For Anand Menon, a politics and foreign affairs professor at King’s College London, an early bout of Covid turned out to be the least of the hardships he suffered during the most difficult year of his life
This story appears in Homemade, the latest edition of Tortoise Quarterly. If you were lucky enough to grab a Founding Membership back in the early days of Tortoise, you’ll receive your copy in glorious, old-fashioned print. If not, you can buy a physical copy here.
The train from Wakefield was 15 minutes outside Oxford. It had been an exhausting week. We had run a couple of large conferences. I’d given evidence to the House of Commons Exiting the EU committee. I was just starting interviews for a Radio 4 documentary comparing and contrasting the Dreyfus affair with Brexit. And I’d had to come up to my home town for what had been an enormously difficult and stressful day.
And yet I was wide awake, staring at a piece of paper in my hand. Suddenly, I started to shiver uncontrollably. It was 19 March 2020. My son Samuel picked me up and drove me the ten minutes home. I headed straight upstairs, dumped my stuff somewhere and went to bed, where I remained for two weeks: a Covid early adopter. I was halfway into the most difficult year of my life.
My dad had been ill for a while. The last time I clearly remember him up and about and well was in India in December 2013, when our extended family gathered in Madras to celebrate both his 90th birthday and my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary. Thereafter, he declined, first to a wheelchair, then to bed and ultimately unable to communicate except with his eyes.
My brother Gopi called us late one Saturday night in July – my partner Nicola and I were at Glastonbury (yes, we’re very cool) – to say Dad’s condition had deteriorated. We drove home that night and travelled up to Scotland the next day. He was weak but still with us when we left.
When the end came, a couple of days later, it was due, if not overdue. You never really get – well I never really got – to the point of wanting your dad to die. But there was, I confess, an element of relief when it happened. I’d said my goodbyes, though I wish we’d had a better conversation about things while he was still able to do it.
Looking after Dad had taken its toll on Mum who, although she had carers to help in the daytime, refused to have anyone stay overnight. She was also resistant to any notion that Dad should be put in a home. “He is at home,” she’d say. She had a way of making it clear when a conversation was over.
And, of course, my brother and sister-in-law, who lived nearby in Edinburgh, were called upon to take up a lot of the slack. And this, as Dad’s death approached, was an increasingly difficult time for them. Down in Oxford, I could do little more than feel guilty.
Funerals may be stressful to organise – though happily for me, Gopi and his wife, Val, did most of the work – but they do serve a useful function. The ceremony at the crematorium was simple and short. Afterwards we reassembled, in glorious Edinburgh sunshine (sic), at one of Dad’s favourite places, the Botanic Garden. There’s something about being together with family and friends, about sharing memories of a remarkable life, and, of course, about drinking decent red wine that acts as a balm for raw emotion. We talked, we cried, we laughed. It was a good send-off.
Dad would have loved it.
While Dad had been getting weaker, Gopi had been experiencing stomach pains. It was soon diagnosed as pancreatic cancer. I didn’t really understand the implications of this when he told me. Typically, Gopi, a doctor himself, gave no sense of the potential seriousness of what he was telling me. Were he here to do so, he would doubtless insist he was perfectly clear, but I’m an expert at denial and at not hearing things I don’t want to hear. Perhaps we’d both have a point.
It turned out to be a rapid, unremitting (in both the medical and layman’s sense) and horrible process. Pancreatic cancer doesn’t play nicely, and the kind he had was virulent. He lost weight rapidly but eating provoked hideous stomach pains. Even I came to realise that this could not last very long. So Nicola and I headed up to Edinburgh again.
On 20 August 2019 we all – Nicola and I, Mum, my brother and his wife and daughters – spent the day together at his home. We ate, chatted, laughed, and, of course, argued. Strange though it may sound, it was a wonderful day. My brother sat in the comfortable chair in their large kitchen/dining room. He was weak, and even during the course of that day weakened further. Nonetheless, these were precious hours with him, and he remained typically upbeat throughout, despite being in considerable pain. Mum later wrote in her diary: “He gave me a kiss. I will always remember that.”
Early the following day, Val called to say Gopi was declining rapidly. We rushed round with Mum and arrived ten minutes later to find he had died moments before.
A death that is untimely but not unexpected can be prepared for. And Gopi didn’t half prepare things for his passing. From the moment it became clear that the prognosis was not good, he took it upon himself to talk to his daughters, Natasha and Jessica (both in their twenties) and Val, going through everything from the pragmatic stuff about money to conversations about their plans for the future.
Nor was he one to let a detail like terminal illness cramp his style. His colleagues threw him a retirement party. Sadly – though typically – he’d opted for a fancy dress horror show, Mardi Gras style. He was, as ever, the life and soul of the party – a bittersweet occasion for those few of us there who knew how ill he was.
And, best of all, as it became clear he wasn’t going to recover, he, Val and the girls actually managed a week away together in Italy a few days before he died. Gopi had already checked into a hospice. There, they managed to stabilise his condition to the point where, at no little cost to himself, he was able to get on a plane and head south to the sun with his family. Those are memories that will stay with them for ever.
His funeral, ten days later, was another big affair, with the family out in force, along with numerous friends and colleagues. I asked the funeral director grimly if they offered any two-for-one deals, but sadly not. This was Scotland after all.
Throughout that week, I’d been nagged by a vague concern for my sister. Shalini still lived in Wakefield where we’d grown up. Aged 60 – a year younger than my brother, who was ten years older than me – she had, since her schooldays, suffered from mental illness and been in and out of hospital. We’d even settled into a kind of hideous routine in which she would be sectioned with all the attendant upset, would spend time in hospital, would be placed on a drug regime that worked, and then released. But before long the whole sorry cycle would repeat itself.
Shalini had been badly affected by Dad’s death. Moreover, she hated crowds and made it clear she didn’t want to come to Gopi’s funeral. I usually spoke to her a couple of times a week, and when I did she seemed more subdued than usual. She refused to believe that Gopi was seriously ill. One of the manifestations of her illness was what she called faith and what I called an unhealthy obsession with God. “Jesus will cure him,” she maintained, and brooked no argument.
I should have been more aware. For someone possessed of that utter certainty that God would come to the rescue, the deaths, in quick succession, of a parent and then a sibling would be a terrible test of that faith.
As we climbed into the hearse – we knew the driver by name now – I felt uneasy. This vague sense was sharpened by a text from one of Shalini’s social workers as we pulled away: “Can’t get in touch with Shalini. Going to head round there.”
But still, there was another funeral to attend. This one was sadder than the one only a few weeks before. This was to remember and honour a life cut short. Because Gopi left behind a relatively young family. And because he and Val had plans for their retirement. And because, frankly, you shouldn’t be burying your siblings at my age.
There was another memorial gathering – at one of Edinburgh’s imposing city centre hotels – and I found myself giving another eulogy for a family member. And again, I found that these occasions really do help. For all the sadness, being together with friends and family, talking about your loss, does bring a certain sense if not of closure, then of healing.
Yet there was an anxiety about my sister flickering at the edge of my thoughts even as we chatted and ate and reminisced about my brother. Then the social worker texted to say they were getting no answer at Shalini’s flat and had called the police. Shortly afterwards, West Yorkshire police called to say that Lothian police would need to talk to me. At around ten that evening, two police officers arrived at our hotel room.
My sister had been found dead earlier that day.
At a hastily convened summit in the bar with cousins who were staying in our hotel, we made the decision not to wake Mum with the news. Burying your first-born was enough sorrow for one day.
I slept poorly but the next morning my partner and I, with two of my cousins, headed round to Mum’s house. Writing this is difficult even now. We arrived to find her and my uncle sitting at the kitchen table chatting. For someone who’d been through what she’d been through she seemed remarkably composed. They were talking about her perhaps going to India later that year to see the family. For the first time in months, if not years, she was thinking seriously about it.
I put an end to that relatively upbeat chat pretty damn fast. My uncle’s daughters steered him into the sitting room, and I sat Mum down, and well, just told her.
It was, without doubt, the most miserable moment of my life. She dissolved, and put her arms around me. “It’s just us now,” she whispered.
All this happened on a day that would have been significant anyway: it was my son Samuel’s 21st birthday. Even as I had delayed telling Mum about Shalini, I had pretty much decided that the meal we had organised to celebrate could not now go ahead. But as I sat around, sometimes chatting, sometimes lost in my own thoughts, I changed my mind. We were all there. It was a big day for Samuel. What else were we going to do?
So, that evening we all found ourselves sitting in our favourite Edinburgh restaurant. Mum had been initially reluctant to join us but she came round.
The photos are instructive. Not as many smiles as might have been expected at a 21st birthday party. Nonetheless, it was a lovely evening. Valuing life and the living, it turns out, is a great way to deal with death and dying.
Because of the circumstances of Shalini’s death, there was a lot to sort out. The funeral had to wait until we’d had a death certificate from the coroner. I travelled to Wakefield to talk to the coroner’s officials and to thank the social workers who had taken care of her. Emptying her flat drained me emotionally far more than I expected. The notes she’d kept, the photos she’d framed. The small details of her life and, in one corner of the carpet, the patch of dried blood that made me sway on my feet as I thought of her lonely death.
Finally, her body was released, and we were able to arrange yet another funeral. Shalini had few friends in Wakefield, and we wanted Mum to be there, so we went back to what I had come to think of as our regular funeral service suppliers.
Cemetery. Hotel. We had a model for these things now. Shalini’s was the smallest affair – itself a poignant reminder of the life she had led, of the wasted talent it represented. Two of her social workers took the time and trouble to come, a gesture that moved me greatly. But looking back now over the remarks I made (and had later typed up at Mum’s request – she was hard of hearing) I’m struck by how angry I was.
My poor mum. She was a strong woman. The eldest of four, she had outlived her three sisters. Each time she’d been sent reeling by the blow, yet each time had come off the ropes to become again (and these things are far clearer in retrospect than they were at the time) the rock, and matriarch, of our family.
Losing your husband of 60-plus years would be shock enough for anyone. For his death to be followed, within the space of a month and a half, by those of your first- and second-born hardly bears thinking about.
So it should hardly have surprised me that she was not herself in the weeks following the third funeral. Subsequent to her death, I discovered the diary she had kept of those months. It was heartbreaking. Anyway, we spoke every day – as we had done since Dad had undergone a major operation 15 years earlier. Our calls used to follow a traditional pattern: she was chirpy and inquisitive, I was monosyllabic (teenage, I think, is the word). But now something had changed.
Prior to Dad becoming ill, my parents used to go back to India every year from about November to March. We had, as I’ve mentioned, all gone to celebrate both their 60th wedding anniversary and Dad’s 90th birthday. She had not been back since. She spoke regularly to family at home, but had not seen them for years. So we talked about going back to India again.
She was uncharacteristically reluctant. But we’re an annoying and persistent family. Slowly, we persuaded her that she should go, that Nicola and I would fly out with her (she would need wheelchairs at airports) and a cousin would escort her back.
We bought tickets in December and flew just before Christmas. For me, it was a strange trip. Unlike my brother and sister I had not been born in India, and had not lived there at all. Being in India without them brought what had happened into shocking focus. I became withdrawn.
Mum, on the other hand, was reborn. From the first day, she regained an appetite that had been paltry for months. She beamed when seeing relatives she had grown up with. We have a lot of relatives, so her whole stay was peppered with visit after visit. She was, once again, the much-loved matriarch, the life and soul. And she and Nicola cemented their close friendship over meals, and the numerous shopping trips Mum insisted on taking her on. That meant more than anything to me.
We flew back just before new year, leaving behind a woman transformed. To see her out there, in her element, in the bosom of that large extended family, was wonderful.
She came back in February. The pandemic, and the fact that I was bedridden for two weeks in March, meant we did not have the chance to see her. She was still chirpy – she gave me a real telling off when a cousin inadvertently told her I’d been ill with Covid and had failed to mention this to her (I mean, would you have mentioned it?).
And, of course, she was still tough. I talked to her from Wakefield in March about Shalini’s inquest and its – anticipated – conclusion that she had taken her own life. Not a conversation you want to have. But Mum was more worried about me having had to go there alone than about herself. That’s what mums do. I promised to send her the note Shalini had left, apologising to us all.
But this period of relative peace proved to be short-lived. Mum fell in her kitchen. She was wearing one of those emergency buttons on a string around her neck, but it took the “emergency rescue” people three hours to arrive. Subsequently we found out she had suffered a fracture in her back. Not long afterwards a scan (which she struggled to get to, despite the best efforts of my sister-in-law) revealed that lymphoma had returned after radiation therapy a year or so earlier.
Her back pain became so severe that she was admitted to the Western General Hospital. We went up to see her, and within a couple of days a junior doctor had informed me that the prognosis concerning her cancer was not good at all.
Our focus was on finding a way to ensure that she could at least get home for a few days so she could see close friends and relatives (Covid restrictions in the hospital meant strict limits on visitors). But she would never get home.
Within a couple of weeks, she was transferred to a hospice – the same one my brother had been to before his final Florence holiday. The staff there were again fantastic. (If there’s anything you want to do after reading this, then please donate to Marie Curie.) But they were not miracle workers. Mum was comfortable, and we’d talked about her death since she had been in hospital. We had, thank God, time to say goodbye.
Another day, another funeral. Funerals during lockdown were, it transpired, a nightmare, not least because Scotland only allowed 20 people to attend (the rule in England was then 30, and we briefly considered moving the event south of the border).
And so we did it again. The same funeral-director-branded Tic Tacs and tissues in the hearse (I have a lifetime supply at home now). And yes, out of habit I suppose, I typed up my remarks, though Mum would never be able to read them.
A central Edinburgh restaurant helped us out in the evening (our favourite, where we had been for Samuel’s birthday, had closed during lockdown), taking four separate bookings of four in a private room, on condition that the tables did not mix. Again, it was nice to be able to sit and eat and chat with family. Grief shared really is easier to manage.
Of all the funerals, this, for me, was by far the hardest. I’m not sure why. Perhaps the finality of them all – father, brother, sister, mother – being gone. Perhaps the grief was cumulative. Perhaps it was because Mum and I had always been extremely close. We were very alike. And I was, after all, the baby of the family. And I had, of course, become an only child.
God, I miss those phone calls with her now.
I kept working through all of this. There was time off to visit one or other of my family when they were ill, and for the funerals. The timing of Dad’s death and my brother’s rapid decline – during July and August – had happened when work was quiet anyway, as politics had ceased for the summer. But for the rest of the time, I just kept going. Not out of duty, or even a desire not to let people down, but simply because work provided a welcome refuge. After all, as I said to the numerous people who suggested I take some time off, what would I gain from sitting at home feeling sorry for myself?
I let things slip. I struggled to write or even think clearly a lot of the time. I went through meetings on autopilot. And there were some weird moments: dashing out of the Conservative Party conference to get to Edinburgh for a memorial service for my brother and then back to Manchester by the end of the day; doing a BBC radio interview on the phone while I walked to the Wakefield coroner’s office; getting a call from the funeral directors when I was on set with Adam Boulton (fortunately the phone was on silent).
And, of course, work only kept my feelings at bay to a certain extent. I was short-tempered (OK, more short-tempered) at work, prone to taking my eye off the ball, and I failed to run the office as assiduously as I should have.
In October 2019 I walked on to the Question Time set in Wallasey, feeling just as nervous as you might expect, and suddenly finding myself tearing up, for no apparent reason. I remember telling myself: “For Christ’s sake sort yourself out before you sit down and the camera is on you.”
Let me digress here to give you an insight into my mother. The first time I’d been on Question Time, the previous January, she had of course watched it. She rang me afterwards: “It was such a shame they had those other people on, or we could have heard more of you.” I confess I’m not sure that would work.
Losing my family has been a blow from which I have found it extremely hard to recover. I wonder if one ever recovers from such a loss.
Suddenly I lack people to turn to when I’m unsure about a family detail. The basic questions I still have will now in all likelihood remain unanswered. A couple of months ago, I found myself wondering about something half remembered from my childhood. But I had no one to ask.
And then there is India. India is an important part of my life, but I don’t know or understand it well. I was born and brought up in the UK. My parents acted as translators – both literal and metaphorical – when it came to my links to my heritage. I wish I had paid more attention to Mum when she detailed who was whose second cousin on her mother’s side.
More subtle yet perhaps more disturbing is the sense of disequilibrium that has settled upon me. In my eulogy for Gopi I likened our social world to a galaxy in which we orbit certain stars and are defined in part by their gravitational pull. (Not great, I admit. But I wasn’t at my best.) Losing family is like losing your sense of social gravity. It affects who you think you are and how you relate to the rest of the world. Losing four of them almost at once was correspondingly more unsettling, more destabilising, and subverted my notions as to who I was.
What to tell others? This story was a long one to tell. Sometimes I lie. As I’m writing, I’ve just finished an interview with an Asian television station. They were very nice, but while looking at a photo of Gopi, the producer asked what he does. I paused for a beat then said: “He’s a doctor.” I simply couldn’t face telling the story, and the inevitable sympathetic response.
Sometimes I have choked back the words “my brother is a doctor” in an ordinary conversation. I don’t know whether I am just reluctant to use the past tense about him or if I am simply trying to avoid the reaction that might follow.
It still hurts to talk about all this. Even as I write I can still on occasion feel my eyes filling.
Things got a lot tougher after Mum died, which is not to say Nicola, my kids and my friends haven’t been great.
Last autumn I kept being engulfed by what I can only call waves of sadness. Stupid little things would trigger them: ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ coming on the radio (the sound of long car journeys from my childhood); my sodding phone chucking up a long-forgotten photo to help start my day. Or they’d just crash over me for no apparent reason at all, knocking me sideways and reminding me of what I have lost.
Have I been depressed? I don’t know. Sad? Profoundly so. Yet losing people makes you appreciate people. First and foremost, those around me, and Nicola in particular, who is caring beyond words, and patient to boot, willing to tolerate what I will now acknowledge to have been my moodiness, distance, impatience and the rest of it. But also to family members who have stepped in to try to fill the hole. Friends who have got drunk with me, colleagues who have covered for me – and called me regularly to see how I’m doing. The team at work who have gone above and beyond to help me. I probably haven’t acknowledged all this to them but I can’t bear to think how hideous this all would have been without them.
And I’ve changed. I’m more emotionally unbalanced, as I’ve said. I’ve found concentrating hard, and writing at points almost impossible (thanks here to co-authors – they know who they are – who have carried me). And, for God’s sake, I’ve become superstitious. I used to laugh at my uncle (the husband of Mum’s youngest sister) for lighting candles on the day of my aunt’s death. Now I do it. Birthdays, death days, you name it. I may start buying candles in bulk.
And I speak to my uncle virtually every day. We’ve always been close, and he’s an impressive bloke with a fascinating story to tell. But I’m pretty sure that’s not the point. I talk to him partly because I need an immediate family. But also because I need contact with that generation. You sometimes really don’t know what you’ve lost til it’s gone…
And I keep talking to Mum and Dad, and to Gopi and Shalini. Not out loud – yet. But I catch myself doing it. As if they could somehow see me. But weird as it may sound, if I was anxious to make them proud when they were all alive, I’m even more determined to do so now.
I realise I’m far from “over it”. I’ve lost my immediate family, without the time to adjust or adapt. And of course lockdown has meant there are still practicalities to be dealt with. I’ve still got to empty Mum’s flat and put it on the market – God knows what as yet undiscovered stuff will come out to haunt me then.
And – something that has obsessed me of late – I can’t find my sister’s note. I was, as I said, clutching it on the train as I came back from her inquest and succumbed to illness. I have searched far and wide but I can’t find it anywhere.
I hope they’ll all forgive me. Bloody hell. I almost said that out loud.
Main image: Dad, Gopi, Shalini and me in the Highlands (I think). I’m the cute one
To donate to the Marie Curie Hospice in Edinburgh, please visit Anand’s Just Giving page here.