He’s gone,” the doctors told us, gently.
Geoff Woolf—my dad—had been taken by ambulance to Whittington Hospital in north London with COVID-19 in March, at the beginning of the very first wave of the disease in the United Kingdom. He was placed on a ventilator a couple of days later. By the time the neurologists called us in to “discuss next steps”—their euphemism for switching off life support—Dad’s oxygen levels had finally stabilized after 67 brutal days of mechanical ventilation.
But two weeks after sedation was lifted, he had not returned to consciousness from the coma they had induced so that he wouldn’t reject the ventilation tube shoved down his windpipe. His doctors believed he now never would.
I remembered a song my dad had used to sing me to sleep at night. He had terrible pitch, really, but imbued the words with such meaning. “There was a boy, a very strange, enchanted boy …” I sang that song back to him, through tears that threatened to break into sobs, standing there with my two brothers, saying goodbye. “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love, and be loved in return.”
Then, miraculously, though with agonizing slowness, he started to wake up. Eventually, 306 days after he was first admitted to the hospital—last week, as I write this—he came back home.
On March 21, when Dad first said he didn’t feel well, it was still easy to think of the pandemic as something that was happening elsewhere, to other people. The British government had imposed a lockdown a few days earlier—but the announcement had come with a time delay, which made it feel considerably less urgent than it should have felt.
Like many others, I went out to the pub the night before lockdown came into force. It all seemed like a lark at the time, in a way that feels strange even to remember. Although experts and hospitals were sounding the alarm, warning that they might soon be overwhelmed, that the danger was clear and present, I had—a lot of us had, I suppose, back in the before times—a feeling of invincibility with which it is now impossible to empathize. That pub trip will haunt me for the rest of my life.
Nicky Woolf is Editor of New Statesman America