was fidgeting my way across London while praying that a shelter-in-place order wouldn’t take effect while I travelled home. Home: two hours away, after a picturesque journey to the southernmost tip of Hampshire. My parents could catch the virus, I had found out, and with their slew of underlying conditions, it would not be an easy recovery. Lachesism had crumbled that day. Would I catch the new virus? Packed between maskless passengers like undead sardines on the train, it was a miracle that I didn’t on that day. And a miracle more that I didn’t infect my family on my mad dash back from university. I had packed the essentials that very morning before buying a ticket for that afternoon. Riddled with the panic, the worry, I left almost all of my belongings back in my dorm room. My best clothes, all of the computing equipment that made up my unnecessarily elaborate desk, a fridge stocked to the brim with fresh food. I would be back in a few weeks when this problem had blown over. By April, I could see my friends again. By April, my life would return to normal.
Normal never returned. Normal became ‘shelter-in-place’; stay inside at all costs, account for all family members and keep away from windows and doors – now that felt like a zombie film! It became donning all protection available before stepping outside; it became dodging out of the way of the careless who ignored the two metre rule while stocking up on what was left on empty shelves; it was watching a death toll rise on surreal Salvador Dalí graphs and charts in a way that never truly seemed real but filled me with pure dread anyway. What do you perceive as real when the threat is so microscopic that it might as well be invisible?
Normal became days blending until six months had passed in a week and my body had aged a decade.
There are no songs for an empty world. Somehow, the entire Earth had ground to a halt for a month or two and the eerie silence of no traffic and vacant streets filled a deafening void. Everyone was in co-operation, everyone agreed that we had to lockdown to flatten a curve of the dying that never really reduced to ‘acceptable levels’. The irony of certain levels of preventable deaths being ‘acceptable’ seems to have been lost on everyone, because the economy was in shambles and saving human lives apparently just couldn’t justify a downturn in stock shares.
In September, I returned to university on the promise that I would have in-person classes. That never happened, but at the very least, I was back with my dear friends at our new student house. Still without a green light for one of our infamous parties or a dolled up night out at a club, we entertained ourselves at home. Everyone decorated their room in their chosen theme, sorted out a playlist to suit it, and we travelled to each in turn while pretending it was a bar crawl through the city. Quarantine brought out sparks of creativity in the midst of the usual endless boredom and anxiety, depression and restlessness that had become the default, interchanging mindsets of the pandemic. The saying goes that ‘nobody travels through Norwich’: you only travel there specifically if you want to visit the city. This isolation protected us for the three months I spent at university studying through my second year. In a way, I almost forgot COVID-19 existed in the weeks when I didn’t leave the house and enjoyed the hectic company of my friends indoors. It was a unique bliss that lasted until Christmas break ushered me home.
From talking to my siblings, I had known that my parents had come down with some sort of illness a week before I was set to return home, but we were convinced it couldn’t be coronavirus. They had a wicked fever and were vomiting constantly, but they still had their sense of taste and smell and didn’t have the characteristic dry cough – it was just the normal flu, surely. Denial is a powerful tool and stayed with us until our test results came back positive. My mother’s condition had gotten to the point where she felt as though she was surely dying, so we were on the steps of a local clinic when the text came to break the news. The nurse at the reception was clearly panicking despite the fact that we were standing outside as per instructions; my mother simply seemed too exhausted to process the shift, and the shock enveloped me in a tranquil state of… lack of emotion. Robotic, I profusely thanked the hazmat-clad nurse before, during, and after her hastily arranged examination of mother’s vitals. It was an out-of-body experience that enabled me to escort her back to our home with a completely blank face, solid black discs for eyes. It was only then, in the privacy of my room that I broke down entirely. Hitting a brick wall would have been easier than dealing with than the sudden realisations. The insidious disease takes its time showing all of its symptoms and drags the torture out as much as it can.
With all the high-risk conditions that my parents shared, it was a sheer Platonic ideal of a miracle that caused them both to survive the illness. For two weeks, through Christmas day and the New Year celebrations, my siblings and I cared for them at every hour of the day. During the first week, it was a frenzy of constant 111 calls and hushed conversations with our GP who could do little more than pray alongside us. It was a month of never-ending blood oxygen level checks, thermometers in mouths, questions about how the symptoms were progressing. Can you taste this meal we’ve made specially for you? Can you stand up and walk to the bathroom? Can you breathe properly? Can you breathe?
It was only after a particularly horrific evening, when an ambulance had to be called to provide my parents with oxygen, that the horrific disease reached its crest and slowly, began to slink back into the shadows. Thankfully, COVID-19 was merciful in that I caught and started to experience the ailments well into my parents’ recovery phase. Who knows what could have happened if I hadn’t been so readily available to treat them twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. With this disease, there is nothing you can do other than lie there, bedridden, and wait with baited breath.
Lachesism dies when the disaster isn’t one you can see. It has been a month since I last exhibited symptoms of the coronavirus, two months for my parents. Yet, my mother’s sense of smell still evades her and my father can only work half of the hours he used to be able to without fear of collapsing. As for me, the once-all-star athlete, my lungs protest and attempt to jump out through my skin at the thought of a proper run. Even in my superhero fantasies, I can’t help but shake off the feeling that I would simply not have the strength to outrun a tsunami – I can barely jump over a fence without becoming winded anymore. Recovery is slow, is going to stay slow, but I am grateful that I even have the chance to recover.
We are approaching three million deaths worldwide and there is a morbid curiosity in watching the counter tick, tick, tick upwards. Lachesism comes attached to the unspoken, unacknowledged requirement for death and destruction. After all, it wouldn’t be a ‘thrilling disaster epic’ without either of those, now, would it? The assumption that we could never be the victims flies against the face of our saviour fantasies. There’s no quick, fighting end to this pandemic and all that we can do is protect ourselves and those around us through a quiet, self-isolated existence. Don’t try to be a rebel, an useless action-flick hero. The greatest feat possible for us is to listen to the science and protect our fellow humans.