My wife, toddler son and I were avoiding people and headed for a swim at the beach when the monster reared its glinting, metallic head.

Grotesque yet alluring, savage but elegant, the monster mesmerised me. Long, sharp teeth.

A curved, elongated head. No eyes, and a body with arms and legs resembling those of a human, it crouched, ready to attack like an animal. My chest tightened with fear; was the monster a hallucination?

The monster, of course, was real. What I saw was a talented artist’s metal sculpture on the roof of a garage in a small town on the south coast of NSW.

We travelled to the coast as a short-term escape from rising cases of COVID-19 in Canberra during the lead-up to the end of year. And, hopefully, to relax. The snarling sculpture that transfixed me was a clever recreation of the alien that terrorises a small spaceship crew after they break quarantine protocols in Ridley Scott’s famous 1979 film, Alien. One of my favourite works of science fiction.

There was a time when mask-wearing was common. Now everyone seems to have moved on from caring about COVID-19. Picture by Karleen Minney

There was a time when mask-wearing was common. Now everyone seems to have moved on from caring about COVID-19. Picture by Karleen Minney

That morning, however, in the bright sunshine, and supposedly on holiday, seeing a monster from the big screen sparked not just my curiosity. The monster revealed my daily dread that comes with feeling like my family and I are alone in staying safe from the pandemic.

My family requires careful planning and procedures for reducing the risk of infection from the virus because the potential harm could be catastrophic.

An immune system disorder means that COVID-19 is likely to cause severe pain, paralysis, an inability to work, or even worse. We are fortunate in that we have resources to try to avoid COVID-19, however, it does bring a constant and insidious sense of alienation.

Of feeling hidden and disconnected from all who we know, even though, weirdly, we still see them from afar, and online. I read books a lot and have always been a bit of a homebody, but avoiding infection has taken isolation to a whole new level.

These days, I walk our dogs, and watch from a relative distance in Dickson and Downer as people gather and enjoy meals inside their favourite restaurants and cafes. Most of my friends play in local team sports without me, while I shoot hoops alone, outdoors, on empty basketball courts. I am lucky to be able to work from home.

But I miss the comradery of chatting with my colleagues in the office. Organising medical and similar appointments has become tricky. Where possible, my wife and I make appointments outdoors, mask up and keep away from others. I keep conversation with my doctor brief and then disappear as fast as I can. It’s as if, ghost like, I’m vanishing from the streets of northern Canberra where I live.

The sculpture I saw on the coast.

The sculpture I saw on the coast.

Our experience is like that of many others in Australia and across the world struggling with COVID-19 and who are feeling invisible. People living with long COVID have called for greater acknowledgement of their suffering due to ignorance, lack of access to safe treatment and social stigma and marginalisation. Researchers found that many who became ill or disabled from the virus, or lost loved ones to the disease, were also “hidden from view” in broader public debate and dialogue.

It is unfortunate but the isolation from COVID-19 is likely to continue. Finding ways to deal with the isolation, worry and uncertainty of COVID-19 remains vital for better health but also for simply being seen, and recognised as a human being.

Evidence suggests that it can help to provide better access to mental health, financial and social support, including targeted support for carers of those unwell from the virus, older adults and people experiencing racism and stigma.

Finding people to help us survive as a family during these later years of the pandemic has been hard. In the 21st century, we seem more connected than ever, via technology and face-to-face. Yet despite all our efforts reaching out to others to help with babysitting or medical appointments, very few live like us.

That is, masking up and taking the precautions necessary to try to live safe from the virus. To be fair, the pandemic years seem to have drained most people, and they want to move on. Perhaps the shock of lockdowns and so much illness and death has led to a collective fatigue that will simply take many years to reset.

Only, with continual waves and an ever-growing number of people with long COVID, that reset seems unattainable while most continue to live as though it is 2019.

My wife and I did manage to find help. Stella Bella Foundation’s Children’s Centre in Fyshwick is the only program in Canberra offering childcare with strong protocols for reducing the risk of virus infection. The program literally feels like a life saver each time I pick up our son and know the staff are looking out for us.

Then, there is the small group of family and friends, who are doing their best to avoid the virus, and giving us a hand with childcare, and our house and pets. I believe this help is often a difficult disruption to their lives, too. Beyond physical help, simply having others to chat with and not feel so alone has been a relief.

But even with help, it wasn’t until I discovered the monster at the beach that my constant uncertainty and fear of vanishing from the world we knew, as we keep dealing with the COVID-19 virus, began to make sense.

After leaving the sculpture, we changed into our swimming gear, and headed for the ocean. The beach was empty of people. I sat on my towel and watched my wife guide our son through the shallow pools of seawater at the edge of big, crashing waves. Beside them were rocks that jutted out from the sand, their sharp edges threatening, like the teeth of the monster.

I rose and joined them. My wife and I held our son when he was frightened by a sudden rush of roaring water.

We took his hands and led him past the dangerous rocks. Laughed together as we stomped our feet and made water splash high into the air. Threw sand and played chasey.

My son, with his wild, blonde hair, cheeky eyes and loving cuddles, makes it hard to stay sad. It was weird and beautiful: scared of a deadly virus, separated from friends and family, on the edge of the vast, unpredictable ocean, we found joy, love and pleasure, with each other. I didn’t realise such a strange mix of contradictory experiences was possible.

Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, in their introduction to The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, write: “The Weird can be transformative – sometimes literally – entertaining monsters while not always seeing them as monstrous. It strives for a kind of understanding even when something cannot be understood, and acknowledges failure as sign and symbol of our limitations.”

The VanderMeers resonated with me on the beach that day with my family. In no way had I escaped the monster of fear from being left behind as COVID-19 continues to cause harm.

The sculpture, in all its beautiful terror, was still a compelling expression of the roiling emotions that shaped my unconscious. Rather, by allowing myself to feel the pleasure of being with family at the beach, that fear became less intimidating and easier to accept. More importantly, my imagination was able to see new possibilities.

Of a need to pay more attention to the ancient power that art and storytelling have for comprehending an often dark and dangerous world as a new dad. And, just how special it is to spend time with my family during strange, uncertain times.

Back in Canberra, the new year has well and truly begun – as has the next surge of COVID-19. Few people wear masks in offices, grocery stores and petrol stations and they are busy again getting on with daily life, sharing the air and whatever it contains. No-one seems to worry so much about what helps avoid infection.

I wake up each lovely summer morning in fear but eager to start the day. My wife and I organise our son’s breakfast, him zooming around on his tricycle, us chasing behind. We are as happy as we can be, co-existing with this virus and a society that has forgotten us.

Like Sigourney Weaver’s character Ripley at the end of Alien, who was the sole survivor of the harrowing infection on board her ship, only to end up drifting through the eternal darkness of space with just the crew’s cat for company, we have enjoyed surviving each day in this weird world, together. To me, that is wonderous.

  • Ben O’Mara is a writer based in Canberra and Melbourne.


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