My name is Julie, I am 36 years old, I am a nurse. On April 8, I take my car to travel the 150 km that separate me from Martigues hospital, where my mom, Danielle, is hospitalized for Covid-19. She is 74 years old, suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure, heart rhythm problems and overweight. As a caregiver, I know that her vital prognosis will quickly begin. And yet I hold on to all the thin hopes that are given to me.
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I’m on the road with Mathilde, one of my sisters who comes from Lyon. We meet at the Valence Valence toll car park. Mathilde opens the trunk for me, I put my suitcases in it, we don’t kiss, we don’t touch each other, and I get in the back of the car. At this moment, we know, she and I, that we will not see our living mom again, but that we can see her face again, once she has made her last breath contagious.
The wait is unreal
The doctor at Martigues hospital was very clear that we could not see our dying mother, that we would have to wait for her death. The highway is full of trucks, very few cars. We arrive at a roadside hotel in the late afternoon. There we are waiting for the doctor’s call. The wait is unreal. How to wait for the death of her mother in the anonymous room of a hotel, located less than two minutes from the hospital where she lives her last minutes? We order a glass of wine, share a sandwich. We watch TV for a long time, sleep does not come. The next morning, we receive a call from my sister Valérie: you have to come, our mother is gone.
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We dress quickly and take the car. Upon arriving at the hospital, there is a barrier with a security guard, who casts doubt on the fact that we have the right to enter, and asks us to park further. At this moment, an anguish seizes us. Another shows us a tent dedicated to the sorting run by firefighters. The ball in the belly, we head for the tent. After explaining our situation, the firefighters finally allow us to enter the hospital.
His hands folded on a white sheet
We go up to 5e floor, at the Covid unit. The doctor opens the door. In the locker room, she explains the protocol to us. We take off our clothes, put on block pajamas, then we go into a second locker room, where we put on overshoes, charlottes and surgical masks. We wash our hands with hydroalcoholic gel, and enter the service where we put on a fabric overcoat and gloves. We meet our sister Valérie, who is waiting for us in the corridor.
We finally arrive, after all these steps, in our mom’s room. The three of us are together. We stay an hour, maybe more. Mum is mismatched: no more oxygen glasses, no catheter, no urinary catheter. The nurses certainly positioned her hands, joined on a white sheet reaching her chest. She is wearing a hospital gown. Her mouth is still open, but her eyes are closed.
We leave the room, completely lost
I’m approaching the bed. Valérie takes her arm and tells us: “Her body is warm”. I can hardly cry. Mathilde tells me that she can’t do it either. When I leave, I touch his arm and I burst into tears. And for the first and last time, the three of us take each other in our arms, crying hot tears.
We leave the room, completely lost. We remove the overcoats and gloves, we put hydroalcoholic gel. We are waiting in the break room for nurses, with oozing masks and a runny nose. Someone offers us coffee. A caregiver leads us apart to an empty room, for health reasons, and explains that we must see another doctor before leaving.
A definitively sealed body cover
We go back to the locker room to remove the masks, charlottes, overshoes and block pajamas. We get dressed. And we’re waiting for the doctor in the hallway near the elevator. The doctor arrives, we sit on a bench and he remains standing, facing us. He explains the rest to us. Our mother is going to be lowered into a body bag which will be sealed permanently, without toilet, without conservation care, in one of the refrigerators reserved for Covid. Then he informs us that the funeral home opens at 1:30 p.m. It is 12:30 p.m.
We go downstairs to buy a salad in the cafeteria, and eat on a bench in the hospital garden. At 1:30 p.m., I call the funeral home in Martigues to ask if a ceremony is possible. With Mathilde and Valérie, we still have the hope of being able to organize a funeral, even in small groups. My interlocutor answers me in the negative, and maintains that the funeral directors of Aix-en-Provence will have the same answer. While telling me this, she details the content of the services: the type of urn, coffin, plastic, pine handles, upholstery, the cross on the coffin …
The body will be cremated without family presence
A little stunned, I ask him to send me his catalog. She insists, and tells me that she is currently in the exhibit hall and can take pictures and send them to me. In the process, she tells me that everything will be done by email and asks me for administrative details. I answer her, telling myself that it will be done if we ever choose these funeral directors. My interlocutor adds that there will be no ceremony, no possibility of attending the lifting of the body, nor the cremation. I do not know why, but I do not react to this announcement. Hanging up, Mathilde asked me why I answered all these questions.
I call the undertakers of Aix-en-Provence, who give me the same speech and inform me that it is a regional decision. I try Roc-Eclerc, always the same answer. By default, we return to the funeral services of Martigues. We have no more batteries on our phones, so we are going to Valérie’s. On the phone, the funeral directors inform me that they will pick up mom on Tuesday April 14 at 9 am at the hospital, that the cremation will take place at 10 am, and that one of us will be able to recover the ashes on next day. It is April 9. The mother’s body will stay five days in a morgue fridge, and will be cremated without a family presence in a crematorium. We are dispossessed of mourning. Our mom, for us so familiar, so intimate, is now literally foreign to us. We can say nothing, choose nothing, just good to fill out and sign administrative authorizations. In this moment of general confinement of emotions, our tears, our handkerchiefs and our runny noses are anomalies.
Like a bad dream
We decide with Mathilde not to stay in the South. We have been robbed of meaning. There is nothing more we can do. One more night in a hotel and we will each return on our own, to our respective and confined lives. On the road to the hotel, we meet gendarmes at a roundabout. They ask us to park on the side, and ask us dryly about our destination. Mathilde hands him the certificate, trembling. We feel guilty, as if we have no right to be there. How is it that we feel this? They let us pass.
It’s 6:30 p.m. when we arrive at the hotel. The receptionist, who knew the reason for our visit, launched us into the cantonade: “Did the funeral go well? ” With Mathilde, we are amazed by this irrelevant reaction. The world seems indifferent to our mourning, as if it did not exist, as if our mother had not really died and that we were having a bad dream.
“Waste from healthcare activities with infectious risks”
The next day, we return to the hospital to collect our mother’s belongings in Dasri bags (waste from care activities with infectious risks). We are told not to open them for ten days, and to leave them in the cellar or on the balcony. The bags are not hermetically sealed. With my sisters, we spend another moment on the hospital garden bench. It’s hard to leave. We greet each other from afar. Valérie leaves alone. I hit the road with Mathilde.
Always trucks. We talk a little. I’m exhausted. Mathilde drops me off at the car park at the Valence Valence toll booth. We still don’t kiss. I get my things in the trunk, I go back to my car, and I join my companion and our two children. We planned to isolate myself for two weeks after I returned from the hospital. It is now clear to us that we will stay together. I find this strange daily newspaper peculiar to the Covid, scrutinizing the appearance of symptoms that do not come.
A bright red bag crying out for vulgarity
On April 15, I receive a message from Valérie with a photo. “This is where I got mom’s ashes, it’s a shame. “On a table covered with a dirty blue tablecloth; there, in the middle of the garbage cans, empty ashtrays and used benches, a man put down the urn in a bright red bag crying out for vulgarity. The man left almost without a word, leaving my mother’s ashes in a garbage can, and my sister annoyed, dismayed and alone.
My sister went home, got rid of the red bag, and put the urn on a piece of furniture in her little apartment near the TV.
We may have forgotten, that eternity does not wait.