I’ve Lost The Most Formative Years Of My Life — Will I Ever Get Them Back?

I've always had a rough idea of the age by which I would like to start trying for kids. 
At some point, I settled on 30. 
It sounded sensible: enough time to enjoy my twenties without the responsibility of a helpless, screaming little life; enough time to spend falling in love with the person that little life would grow into. 
But now, months from my 27th birthday, I feel anxious, unprepared. The years I had planned on using to go backpacking around Europe, reciting shitty lyrics in mosh pits, living in different countries until one felt right, I have instead spent locked inside. 
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Before the pandemic, I was the only one stuck at home. 
It started on 11 April 2014; the day my mum passed away from cancer. 
Not only did I lose my best friend, but I also lost my time dealing with the carnage that sudden death leaves behind. My early twenties belonged to lawyers, her accountant, my therapist’s office, the guy on the other end of the Telstra bereavement hotline, the boxes underneath the stairs in which she’d archived every piece of paper I’d ever touched.
I discovered what trauma can do to your immune system. For the next four years, I would spend weeks at a time stuck in bed with glandular fever, upper respiratory infections, chronic fatigue. Just when I thought I was getting better, I’d be hit with another bout of tonsillitis and forced to cancel shifts, dates, nights out with friends. 
Sometimes it was hard to ignore the fun I was missing out on. One night in the first year of uni, I sat in my university dorm room, sick again, while a campus band night took place in what was essentially my backyard. My room shook from the bass. I popped throat lozenges and struggled to sleep while my friends popped molly and shook their limbs with the kind of reckless freedom I dreamt of. 
But, I reassured myself, I was young. I would get better and have plenty of time to experience the true heights of youth. 
Then all of us got stuck at home. 
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The COVID-19 pandemic has sent us in and out of lockdowns over the past year. To be clear: I fully support stay-at-home orders. I know what it is like to lose someone you love suddenly. I’m prepared to do my part to stop that from happening to someone else. 
But in Victoria, this latest lockdown has felt particularly tough. The virus has gotten away from us, case numbers continue to rise into the thousands, and we are in a race to get vaccinated. Dates, nights out with friends, and trips away have once again been cancelled. And without a clear end point to this outbreak, it feels like life has been put on hold indefinitely.
My mid-twenties belong to the 11am press conferences, the COVID testing centre, my 5km radius. I find myself mourning the life I thought I’d be living during these years, fearing that I will never be able to make up the time. 
Of course, I could always just have kids later. This looming deadline is of my own creation. 
Then I remember my doctor — noting my family medical history — telling me that the older a woman is when she first gives birth, the higher her risk of breast cancer. I think about how I want to be around for as much of my children's lives as possible, in the way my own mother isn’t. But most of all, I realise I don’t want to delay becoming a mother until later, anxious that later may never come. 
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I also realise that having kids doesn’t mean your life is over. I imagine it like the beginning of one chapter, and the closing of another — the one where you get to live like a selfish hedon.
Then there’s the bigger fear; the one I don’t like to say out loud. Will life ever really go back to normal, even when it does? 
Mum was sick for a month before she let me take her to the hospital. In that time she transformed from my mother, warm and familiar, into a writhing animal trying to escape its own pain. One night I woke to her retching in a bucket. But the sound that woke me was coming from deeper within her; it sounded like the noise you make when you crunch an empty water bottle. Later a doctor would tell me it was the sound of her vertebrae, full of cancer, breaking. 
“I’m fine,” she’d lie.
“You’re lying,” I’d say.
“You’re crazy,” she’d tell me. 
Before I knew she was dying, I wondered whether things could ever go back to how they were. Our relationship had been fundamentally altered. Try as she might to still convince me everything was going to be alright, our roles had been reversed. 
After she was gone, I realised my relationship with the world had been fundamentally altered too. All of those horrible things that happen to other people became things that could happen to me. Now I tell my partner to be safe every time he leaves the house. I fret when a loved one doesn’t pick up. I never hesitate to visit the doctor. 
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I see headlines about our country’s pandemic exit strategy. I know there will come days — soon — when we will be able to pick back up where we left off. 
But I suspect it will take longer for life to feel the same. There will come a day when I board an international flight without worrying about whether I will be let back into the country. When I will stand in a crowd without wondering whether it will kill me. I just doubt that will happen the day that restrictions ease. 
And I wonder if the feeling of being young will ever return, or if the future is always going to feel this fragile. 
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But the thing about losing something, I have learnt, is that you always gain something in return.  As Katherine Schultz wrote in a New Yorker essay about losing her father: “Disappearance reminds us to notice, transience to cherish, fragility to defend”. 
Losing my mum taught me that life is short. The pandemic has taught me that there is very little within our control; those things we consider permanent fixtures in our lives could disappear tomorrow. 
I recently got engaged. And as the trepidation around making plans slowly eases, I have found myself looking at venues and dreaming about dancing with my loved ones at our wedding. I’m applying to do my masters at universities overseas. My partner recently turned to me and said he’d love to live in Berlin one day, so, naturally, we started German classes in lockdown.
Living has never felt so important. Today has never felt so urgent. I may have fewer of these years left. But I will savour them.

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