Staying indoors has slowed me down, and I have finally started feeling the emotions that busy routines and distractions previously helped to cover up. It is strange to think of our current lives as future history, but I suppose all our lived experiences do eventually become a personal history. I have been thinking a lot, and in doing so my thoughts naturally gravitate towards my Grandma and my Noona. I cannot think of a personal history without thinking of them.
Up until the age of 17, I lived with and looked after my maternal grandmother and her sister, who I affectionately called Noona. I refer to them collectively as my grandmas because to me, that’s what they were. My grandma was chronically ill, with a list of ailments and illnesses I learnt to repeat back to doctors like times tables. She also had dementia. My Noona was blind. Age brought a long list of medical conditions for her too. Looking after them was not an instant transition, but in retrospect, it does feel like it happened in a matter of days. My Grandpa died. My Noona lost her sight. My Grandma became sick. And suddenly I was looking after the women who had always looked after me.
The role reversal was hard to stomach at first. Grandma had always been the cook of the household and now she couldn’t even hold onto a pan. Noona was always in charge of bathing me back home in Sri Lanka, and now she couldn’t be left alone in the shower in case she fell.
“The rhetoric surrounding COVID-19 feels like an attack on the people I loved most in the world, as well as what I would deem to be my life’s greatest work.”
Often, with the cockiness of youth, there comes with the feeling of invincibility. I’m not sure I ever felt it, though. The fragility and vulnerability of my grandmas taught me that everything in life exists in cycles – caregivers become dependents in a matter of seconds.
My reflections on my grandmas are now tinged with a deep sense of sadness as I have lost them both. I have come to accept that I will never stop missing them. Despite this, I will continue to say that my best memories are of them. My happiest days were with them. The greatest love I ever experienced was from them. Infinite and eternal. Taking care of them was not a responsibility, but a gift. A chance to give back to the women who had literally given everything to me.
Caring for someone is a full-time job, and looking after them will always be my greatest role. An achievement and a badge I wear with pride – grief cannot rob me of this. But caring is not without struggle. You make them comfortable and you find ways to bring joy into their lives, whilst simultaneously acknowledging that they are not yours to keep. Death becomes a familiar fear, but still you stay optimistic. You know that this job is not permanent and that even if the end date is unknown, you’re on a fixed term contract. You won’t get to do this forever, but still you do it. Out of duty, out of necessity, out of love.
Recently, the news has hurt me deeply. The rhetoric surrounding COVID-19 feels like an attack on the people I loved most in the world, as well as what I would deem to be my life’s greatest work. It has reminded me of what it feels like to be attacked simply because you love someone in a way that others can’t comprehend.
“I worry about what will happen to a world so ridden with self-righteousness and arrogance. Because our elders are not disposable. They are not facts and figures on a TV screen. They are human beings, who have lived lives and in doing so, have made lives better. They are still alive, and this simple fact is enough to make them worthy of basic compassion and care.”
I cannot help but wonder how many carers out there must feel the same. I realise now that my grandmas were the lives that would not have been protected, as theirs are the lives that are deemed to no have value.
They have passed their sell-by date and are now just ticking time bombs. They are a drain on the system and do nothing for society. Let them die. It’s bound to happen anyway. This is what I hear when people say this virus is a leveller, when people tell me not to worry because it’s “only the elderly and the vulnerable that will die.” In this simple sentence, we are told whose lives matter and whose lives aren’t worth saving. We are reminded of the hierarchy of humanity and how age and fragility only decrease our worth.
I wonder if it’s just me who is afraid of old age. Surely, I cannot be the only one who knows this status of ‘young, fit and healthy’ is exactly that. A status and a temporary state of being. They tell me not to worry, but all I do is worry about what will happen to a world so ridden with self-righteousness and arrogance. Because our elders are not disposable.
“Their sacrifices, both visible and hidden, are the reason we are here today. So when you disregard the fundamental importance of elderly lives, you are doing yourself the greatest disservice by dishonouring your history.”
They are not facts and figures on a TV screen. They are human beings, who have lived lives and in doing so, have made lives better. They are still alive, and this simple fact is enough to make them worthy of basic compassion and care. It physically hurts me to see how quickly we disregard the elderly. I do not believe that one’s worth should be determined by how much they contribute to society – that’s capitalism speaking. We should never have to prove our worthiness to be alive, but in a society where we do, we cannot forget just how much our elders have done for us all.
They were the key workers who got no recognition. The shopkeepers and the nurses and the cleaners, who kept this country afloat long before the government put our professions on a list and deemed us useful. They were the original caregivers. The childcare for those who could not afford nursery and the substitute parents for those with families that didn’t quite fit the mould. They were our mothers when our mums had to work 12 hours a day just to put food on the table. They were our fathers when our dads decided they didn’t want to be dads anymore. They were our original teachers. The ones who taught us how to be and what to do. Their mistakes made us better. Even in their errors, they have shaped us.
“Our society is riddled with ableism and plagued by the heavy burden of capitalism. We value people not on their deeds, but on their productivity under the capitalist gaze. The elderly, the vulnerable and the sick have no space in our society, and this is not a recent phenomenon.”
For many of us, they are the reason we are in this country. Carrying with them the hopes and dreams of a better life; they worked hard just so we could have a little comfort. Their sacrifices, both visible and hidden, are the reason we are here today. So when you disregard the fundamental importance of elderly lives, you are doing yourself the greatest disservice by dishonouring your history.
Respecting your elders is less about duty and more about respecting the memory of them and their sacrifices. It is about accepting that so much of your journey began with those who came before you.
A part of me is almost grateful my grandmas passed years before this pandemic, as I would hate them to hear the ways in which public rhetoric completely disregards their lives. My grandmas were the ill and the vulnerable. It sickens me to think that they would have been the first ones thrown to the wolves.
Our society is riddled with ableism and plagued by the heavy burden of capitalism. We value people not on their deeds, but on their productivity under the capitalist gaze. The elderly, the vulnerable and the sick have no space in our society, and this is not a recent phenomenon. We go from inaccessible spaces to elitist healthcare in the blink of an eye. And herein lies the problem. Who are we to determine the cut-off point of a life worth saving and one to disregard?
In the history of my life, my grandmas were my greatest chapter. No government or amount of internalised capitalism will take away my love for them. Caring for the vulnerable is not without value because they too are invaluable. Their lives are as worthy of saving as any others. In our rush to avert crisis, we must not let our humility disappear.
Ammaarah is a writer, activist and creative. Her work focuses on intersectional feminism and race relations, as well as her lived experiences as a Muslim woman of colour in an ever-changing political climate. ammaarahzayna.com