Five writers share their own missives from an extraordinary 2020
Once dreaded, the Christmas round robin promises to be a must-read this year. Five writers share their own missives from an extraordinary 2020 – So how was it for YOU?
- This year’s Christmas newsletter is a testament to our capacity to survive
- Liz Hoggard speaks to five British writers about important makers in their lives
- Sophia Money-Coutts, 35, paid £5,000 to freeze her eggs as a birthday gift
- Christina Patterson buried the last member of her family, her brother Tom, 57
Many of us dread this time of year, when the round-robin newsletter drops out of the Christmas card, with news of high-achieving children, exotic cruises and personal triumphs.
Sent to friends, family and (all too often) passing acquaintances, the round robin is a masterpiece of boasting, where the sender gives a breathless report of everything that has happened to them in the past year.
Did we know son James has started a hugely successful Welsh lavender farm, or that little Jocasta got eight A-stars in her A-levels.
No excruciating detail is spared, even though, in some cases, we last saw each other 20 years ago. Receiving the page of typed A4 — sometimes with glossy family photos — can feel like a slap in the face. Especially if your year hasn’t been quite so rosy.
Five British writers revealed significant moments in their lives that took place during 2020, including Sophia Money-Coutts (pictured) who froze 22 eggs
But this year has been so extraordinary and we have been so dislocated from one another that round robins are feeling incredibly precious. We actually want to hear how people fared because the stories are remarkable and heartfelt.
Families have dealt bravely with separation. Unlikely love affairs have blossomed in lockdown (ahem, ask me about it in a year’s time). The important markers of life — a new baby, the funeral of a loved one, a milestone birthday — have been made uniquely challenging by lockdowns and restrictions. And yet somehow we have come through it.
Traditionally, the round robin is a moment of bah-humbug where we vow (yet again) to prune the address book. Not this year. The 2020 Christmas newsletter is a testament to our capacity to survive. No life has remained untouched by loss and joy, grief and resilience, as these writers prove . . .
THE YEAR I FROZE MY EGGS FOR THE FUTURE
by SOPHIA MONEY-COUTTS
I feel guilty, in a way. Others learned to make sourdough and bettered their 5k time. I did nothing improving, although I did freeze 22 eggs. My eggs, not supermarket eggs.
I turned 35 in February and, since I was single and don’t have children, decided to undergo a round of egg freezing. Little birthday present to myself. Happy birthday, Soph! Please pay £5,000 and stab yourself with needles for a month.
Deciding to go through with the treatment was the hard part. That took a year or so of thinking time, since it meant accepting I wasn’t where I thought I might be in life when I was younger — married with a house, maybe a picket fence. A few children. Dog.
But once I had got my head round that, and the expense, I wanted to get on with it. I started the process on March 9, inhaling a nasal spray of hormones twice a day that stopped my brain from communicating with my ovaries.
‘It’s like temporary menopause,’ one doctor told me, which did very little to increase the glamour in my eyes. But it was a crucial, reversible step so that when I started injecting my stomach with a different hormone two weeks into the process, none of these eggs would be released prematurely.
Unfortunately, when lockdown was called on March 23, my London fertility clinic closed. Abandoning that first round was gutting; a couple of hundred quid’s worth of nasal spray wasted and two weeks of battling menopausal mood swings for nothing.
As lockdown dragged on, I toyed with the idea of scrapping the freezing process altogether and having a baby by myself using a sperm donor.
Those months were so dramatic, and our lives so altered, as time ticked by I wondered if I should simply ‘get on with it’, as my step-mother had previously suggested.
Sophia (pictured) revealed there’s around a 90 per cent chance of a baby, should she use her frozen eggs
Fortunately, the clinics opened again in May, and I re-started in June, deploying the nasal spray (like Vicks First Defence, it leaves a chemical residue sliding down the back of your throat), and injecting myself every night for two weeks.
I had feared the next part the most; could I plunge a needle into my stomach fat? What if there was an air bubble? Actually, I quite enjoyed it by the end. There’s a hardiness to self-injecting which leaves you feeling like a champion cage fighter.
Then came the operation in July, exactly a month after I had started the hormones. This was less enjoyable. I was knocked out (luckily) for 20 minutes while a doctor poked around up there with a bigger needle and retrieved 22 eggs.
I was lucky to get so many in one round, and it gives me around a 90 per cent chance of a baby should I come to use them.
Doctors are careful to warn women that there are no guarantees with this egg freezing. It’s not an insurance policy, since I could end up with no baby, though I still feel an enormous sense of relief having done it.
Plus, since nobody single has done much dating this year, it felt like a positive use of time. I couldn’t meet Mr Potentially Right in a bar or restaurant but I could do this. So, all right, I might not have learned Italian or read Middlemarch but freezing my eggs will hopefully be a useful down payment for the future.
The Wish List by Sophia Money-Coutts (HQ) is available now.
THE YEAR I CELEBRATED BEATING CANCER
by Libby Purves
New Year’s Eve 2019: a late evening escape from Ward 17. My lymphoma treatment involved six cycles of one week in hospital, tethered to a chemo tube night and day, then two weeks recovering at home.
First day out you’re still on steroid energy, so once I was home from my local hospital near Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, my husband and I scampered down the dark moonlit lane to drink in the New Year with friends.
As the regular collapse kicked in that week, I looked forward to 2020: only three months more of the medical regime with no travel, gatherings or theatres, trapped in a houseful of hand-sanitisers under strict hygienic rules to protect my immune system. March would bring freedom! Plays, parties, old friends, and that delayed holiday . . .
Libby Purves (pictured) was cleared of cancer after a CT scan at a ‘masked and disciplined’ hospital in Norwich
Didn’t work out, did it? My final infusion was on March 23, the day lockdown started. Nothing changed except for the worse: no visitors, no secretly sneaking out to empty local cinema matinees with a pocketful of antibacterial hand-wipes. The only consolations were swimming in the cold North Sea and collecting ever more garish hats for my very bald head. (Wigs are creepy! Hats are a laugh!)
For a few weeks it was quite fun telling freshly locked-down friends they were just amateurs: beginners at this boring game of working from home and avoiding fellow humans. As an expert, I offered them my system for staying sane, whether at home or in hospital.
Get up early and make the bed, read the papers, eat toast (ginger marmalade vital). Work in the morning, take a short feeble walk (in hospital that meant dragging a drip-stand round the ward, waving to fellow inmates). Read a proper book, plan the next daredevil outing — like getting crisps from the village shop. Absolutely no TV until after lunch and ration the binge-watching: I made Big Little Lies last a whole week.
That system worked as well in lockdown, and at least there was no Fear Of Missing Out or FOMO: everyone was fed up, and some a lot worse off. In May, an exciting drive to a masked and disciplined hospital in Norwich for a CT scan found me all clear, so an extra clap for the NHS.
More months rolled on. A jigsaw addiction saw puzzles wildly swapped round the village. Another hobby was collecting government shielding letters, informing me I was Clinically Extremely Vulnerable and should stay indoors forever, eating alone in my bedroom and opening just one window. Luckily, the consultant said, ‘No, take long walks, you need exercise.’ So I did, and the sun shone.
Well, you know the rest. We all went through it. But OK, there was a tiny sense of relief and luck at having got the tubes and tablets over with early, and to be able to write: Happy Christmas 2020!
THE YEAR I BURIED LAST MEMBER OF MY FAMILY
By Christina Patterson
I couldn’t believe it when I saw the news on my phone. A publishing deal had been announced for Outside, The Sky Is Blue, the family memoir I’ve wanted to write all my life. It should have been a moment of pure joy. But I had just arrived at the cemetery, and was about to bury the last member of my family, or at least put the casket containing his ashes in the family grave.
It is less than three years since my brother Tom and I stood by the grave in Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey, and said a final farewell to our mother. We lost our sister, to heart failure, 20 years ago. We lost our father to bowel cancer two years later. At our mother’s interment, Tom reminded me that the grave only came with a 50-year lease.
Christina Patterson (pictured) who was given a publishing deal, revealed the joyful news arrived during her brother Tom’s burial
‘If I manage to survive to 74,’ he said, ‘I hope I’ll have enough savings left to buy an extension.’ We both laughed, but he managed 18 months. My brother, a fit 57-year-old who worked as a gardener, died of a heart attack in July last year.
I spent the rest of the year in a state of grief, feeling that everyone I loved was doomed to die before their time.
When the pandemic hit, I almost felt as if the world was reflecting the reality in my head. In early March, in the green room at Sky News, I burst into tears when my fellow guest said: ‘Oh, Covid’s just like flu.’ I wanted to scream that he would not be so casual if he had lost his whole effing family.
I had to wait to get legal ownership of the grave, and then I had to wait for the end of lockdown, and then Tom’s best friend was out of the country for some months, and then I had to reschedule the interment to November because his godson had to retake an exam. I thought, it would all be rather grim. I couldn’t even organise a lunch after the ceremony, because we were in lockdown again and the pubs and restaurants were closed. Oh, and the weather forecast was bad.
When I arrived at the cemetery, the sun came out. The ceremony, with just four of us and the vicar, was short and sweet. Afterwards, on folding stools just metres from the grave, we had a picnic. We had smoked salmon sandwiches and one of Tom’s favourite wines.
I told his best friend and his godson that I had nearly finished writing a first draft of the book about the wonderful family I loved and lost.
I said that I had been lucky to spend this terrible year doing something that meant the world to me, and lucky to be able to do it in the comfort and safety of my home. I have shed more tears than I ever want to weep. This year has reminded me, as it has reminded so many of us, that life is short and precious and beautiful. I’m just grateful that on the day I buried my beloved brother, the sun shone and the sky was blue.
Outside, The Sky Is Blue: A Memoir Of Faith, Hope And Loss will be published by Tinder Press in February 2022.
THE YEAR I GAVE BIRTH IN A PANDEMIC
By Dinah van Tulleken
2020 started well for me. I was pregnant with my second child. The 20-week scan showed a healthy baby girl, due in June. I felt more confident the second time around; I knew exactly what to expect. Then, all of a sudden, I didn’t.
Just six weeks later, and six months pregnant, I found myself working from home with a boisterous two-year-old I had pulled out of nursery before they shut ‘to be on the safe side’.
I was being extra-cautious because we live with my 80-year-old mother who was recovering from major surgery. Oh, and my husband Chris, an infectious diseases doctor, was filming a BBC documentary in a remote part of Brazil.
Dinah van Tulleken (pictured) said she’s lucky that the birth of her second child was straightforward with no interventions
Then the full lockdown hit and the pregnancy anxiety set in.
I became terrified of losing my mum. The callous talk about how Covid only affects older people just made it worse. It clearly didn’t only affect older people because my young, healthy, doctor brother-in-law Xand caught it and was left with a long-term heart condition.
What would happen if I got ill? Who would look after my daughter if I had to go to hospital? And what about the baby? At that time not much was known about the effects on unborn babies. The idea of going into labour with something that, if I was lucky, would still feel like the flu didn’t bear thinking about.
Then there’s the fact that my husband, the only person who could reassure me and get me through the birth, was somewhere up the Amazon river trying to get home as international travel was shutting down. In the event, Chris got the last flight back — then immediately started work as a doctor on the Covid ward at University College London Hospital.
All my fears were now amplified. We discussed him moving out but decided to stay as a family and do everything in our power to avoid the virus.
And somehow we did. The day before my due date, ten weeks since lockdown began, my contractions started. My sister came to collect our daughter, Lyra, and I stayed at home as long as possible knowing that Chris wouldn’t be allowed into the hospital with me until I was in the final stages of labour.
I possibly stayed too long, and by the time we were in the taxi my contractions were fast and intense. At the hospital my first test on the labour ward was a swab for Covid by staff in full PPE.
Thankfully, Chris was allowed in and I could take my mask off as my breathing got heavier. Only later did I think of the risk my two midwives took allowing me to be comfortable.
A few hours after arriving, as dawn broke, my second daughter, Sasha, was born. Once I was moved to a bed, Chris was politely asked to leave. I was alone in the room with my very small, brand new human.
I’m lucky it was a straightforward birth with no interventions. I could walk, and hold and feed my baby, and I vaguely remembered how to change a nappy.
Thinking back now, it seems like a narrow escape.
THE YEAR I MOVED IN WITH MY PARENTS, AGED 30
By LUCY HOLDEN
Lucy Holden (pictured) who left her boyfriend earlier this year, revealed she wouldn’t have dreamed of moving back home if it wasn’t for the pandemic
In April, two weeks into lockdown, I fled to my parents’ house in Bath via Paddington. The deserted station with its boards of cancelled exit strategies made it feel appropriately like the end of the world.
It was the end of mine as I knew it. I drank a whole bottle of M&S wine on the empty train, hoping it would dull the panic of leaving London after seven years of being proudly self-sufficient. At the other end I had to ask my parents to let their broke and broken daughter move back home. Indefinitely. My generation seemed to have two options in lockdown: get engaged or write a book. Me? I left the boyfriend who didn’t want me to write a book.
It was hard to start with: more heartbroken than I’d ever been and without any of the crutches I usually relied on: nights out, the gym, rebounds (bringing someone back to my teenage bedroom in my retired parents’ semi-detached house not an option). At first I felt like I was clinging to a raft in raging waters: my bedroom with its PE trophies making me feel, at 30, like I’d regressed to an age where I spent pocket money on Pokémon cards. I walked alone through the country lanes and lay drunk in fields of hay wondering, endlessly, what was going to happen to me. Then I realised that drinking excessively threatened to capsize me and gave it up completely.
I tried some social-distance dating. I met a teacher who quoted Shakespeare at the table (tick) but laughed at none of my jokes (required); a pizza chef who tried to put his hand up my top like we were 15; a boy I used to work with in a shoe shop when I was 18 who still smelt like egg-whites.
I wrote not one book but two, and found I could afford therapy. I realised I’d been looking for stability and a home in the men I chose, that I was scared of being alone.
I never would have dreamed of moving back home if it wasn’t for the pandemic. Now I realise parental anchoring was the thing I needed most in the world.
Lucid by Lucy Holden (Simon & Schuster) is out in June 2021.
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