Updated: Sep 14, 2021
Most of us have felt, at the very least, a slight tug of the rug out from under us during coronavirus lockdown. Some people have dramatised it, some have totally rocked being calm, some are still working out what to wear.
Two years ago Leigh Chivers, a fitness maven Melbourne engineer dad to son Hugh, now 5, had his life turned upside down. He lost his 34-year-old marketing executive wife Sara Chivers and their two-year-old son Alfie to rare brain cancers.
"Blood tests could not find an inherited genetic mutation, so this may just be the most horrible of coincidences," Sara told Vogue just before she died.
"Lightning can strike twice."
Sara made global headlines with a 2017 letter she wrote, 'What I Want My Boys To Know When I'm Gone.' It was her legacy, but it hasn't become Leigh's.
Since his wife and son passed away, he's found superhuman physical and mental endurance and has powerful insights about navigating situations most of us would see as inconceivable.
So when coronavirus uncertainty brought a wave of shock about what our future might look like and a mass fear of death, Leigh had a rock solid base to fall back on—although he laughs at the idea he had all the coping answers.
"Just because you’ve been through something doesn’t make you invulnerable to be perfect for the rest of your life," he told me during our Perspectives podcast.
"You have good moments and bad. The thing is, as you get older you realise it doesn't stop, this won't be the last thing we have to get through something tough."
While he appreciates his biggest coronavirus concerns are for his parents and how to home school preppie Hugh while he's doing paid work four days a week, he understands other people don't know what he does about terrible curve balls.
"I would have preferred not to be in hospitals for a year and a half because it was just shit. We tried to make the best we could of it, in each day you had those moments which were good but as an entire thing, God, it was just hard."
What struck me is how human Leigh is. He doesn't pretend to be invulnerable or to have all the answers.
Now 36, he admits to moments and days of questions and stress during the outbreak but had a base to fall back on, honed by moments like those faced by him and Sara—who was having chemotherapy while still being a hands-on "brilliant" mother—when Alfie was sick.
The little boy was offered a place in a US trial for a form of treatment that would have less impact on his brain. "The decision we faced was, do you send him away knowing he might never see his mother again or keep him here and not give him his best opportunity to recover," Leigh told me.
"It was heartbreaking."
The Chiverses decided Leigh would take Alfie to the US but in the end complications meant he couldn't fly. "It was a relief in some ways because we were going to tear ourselves apart with the decision," Leigh said.
"You want to do the right thing, but sometimes you're not clear what the right thing is."
Can you imagine what that must have felt like? I can't. The pressure of having to decide your son is leaving his brother and really sick mother, then having the option taken away.
Leigh's dilemma has parallels to those faced by governments the world over during coronavirus: do you save global economies or lives? Whose suffering do you minimise, and how? What would you do?
During our conversation, Leigh showed he's a man who is clear on his purpose, has amazing resilience and was proactive rather than reactive in the face of uncertainty.
While both Sara and Alfie were in hospital for months, Leigh ticked off a list every day. Having a coffee with his wife. Playing with his boys. Going for a run. Things you can do now.
"There's the purpose strategy and there's also just doing things you enjoy each day that will get you progressing," he says.
"I read years ago in Dan John's book Easy Strength that if you're feeling low, show up, ask questions and don't quit. If you can do those three things you'll keep moving forward. That is life."
Some people don't have the capacity to handle uncertainty. They deny reality, they're angry or fearful. Leigh said he often "feels at capacity" but uses gratitude to keep his mindset positive.
His major motivation is Hugh, who is just as resilient as his dad and has the same love of bike riding.
"Through Alfie being sick, it really challenged me ... to be more for him. If I was in the room he would look at me: 'It's okay, dad's here,'" said Leigh, who saw Alfie through 11 or 12 surgeries. (The little boy became so used to them he would drop off to sleep in the operating theatre before his anaesthetic was given.)
"He would trust me, and we both developed an incredibly close connection. You would never want something like this to make you realise you could have such a connection with your child but it wouldn't have happened if I hadn't gone through these circumstances."
Now, he's building that with Hugh. Adversity leads to strength. Uncertainty leads to conviction you need to step up. Experience leads to great role modelling and calm love.
Tough times mean you have to adapt, says Leigh.
"The role you played previously doesn’t necessarily work anymore. Your role at work, your role at home, you're going to have to adapt and take on a new one.
"I have. New role and responsibilities and it's really challenged me. It's been a really beautiful thing for to experience. Give more affection to Hugh, tell him I love him every night.
"Not that I wouldn't already say it, but he needs it now. It's such a realisation that if I don't do it, nobody will now. I have to be Sara and Leigh and try to be more than I was."
Note to Hugh: you have a fantastic role model. Note to everyone else: if you're still thinking you've been dealt a bad hand by coronavirus, hope this helps pivot your perspectives on tough times.