Letter to an Old Friend


I write to you from quarantine. My wife and I have been ordered to isolate ourselves. 

Old friend, you and I are old. We have passed the threescore and ten years of the Psalmist. A short time ago we were heading confidently full steam ahead for one hundred. So we proposed. So life seemed to promise. But now, this virus.  

Man proposes, Virus disposes. The virus has disposed of thousands. In Spain overnight, three hundred. Overnight in Italy, 800. I’ll write that more plainly. Three hundred persons. Eight hundred persons.At the start of the year all eleven hundred would have been steaming ahead. I imagine them looking confidently to the future as recently as the start of the month of March. By the close of the equinox all were dead. Few will be those who follow their caskets to their burial.

While going about my work in the past weeks I’ve found the most worried people have been those with the least to fear. Young parents have been terrified for their young children. Truly that suffering has been unnecessary. For most people younger than forty, COVID-19 is a milder illness than the ‘flu. I have heard of no deaths of children anywhere in the world. That should bring blessed relief, but although those facts are widely known, the fear for their young extinguishes parents’ peace of mind.

Curiously, we old ones need fear not so much for our young, as from them. The theory runs that children are unhygienic creatures that act as vectors for this novel virus (they certainly do that service for the influenza viruses), and they endanger and infect us older, more vulnerable subjects. That is why I am writing.

If you are over seventy, go inside now, close the door. Shun your children, ban the grandchildren. Ours is the age group in which most of those hundred of persons died. Ours is the sector at greatest risk of the pneumonia that fulminates and kills. Ours is the group who will not receive respirator treatment and Intensive Care when those services are rationed.

This is cautious advice that might later be seen to be over-cautious. As the W.H.O. Chief of the Ebola response advises, ‘Go early, go hard’ when it comes to responding to pandemic. There will be no second chances for us once we catch this catchiest of germs.

My wife and I passed a weekend of grotesque denial of the love between us and our grandchildren. Encounters were fleeting, spatial remoteness was enforced, no-one kissed, no-one cuddled. Time and again, puzzled children approached instinctively, loud voices repulsed them. Astonished, the children felt every instinct of love denied; and the deniers were precisely those wrinkled figures who ever doted and dandled. Suddenly loving behaviour was wrong.

My resolve wavered. My wife, the softest being in our family constellation, commanded austerity. One of my children has a newborn; we cannot visit, cannot cuddle, cannot relieve exhausted parents at 2.00 in any morning. Our daughters, both recovering from surgery, wait on us, rather than the reverse. The fibres of parenthood are warped and strained by fear of a new virus. And it is precisely those deprived adult children who direct us: go inside, stay inside, keep the world away. ‘‘We’d sooner miss out on you both for weeks or months than miss you forever.”

Old friend, I won’t be with you this Friday for lunch. We won’t see each other at the coffee shop in the mornings. Our house of worship is forbidden to us. Seeing each other as faces on a screen is a cold change after years, after decades of warm touch. I don’t know when we’ll be together in those old ways again. I reckon our best chance of those old pleasures again, some day on the far side of this fear and horror, is cold resolve today.

Until then, old friend, until then,

Yours at a distance,  


15 thoughts on “Letter to an Old Friend

  1. Hi Howard, pleased to hear that you listened to your children & have isolated yourself from this hideous virus. As we are bunkered down on the Sunshine Coast, awaiting the arrival of grandchild number 11 by caesarean, I’ve been catching up on reading your blogs. You write with such honesty, compassion & humour. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading them.
    May you &your family stay safe & well. Cheers Bev & Wayne


    • Bev, Wayne!

      Great to imagine you waiting in the warmth while we prepare for chillier days

      Thank you for writing

      Truth is it feels cowardly to turn my back on patients and on workmates just to save my own skin

      Incidentally you do have the means of contacting me directly And I hope you will if you need to

      Our bond is old and strong and you’ll only strengthen it if you contact me

      It’s called Telehealth

      And it’s called friendship



      • Thanks Howard, we do cherish your friendship & will contact you if need be. Stay well & safe & keep writing!
        PS We welcomed a new grandson on Wayne’s birthday.
        William Archer Brooks 3.4 kgs He’s gorgeous & we’re very biased. Cheers B& W xx


  2. Hi Howard, so glad you & Annette listened to your children’s advice & have isolated yourselves from this hideous virus!
    Whilst Wayne & I are bunkered down on the Sunshine Coast awaiting the birth of our 11th grandchild by caesarean, I have been thoroughly entertained by your blogs. Your messages are heartfelt, sincere & honest! Thank you, stay well Bev & Wayne


  3. Hi Howard, we too are in isolation, with our adult children looking out for us. It is hard not to be giving and receiving hugs and kisses, but as one of your children wisely said, better we miss that for a couple of months, rather than forever. I hope your girls are recovering well. I can imagine how you feel not being able to support them. Take care dear friend, love to you, Annette and your family.


  4. Hello Howard
    Always reading your notes here in Portugal. My family took measures and we are isolated in my 12 hectare farm outside Lisbon. I have avoided travel for three years now. While not afraid of dying (it’s useless to think about things that way) we follow the guidelines put out by the health authorities and so far so good. Lots to do here. Tomorrow I’m planting roses and fix the roof in one of the buildings. My 92 year old mother in law is isolated from us in one of the houses in the compund. We keep her entertained and talk to her from the windows and on the phone. We have lots of good food, internet and some money in the bank. Not sure of what the world and life will be like after this (assuming we all make it through) but then again, I’m not afraid of life, with all its challenges and sacrifices. Every now and then one of us gets gloves and mask and goes into the nearby village to get stuff. And so it is these days. Be safe and smart, regards, Antonio


  5. Thank you Howard for this heartfelt message, a message of love and compassion and absent hugs! For those of us who heed the advice to remain isolated at home, I would welcome a regular letter from you to keep us in touch, to encourage, to share this path which no one ever dreamed we would be travelling.


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