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Christmas in Ashburton... with Covid

I don’t really like Christmas that much. Maybe it’s because I have a December birthday, or because my mother loved it and it reminds me she is gone, or that it always feels like work for women, or all three. So since becoming a parent ten years ago, I’ve taken the ‘fake it til you make it’ approach. I’ve created a few traditions, mostly about the only two things I like about it: travel and food. Christmas with my family in WA is out of the question this year, so the plan was a five-day beach holiday with Melbourne-based family and lots of lovely yummy Christmas food. We were looking forward to it.

Then, for my birthday last week, my 7-year-old gives me Covid. To ensure he spent more time with his kids, I give it to his father. Our 10-year-old son somehow tests negative.

He’ll probably end up in some study somewhere because I can tell you right now whoever invented ‘isolate within the home’ did not have young children.

When the positive results came through I immediately blast the school parents’ Whats App groups, the school, and the friends who I’d been in contact with. The entire neighbourhood goes into high alert and off for testing. Despite the massive undetonated bomb I throw under their Christmas plans, everyone is overwhelmingly sympathetic, kind and falling all over themselves with offers to help.

We make calls to the family and cancel the holiday booking. The kids take the news stoically. Two years of living through six lockdowns means they know all about wrecked plans, disappointment and isolation.

I take a rather perverse pleasure in texting people “Guess what I got for my birthday?” Nobody guesses correctly.

We try to work out how the kid got it and give up almost immediately. Covid has been circling the school like a grey nurse shark for weeks. It was only a matter of time. Of course, we never thought we would be first. I’m the first person I know who has caught it.

The bureaucracy arrives in a text message later that day. I’m a bit tired, sniffly, with a cough, but the vaccine is doing its good work. If it had been two years ago, I would’ve just gone about my business. The next day, the contact tracer calls. I learn that I’ve done exactly what I was supposed to do by telling everyone. She told me we have to isolate until 27 December. However, we won’t need another PCR test confirming we are negative. The Department of Health will send us a confirmation saying we are allowed to leave isolation. If the negative 10-year-old can keep himself negative, he can leave after seven days and a PCR test confirmation. The enormous bureaucratic challenge of this requirement does not immediately sink in. I also learn she lives in rural NSW and is bringing everyone local cheese for the family Christmas. So that will be nice for them.

The next few days pass in a slow blur. I can tell my partner, always the calm and practical one during lockdown, is taking it harder than usual. He does not cope well with not being able to exercise. I congratulate myself on only doing the big housework jobs during lockdowns because now we have a few things to do around the house that involved moving around.

Then, disaster strikes. My partner walks in from the shower and announces ‘I can’t smell my deodorant’. I suddenly realise I can’t smell it either.

The infected kid, already fully recovered in every other way, replies, ‘neither can I.’ His Dad and I exchange a look of alarm. And then we remember. We have Covid. The loss of smell and taste is a box you tick on the daily observation form.

We make jokes about this turn of events during the day. ‘Would you like a cup of hot water with a tea bag in it so you know its tea?’ he asks me. A friend drops off our Christmas meat order. Originally for nine, we now have to eat it all ourselves. Then it dawns on us that the absence of smell and taste has robbed us of the only good thing about Christmas we have left – the food. It’s the first time I feel like crying in self-pity.

But the next disaster awaits us. The 10-year-old, proudly aware he has withstood the family’s Covid Christmas Curse through his daily antigen tests, is begging for his PCR test. When it comes back negative, he can ride his bike around. It would also be helpful if he could go to the shop for us as people are starting to leave for their real Christmases. My stomach sinks. I already know the queues for testing are insane and the wait times are days. Half of Melbourne is trying to fulfil the bureaucratic requirements of travel.

In a ludicrous turn of events, it may well be that our superhuman son – the sole negative case in the house - can not get out of isolation before us positives. For the first time, my 10 year old’s resilience cracks.

Now I really hate Christmas and it isn’t even here yet.

Yet somehow, the kids’ excitement for it remains. People still drop by with food and gifts. We feel loved and cared for by our community. Even my 18 year old nephew sends us a rare Christmas text message. Christmas day passes in a blur of new books and games to distract the kids. We still can’t smell but we can taste sugar and salt. Sometimes I think I can taste the bitterness in coffee but it may just be wishful thinking.

We make an effort with the meals for the Last Kid Standing who is miraculously still managing negative antigen test results. It seems the least we can do after the three people he lives with have thrown the virus at him for days. If only he applied this stubborn determination to his schoolwork.

On Boxing Day, I finally have a sense of purpose. It’s my last day in isolation. My partner announces he thinks he can smell the hand-sanitiser so I put my face over a whole bottle of eucalyptus oil. Nothing. Sigh. But even this doesn’t damper my spirits. I reason he can have smell returning faster since he has two more days of isolation. Friends drop by with a beautiful pot roast and potatoes. We appreciate their kindness and generosity.

Then the big day arrives. I get a message from the Department of Health in the morning saying I’m now discharged from their care and, just in case I’ve forgotten, I can leave isolation today. Also, I now have 90 days of Covid immunity. Bonus.

I strap on my sneakers and go for a walk. Everything looks the same, just brighter. But it feels good to be free.

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