real life

'In the space of 2 weeks, I've lost my dad to COVID-19, and turned 30. It's changed everything.'

Twelve days ago I lost my dad to Coronavirus and yesterday I said goodbye to my 20s. Timing, eh?

At first glance, these two milestones seem very much at odds with each other – how can I selfishly celebrate 30 years of life when I’m not done grieving my dad’s death? After all, if not for him, I wouldn’t have a life to celebrate. And what do you do when the first person who saw you on your actual birthday can’t be there to wish you a happy one?

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Michele on the day she was born and the day her dad passed. Image: Supplied.

I like to think yesterday’s sunshine was his way of sending well wishes my way. And how do you seamlessly switch gears from FaceTime funeral arrangements to Zoom birthday parties? If you ever thought you were an ugly crier before, iPhone’s front-facing camera is one way to confirm it.

At first, I was confused. And conflicted. And chin-deep in contradictory condolence/celebration cupcakes.

But after reflecting on it a bit – in my newfound 30s wisdom, of course - I’ve started to realise the back-to-back reality of these polar opposite life experiences may have actually helped me find more clarity than the LA skyline during lockdown.

For one thing, that stereotypical “oh shit, I’m 30” existential crisis just doesn’t apply during an actual global crisis. And it doesn’t have to be as extreme as losing a parent to the pandemic. Every day, we’re all now confronted with our own existentialism, which has been challenged on an intimate level in the most unsympathetic ways. Now we actually have the time to sit around and wonder what the hell we’re doing with our lives and what good we are without our jobs and social calendars and holidays.

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It’s a brutal and unwelcome confrontation, but it’s forcing us to strip back to basics and reinvent ourselves in ways we probably never thought possible between all our busy plans. Whether you’re building puzzles, baking sourdough, starting a side hustle, or just spending more time with your people, I do believe it’s possible to find purpose or passion during a pandemic. And you can do so without the pressure.

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You don’t have to change yourself or change the world, but you can easily help change someone else’s. In my last conversation with my dad, I asked him his favourite memories, and even I was surprised that every single one included our family. Dad was always a career guy - a self-made stockbroker with a lot to be proud of professionally. He took the 2001 global recession so seriously it ignited his lethal addiction to alcohol, and I’d bet (or invest…) any money that he read the Wall Street Journal while in hospice.

But even he didn’t rate finances over family. He also told me his last day in the ICU was the best he’d had in years simply because everyone he loved called him to talk. And laugh. And cry. And quote Jerry Seinfeld – his favourite comedian.

That day, we made a new memory. Just goes to show how far a phone call can go. And those calls wouldn’t have been possible if some angel disguised as a nurse hadn’t put on a hazmat suit to bring him the phone.

Dad’s death – while untimely – was a poignant way to propel myself into my next decade with a bit more perspective. Without his eye-opening reality check that COVID-19 is actually harder and lonelier for the dying than the living, I may still be sitting here complaining that my gym is closed or that my trips are cancelled.

Three weeks ago, isolation had me so focused on the inconvenience of it all that I had lost sight of the lives behind the line-graphs and the silent, suit-wearing servants facilitating their final phone calls. I will never complain about my corporate job again. In my 30s, I will be better.

So I guess I’m considering this birthday more of a rebirth. Having realised – above anything – that people are more powerful than a pandemic. And kindness is more contagious than COVID.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve had my own fair share of meaningful phone calls and honestly, Dad was right – it’s the best birthday gift I could have gotten. COVID has had a clever way of bringing me closure while also rekindling old connections and opening the door to new ones.

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The support Michele was sent. Image: Supplied.
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For instance, a generous stranger in Queensland offered to ship me an Esky of chicken parmys so I could have the comfort of a home-cooked meal. How bloody good are Australians? And people from my past who I was convinced didn’t like me very much have extended the metaphorical olive branch to show solidarity while in solitude.

Some messages have started with various iterations of “I know words can seem empty” or “I’m sorry I don’t know what to say”, but honestly just saying anything means everything. When in doubt, just reach out. Because words are all we have at the moment. Well, words and chicken parmys, I suppose.

While it’s hard to find certainty in anything anymore, it feels safe to say 2020 hasn’t exactly gone to plan. I recently found a list I wrote when I was 11 of all the random things I wanted to accomplish by the time I turned 30 and had the intention of ticking the last few off this year.

 

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So a few months ago I was thumbing through old notebooks my mom sent me and found this list I wrote when I was like 11 of random shit I wanted to do by the time I turned 30. While clearly I was a total weirdo (that hasn’t changed) and a few of these are unfulfilled (sorry, 11-year-old me), my life has ironically never felt more full than it has these past few weeks. And not because I’ve gotten tattoos or painted murals or whatever else my weird little self dreamt up in my pillow forts, but because people have shown up for me in ways I never imagined and will never forget. My mom and sister were due to arrive here to help me kiss my 20s goodbye this weekend, but instead I’ll be kissing a box of sympathy/celebratory cupcakes goodbye on my couch. Hell, maybe I’ll even go shave my head or get arrested for walking outside....Kidding! Although bald Zoom calls would be a trip. Anyway, thanks to everyone who helped me stave off the “oh shit I’m 30” existential crisis during an actual global crisis. I owe you wine when we can hang again ????????????

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But instead, I’ve had to postpone my pillow fort pipe dreams and apologise to 11-year-old me. My mum and sister were due to arrive from America last weekend to help me kiss my 20s goodbye on a trip to Melbourne. But now here I am, kissing boxes of crisis birthday cupcakes goodbye on my couch.

Anyway, I won’t waste any more time (not that I don’t have a lot of it to waste right now…) dwelling on what happened or didn’t happen or could have happened had life paid any attention to my plans. All of that feels irrelevant now, as do material goods and Instagram 'likes' and recommended serving sizes.

The main thing I’ll remember out of this is that life has a way of balancing shit out. It will throw you in the deep end then send you 1000 little lifeboats to navigate you out of it. Mine have come in the form of phone calls, morning runs (or as I’ve come to call them, mourning runs…), and writing (so thank you for reading…).

To steal a word from COVID, let’s spend the rest of quarantine focused on the growth rate. And I don’t mean growth of the disease, but rather of ourselves. Consider how much positivity and perspective each of us can spread – safely – just by being someone’s lifeboat and picking up the phone. Wishing you peace, love and chicken parmys in this character-building, puzzle-building time.

“You should always take the best from the past, leave the worst back there and go forward into the future.” - Bob Dylan.

In lieu of payment for this piece, Michele asked that we donate to the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation to support healthcare workers on the front lines every day. If you’d like to join us in supporting them, please click here.

The current situation around COVID-19 might be making you feel scared or uncertain. It's okay to feel this way, but it's also important to learn how to manage feelings of anxiety during this time. To download the free PDF: Anxiety & Coronavirus - How to Manage Feelings of Anxiety click here.

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