This piece was meant to be about Australia’s border policy and added restrictions on overseas residents like me but, instead, it’s about an 88-year-old from Mount Pritchard called Len Linacre. There are two reasons for this. He died last weekend and he was my grandfather.
I was not there. I was in Ireland where I work as a reporter and presenter on Ireland AM, a national breakfast TV show. Sometimes I cover elections, sometimes sectarian violence, sometimes donkeys that apparently honk Ava Maria.
The last time I hugged Len was when I was last home in January 2020. I was on Mum’s front porch saying goodbye, trying not to get emotional. I rationalised. I was only two flights away if the worst happened. I would make it in time to hold hands at the hospital, as little comfort as that would bring. Len had tears in his eyes at the time which was uncharacteristic for the hard-headed British Army veteran. Looking back, the old bugger knew something I didn’t.
Then the call came that all expats fear. The question, asking not “if” you can home but “when” and “how quick”. We were at the business end of Len’s cancer, and he was going into hospice. I’d been trying to get home for months. Holding out and hoping. Then the caps halved. Sydney locked down. Flights cancelled.
The most reliable way home was going to cost $15,000, not including the hotel quarantine bill. “Just fly business class, so you don’t get bumped”, came the advice. Which is as helpful as telling me to ring up Jeff Bezos and going, “Yeah, mate, give us a lift on your rocket will ya? Cheers.” Desperate maths were done. How many credit cards could I split it across? Our scraped-together house deposit gambled on a flight that might not go ahead. In the end, I ran out of time. I got another call. He had died.
I had to make peace with this possibility early on. The pandemic ravaged Ireland. There was no mandatory hotel quarantine for nearly a year, the contact tracing system was manned by volunteers and got so overwhelmed 2000 people were asked to do it themselves. I spoke to families locked out of nursing homes, doctors worried there were only 30 ICU beds left in the entire country on that particular day and women who miscarried alone in waiting rooms. Widows denied a last hug.
Ireland lived in lockdown for 10 months. I asked my family if I should come home. “Don’t be giving up a good job in a recession.” I come from sensible factory workers on both sides. We live in fear of being unemployed. Journos were being laid off in Australia. I’m an average looker with a western Sydney accent more suited to NRL commentary than polished news reading. Commercial TV isn’t going to be breaking down my door anytime soon to give me work. So I sat tight. Held on.
Selfishly, I found it easier going into high-risk hospital settings than my colleagues. I had no elderly relatives to spread COVID-19 to. They were all home in Australia, enjoying relative freedom. That was the irrational bargain I struck in my head. OK, I might never see my granddad again, but the trade-off of border closures meant he could spend his last months being surrounded by my Irish family, which, like all Irish families, is a) big b) mad and c) loving. He got to keep up his favourite pastimes – checking out the middle aisle bargains in Aldi and frowning at the state of other people’s rose bushes. I wouldn’t get to go home but the people I loved there would be safe. That was the price I would have to pay. That’s the deal.