The Via Dolorosa, the way of suffering, runs 600 metres from the Antonia Fortress to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and is believed to be the route that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. There are today, nine Stations of the Cross. I am thinking of this today as we approach Easter, in the midst of the most significant event in my lifetime, the COVID19 global pandemic.
The idea of a route, a strait through which we move, travelling both in the knowledge and reality of peril, yet moving onwards is not novel. Great literature has always dealt with this theme. The Epic of Gilgamesh dating back to at least 2100 BC in Uruk, tells of the 6-day journey of Gilgamesh and Enkidu to the Cedar Forest to slay Humbaba the Terrible. After Enkidu’s death Gilgamesh undertakes a perilous journey to discover the secret of eternal life. But, of course, he only discovers that ‘life, which you look for, you will never find. For when the gods created man, they let death be his share, and life withheld in their own hands’. Since the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, and many other great works including Soyinka’s The Road, and Ben Okri’s The Famished Road have responded to the proposition that we are sojourners through time and space.
I have myself just survived COVID19 to Day 15, I hope. In this new epoch, everything is measured in numbers: Patient zero, Day 1 to chronicle the progression or resolution of the disease, numbers of infected, numbers of deaths, numbers tested, how long, in days or weeks the lockdown will last and whether 2 or 3 metres of social distancing. Mathematics or numerology, its close accomplice has never had such a hold on human life.
I am not intending to catalogue my symptoms, there is already substantial information out there, except to say that the description ‘a mild case’ is an understatement. It is a debilitating illness, it lasts far too long and since we are still in the domain of mathematics, the wave form of the course is wildly unpredictable and is not susceptible to modelling, that new fangled term that we have all recently learnt about. It is a fearful place, if I might say so, full of dread, terror and sheer exhaustion. So, my intention is to describe the aridity of the soul, the darkness and glom, the literally fighting for breath, that accompanies the physical disturbances that we all now recognise.
I heard the son of a Sudanese doctor who died from COVID19 speaking on the TV say something to the effect of ‘he died taking his own breath!’. I thought what a remarkable thing to say, I suppose he was emphasising the fact that his father had not been hooked on to a ventilator, or in an induced coma and lying prone, already like a carcass. It was equally ironic, that the freedom, the liberty, that we all take for granted, to spontaneously and unremarkably, take a breath had become, like the Stations of the Cross symbolic of suffering and submission, and yes too of triumph.
In this terrain of those like me who have received a glancing blow, if that, from the Grim Reaper as he rode past, looking over his shoulder, to bear witness is mostly false, mostly uneducated in the swampy delta of near-death. And even those who did need a ventilator but survived, they even in extremis did not cross over. As Primo Levi put it in another context
“We, the survivors, are not the true witnesses […] we are those who by their […] good luck did not touch bottom […] the drowned would not have testified because their death had begun before that of their body. Weeks and months before being snuffed out, they had already lost the ability to observe, to remember, to compare and express themselves. We speak in their stead, by proxy”.
I cannot lay claim to the same extreme experience as Primo Levi nor is it appropriate to draw any similarity between the deliberate and industrial level killing of human beings during the Holocaust. I merely want to make the point that bearing witness, to suffering that results in death, whilst surviving oneself is problematic.
What is it like to suddenly discover that to ‘take breath’, this most natural and indifferent skill, has become effortful? That the nether reaches of the lungs, the bases, even with the most intense and the sharp intake of breath are out of reach. The sheer panic, the rushing of blood to the neck, face and head can only be guessed at. I endured this for 6 hours or so, forbearing by counting to 100 repeatedly, probably hundreds of times. And, starting all over again whilst restless with worry, with dread and unaccountable images of death.
I had heard Clare Gerada speak and read her description of her experience of COVID19 and one phrase stood for me- “I kept thinking I’m in my early 60s and I have no underlying condition and I am relatively fit”. I thought that was true of me too and that became my mantra.
The Via Dolorosa, that way of suffering, is a path, a corridor, a road if you wish. The overriding image at present is of corridors in Italian and Spanish hospitals, filled with the grievously sick and the dying, trumpeted by the characteristic cough of COVID19. Or, the whitened, pure spaces of University College Hospital, London with rows of beds supported by wires, tubes, and machines, manned by doctors and nurses in space suits, visors and masks. Their voices echoey, their breathing too, loud and mechanical as in a science fiction film.
So, the Via Dolorosa, has its own colour and fragrance, its own texture and form, depending where and when it is. In America, its colour is dark for the black skin that it is processing to death under awnings and improvised field hospitals. A different shade of suffering. In Ecuador, it is a smell, an odour of decomposing death as corpses lie unclaimed and unburied on the streets. That is a different, a colourless or corrupted image of suffering. The mind shrinks from the destitution. And, yet the architecture of hope is shaped too, like a corridor where doctors and nurses in their drapes, line up to clap the rare survivor, to will him or her on.
As I am writing this, I am looking at a juvenile Magnolia tree in our garden. The blossoms are about to go over. Their porcelain petals subtly inked and veined in a blush of pink, open in supplication to the sun. When you have been close to death, or believe that you have had a close shave, all the contours of the world come into sharp relief. Yes, this is the world, yes, you are alive. The sun’s warmth, the bright opalescence of the rays of light, how the stillness is woven and silent, transparent and pellucid at the same time and again differently. My thoughts focused on the glory of life, the inestimable magic of breathing securely and without effort.
In our case, our drama started suddenly on a Wednesday, on the way to do our shopping. J coughed an explosive, dry cough and then again. I turned to her and said, I think you have the coronavirus. We were quick to discuss our plans. Was it best that I self-isolate or not? Which bedroom would I be best in? It was not long before it was clear that when you’ve been together close to 40 years, for “better or for worse, in sickness and in health”, actually means something. In any case we had never before slept in separate beds whilst under the same roof. And, all rationality made clear that I was already exposed.
We moved to the question of death: what would you want in the event of needing a ventilator? I said to J that she was the most needed of the family. A father is merely a backbone, by which I meant, he is not overtly present, he is surplus to requirement until needed and that rarely. But, mothers, grandmothers in particular are in every fibre and sinew. Why else would evolutionary biology have ensured that mothers become menopausal as their daughters start to have children? The role of the grandmothers, their contribution to the development and sustenance of their grandchildren is, well, precious and incomparable. Ergo, I will decline a ventilator if it was a choice between the two of us. We hoped, of course, that it would never come to that.
In Beckett’s All That Fall, a radio play written for the BBC in September 1956 and first aired in 1957 Maddy Rooney walks down a country road to meet her husband at the station and encounters a number of people. This is a triumph of holding the Via Dolorosa in mind whilst at the same time rendering it relevant to the ordinary life of a country woman in Ireland. Each encounter refers to the Stations of the Cross. And, in a way, that is exactly what is happening today as we experience the COVID19 crisis, together, at Easter. The journey through life, the exacting straits and how we manoeuvre them, the troughs and ditches in the way, the rare glimpses of light and colour, and the recognition that even without us, it all will carry on, are made manifest.
Photos by Jan Oyebode