“Heart” and “Disease” are two words you don’t want to see together. They certainly don’t look good sitting side by side on the screen in front of me as I type this. And I can assure you it doesn’t feel pleasant when it’s happening inside your chest.
Within 24 hours of arriving in Cairns, I felt unwell. I put it down to exhaustion and assumed it would improve, but after a few days, my condition worsened. I could hardly get out of bed and when I did, I found it hard to stand. My cognition was poor, and a fog had descended on my brain making it hard to think. My chest was heavy, and I was short of breath. I had a serious headache; lethargy was pervasive, and I felt depressed and anxious. Due to the border closures, no friends or family were able to come up to see me and as each day passed, the elation I was expecting to feel upon my arrival was replaced with a deep loneliness.
I had planned to spend the next month or two with my boys exploring the islands, beaches and waterways of Queensland during their summer holidays (HK is in the northern hemisphere) and I’m not sure which one of us was more excited. Due to the virus, their trip was cancelled though, and I found myself in Cairns alone, unwell and barely able to find the energy to leave my hotel room as the reality sank in that it will be a very long time until I can see them again.
Never once had I felt lonely at sea, so it was a sad irony that once on land, surrounded by people, albeit strangers, that I felt lonelier than I think I ever have.
By day 5 I knew there was something wrong and that this was more than simply exhaustion. After being refused admittance to a number of doctor’s clinics because I had been outside Queensland within 14 days, the only option was to present myself at the Emergency Department of Cairns Hospital. I’m very glad I did. I was immediately put into isolation and given a raft of tests from an ECG to bloods to chest X-ray, blood pressure and a COVID swab.
Once the results were in the doctor told me I was suffering from extreme exhaustion, adrenal fatigue, poor kidney function and that I had something called a Pericarditis. I struggled to pronounce the word, let alone understand what it was. It turns out the heart sits in a sac called the pericardium and a pericarditis is an inflammation of the sac which results in severe chest pain, fatigue, headaches, shortness of breath and heart palpitations. It’s not a terminal illness if treated early though, so I reminded myself to practice acceptance and to just go with it.
I knew there would be a price to pay for pushing myself to the very limits of human endurance, but I didn’t expect it to be this bad. The prognosis was it will take months for the pericarditis to heal and that the best way to do this was rest. Lots and lots of rest.
I wondered if it was just my body’s way of telling me take my time. That this was not simply 5 and a half weeks of stress, but 15 years without a break, rolling from one crisis to another. Sooner or later something had to break, and this was that “something”. I postponed my plans to sail down the coast, left Ahoyka at the Marina and metaphorically set sail for the safest harbour I know. My parent’s home in Tasmania.
With all the border restrictions in place it was not going to be easy as only Tassie residents we’re being allowed into the state and 24 hours before I arrived anyone who travelled through Victoria outside the airport was being refused entry, which made it difficult given the only flight into Hobart was from Melbourne once a day. I caught my first fly to Brisbane and overnighted there before catching a 6am flight to Sydney then onto Melbourne. Biosecurity agents screened all passengers getting on the flight to Hobart from Melbourne and many weren’t allowed on. Thankfully dad and I had gone through all the requirements beforehand and I had my required paperwork printed out and prepared, including my proof of residency, a bank statement with their address, which was my ticket to cross the border.
Almost as many police as passengers greeted us when arrived at Hobart airport and the screening process was extremely diligent. I could see mum and dad waiting beyond the security cordons, masks on, pensively patient, while I anxiously waited in line, hoping to be let through but far from certain I would. A number of those in front of me were escorted off to government run quarantine so the relief I felt when I was given the green light to quarantine for 14 days at their home was palpable.
Seeing mum and dad for the first time in 6 months, not knowing if we should, but letting our love for each other get the better of us, we hugged as only families can do and we headed home. Truly home.
It was time to curl up and heal like a wounded animal in a cave. Heal my body. My mind. My heart. My soul. And to do so in the safest place on the planet right now. My parent’s beautiful home in a state that’s seen zero infections in the past 2 months. I glowed with gratefulness the entire car ride home.
I miss my boys dearly and wonder how much of my pericarditis is simply modern medicine’s way of labelling a broken heart. My mum, being the ever-thoughtful woman she is, printed off a range of recent photos of the boys and placed them around the house so their endless smiles are never far away and they always to boost my spirits when I glance their way, knowing that it won’t be forever that we’re apart.
As I reframe the months ahead, I realise this is a very special time. How many people get to connect, indeed reconnect with their parents in middle age? To share a home together again without the distraction of children or the competition of a spouse in way we once did when life seemed so much simpler and I was a child.
I don’t know many people whose parents are still as in love and happy as mine. Who have the energy and the space to share their home and their lives again with their only son. This is a chance for us to be together again. “Be” being the operative word.
The days are luxuriously slow.
We share nice warm cups of tea together, slow walks in the bush or on the beach with Barney the Beagle and binge watch The Crown in the evenings all while eating delicious Tassie produce. I can’t imagine a better way to convalesce and each day my heart gets a little healthier.
A little happier.
A little lighter.
What a gift this is to spend such quality time with my folks and for us all to be connected in each other’s lives again.
How wonderfully Unexpected.
While the ocean is a place for poetry, so too are melancholic moments on land and I take great solace in Edgar Guest’s words while I focus on my new mantra for the months ahead:
by Edgar Guest
When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
When the road you’re trudging seems all uphill,
When the funds are low but the debts are high,
And you want to smile but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit…
Rest if you must, but don’t you quit!
Life is queer with its twists and turns,
As every one of us sometimes learns,
And many failures turn about
When we might have won had we stuck it out.
Don’t give up though the pace seems slow…
You may succeed with another blow.
Often the struggler has given up
When he might have captured the victor’s cup;
And he learned too late when the night came down,
How close he was to the golden crown.
Success is failure turned inside out…
And you can never tell how close you are
It may be near when it seems so far.
So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit
It’s when things seem worst that you must not quit.
Finally, I wanted to thank you dear Reader, for all your kind, supportive and heartfelt messages both during the trip and when I arrived in Australia. Reading them each morning on the water often pulled me out of a funk. Gave me a boost when it was needed and lifted my spirits when they were low. My body was clearly hanging on by a thread given how much it (we?) collapsed within hours of arriving home and without your support I just don’t know if I’d have made it to Cairns as safely as I did. The will to survive is incredibly strong, but even more so when you have something to live for.
I started the trip seeking solitude, thinking this was what my weary soul needed to heal. In doing so, I learned that its human connection that I sought and that this was the elixir I needed. No man (or woman) is an island and it’s love and companionship that makes our hearts whole and happy.
Thank you for teaching me this, dear Reader.
With love and gratitude,
PS – I’ve posted some photos of the journey online too if you’re keen to take a look: