Covid made me choose between my 89 year old mum and my autistic son


Last week I joined the distraught ranks of people the world over who’ve felt the true cruelty of this vile Coronavirus. My mother is in intensive care in Australia and I can’t get home. There are currently 36,875 Aussies stranded abroad, so the Department of Foreign Affairs told Australian Parliament this week, with another 100,00 desperate to get home to see their families for Christmas. And we’re all scrambling to get onto a handful of scheduled flights –flights which are often cancelled because of the government’s 6,000 a week cap on passengers entering the country. The lucky few who do get airborne often have to stitch together an itinerary of haphazard flights resulting in convoluted, kangaroo hop journeys via outer Mongolia, or possibly Mars. Prime Minister Scott Morrison blames the need for this flight cap on stretched hotel quarantine capacity.

136,875 of us all in the same boat – and wishing like mad that we had one. In fact, I’m currently looking for a lone yachtsman with a penchant for funny feminists and a homing instinct for Botany Bay.

I’ve lived in London for 32 years but visit my dear Mum a few times each year. In fact, I was staying with her in Sydney in March when the pandemic panic suddenly accelerated with warp factor speed. State borders slammed shut and the Government began pulling up the drawbridge, starting with cancelling international flights. I then had a difficult decision to make. Should I stay in Australia to look after my 88-year-old, widowed mum or boomerang back to Britain to care for my 29 year old autistic son? It was a harrowing and heart-breaking choice.

I was painfully aware that if my beloved mother caught the virus, her chances of survival were pathetically slim. My mother is the most loving, warm and life-affirming woman. Even when I transmogrified into Attila the Teen, she didn’t put me up for adoption or start looking for a loophole in my birth certificate. When I then dropped out of school, the guppy approach to parenting must have looked so appealing i.e;- eating your young. But she just kept right on loving me. When my son was diagnosed with autism aged three, it was Mum’s kindness that kept me buoyant. Her motto? “Laugh and the world laughs with you; cry and you get salt in your champers.” How could I abandon her now?

But as Mum has three other devoted daughters close by, I decided to entrust her to their care and catch the last flight back to London. With all planes about to be grounded, I knew I’d be stranded 17,018 kilometres from my adored Mother’s bedside should she fall ill. Bidding her farewell was so hard, especially as we couldn’t even hug. We just had to make do with a little weird elbow action.

Fretting over whether I’d ever see Mum again, I blubbed all the way back to Britain. I immediately caused a waterproof-mascara shortage in greater London too, because my reunion with my son was just as emotional. Jules’ psychological needs also assuaged any doubts about my decision. If we neurotypicals find coronavirus terrifying and lockdown claustrophobic, you can imagine the impact on those who suffer from chronic anxiety. (My autistic son plays Jason on BBC’S prime time medical drama, Holby City. Filming was cancelled in the middle of his big story line, leaving him bereft and angst-ridden.)

Since my return to England, I’ve skyped Mum every day to do the crossword. But I always signed off with the same warning – “Remember, you can’t get sick, because I can’t get home. If you get sick, I’m going to kill you!”

Unfortunately that silly little joke fell flat this when week she was admitted to ICU – not with Coronavirus but a heart problem. When the phone call came in the middle of the night, panic sluiced through me. I felt as though fate had pulled a pin on a grenade. If I’d been one of those elusive planes, an oxygen mask would have dropped from the overhead panel at that moment. Mayday! Mayday! All I could do was sit on the stairs in my PJ’s and adopt the brace position.

Due to dreaded COVID-19, so many people are suffering the distress of being separated from loved ones. But being stranded on the other side of the world – with all the travel and quarantine restrictions that entails – sure puts the ‘turkey’ into Christmas.

Even if, by some miracle, I do find flights for the family, we then have to quarantine for two weeks in a hotel of the government’s choice, at our own expense. When I say ‘hotel’ I use the term loosely, as it could be a miner’s camp in Darwin, where it’s so hot the hens lay hard-boiled eggs.

Quarantining in a cramped room is hard enough for neurotypicals, but for someone with Jules’ perturbations, it’s doubly daunting. The disabled can get an exemption and home quarantine, but because autism is an invisible disability – there’s no white stick or wheelchair – their needs are invariably under-estimated.

But on a positive note, my beloved mother Val did give me the greatest gift imaginable – three wise and witty sisters. We’re great mates and love each other unconditionally. (Well, there are a few conditions. Everyone must take their turn washing up and wine pouring.) The only thing we really mock fight over is which of us is the top of our mother’s speed dial.

I’m now waiting to hear the results of Mum’s blood transfusion. I’m just glad I couldn’t be asked to be a donor because, since her hospital admission, if I gave a blood sample it’d be Pinot Noir positive; with added cocoa as I’m mainlining chocolate to keep awake at night to talk to my family, as Australia’s 11 hours ahead.

My sisters are hovering at the hospital, skyping me with updates. Laughter is not just the best medicine, it’s the only medicine we have access to right now – and they’re managing to keep me dosed up. For example, Mum, groggy from pain killers, told my sister Liz today that the palaeontologist had been to see her.
“Mum, I know you’re old, but you’re not a dinosaur, surely?”

It’s a rare mistake as our mother was a school principal. A gifted teacher, she gave us the most joyful childhood. (Although lack of misery’s not an ideal youth for a writer. I’m contemplating suing her over loss of book royalties for bringing me up too happily!) But having a successful working mum ingrained into me the belief that women can achieve anything, well, apart from parachuting in a ball gown, scuba diving in stilettos – and teleporting obviously, or I’d be at her side.

And so, as I wait for the Australian Prime Minister to lift the flight cap by creating more quarantine capacity, or simply trust people to home quarantine, I’m trying to convince myself that Mum will get better. Her own mother lived till 101 – a case of Designer Genes.

I also try to remember that plane travel at this time of year has its downsides – at least I won’t have to endure a cavity search performed by someone wearing reindeer antlers.

But I’m grasping at psychological straws. I would love nothing more than being able to kiss my cherished mum and tell her how much I love her. If you’re lucky enough to be with your Mother this Christmas, hug her extra hard for all of us who can’t. And, meanwhile, if you hear of Police arresting a female who refuses to get off Santa’s lap, I’ll admit to you now, it’s going to be me. That’s how desperate I am for a comforting cuddle.


#removethecap #strandedaussies @Telegraph

p.s. I’m pleased to report, that since penning this piece, my darling Mum is on the mend. Fingers + toes crossed she continues to get better. And I hope all your rellos are doing well too. x



Making headlines

Believe nearly everything you read...

One-liners, wise cracks and witticisms

Scroll to Top