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Life Without Toilet Paper

Last week my life changed. I was faced with the imminent possibility of not being able to buy toilet paper.

The ‘no toilet paper phenomenon’ appeared overnight and definitely caught me by surprise.

I was not one to take my toilet paper too seriously, except when travelling to an unfamiliar destination on another continent, in which case a roll in my purse was my constant companion.

One other toilet paper scenario could set off a personal state of emergency: me, running late, dashing out the door, dressed in a formal outfit, realizing with dismay that nature demanded an immediate pit stop in the bathroom, only to find myself stranded without even one four-inch square of toilet paper in sight. Then I would become a screaming lunatic, likely calling the person who had used the washroom before me any number of unpleasant names such as ‘nincompoop’, pun intended. Unfortunately, harsher revenge would have been self-incriminating as I also, at least once, had been the inconsiderate slob who had failed to replace the toilet paper supply.

Most times, however, I found reasonable resourceful substitutes, without fanfare.

  • When hiking, a leaf – or many leaves, given the size of my derrière.
  • In drafty outhouses of years gone by, ripped pages from Sears Catalogues.
    The rough paper was not regarded as a hardship, however, since the enticing photos of fashion and toys I would never own were a welcome distraction from the tedious waiting chores of shelling peas, weeding the garden, or picking raspberries amidst biting thorns.
  • If stuck in a public washroom with an empty toilet paper dispenser, I would plea to strangers for some toilet paper to be passed under the door. I could not understand how I could never remember to avoid this embarrassing moment by first checking the toilet paper supply before choosing a stall. I would prefer to attribute this mental lapse to a weak bladder rather than to a faulty memory.
  • If no toilet paper was available, a Kleenex tissue, wipe, or torn pieces of paper towel would suffice, unless it was one of those ‘poor’ weeks, when all such items were unattainable luxuries. Cheap toilet paper was then the only option to keep the nose drizzle in check, so I tried not to have a runny nose on those weeks.
  • A last resort was a quick forage in a garbage can, followed by an immediate trip to the store to buy toilet paper.

At least, that was my life before COVID-19 and we were struck with toilet paper madness.

Daily, I had listened to the reports of the spread of the illness, and every night, I felt safe when I turned off the news, knowing that the insidious monster was seemingly a million miles away.

I had a brief bout of uneasiness a few weeks ago when an electrician came to our house to repair a faulty light. He happened to mention his recent trip to Japan, but reassured me that he had not come in contact with the coronavirus. My brain told me that contracting the virus via the contractor was less likely than winning the lottery; nevertheless, after two weeks, when our household remained virus free, my heart breathed an irrational sigh of “Whew, that was close!” I felt safe and secure.

Until last week, on Thursday…

COVID-19, sending out ever-widening shock waves with the relentlessness of a persistent, merciless drum beat, marched, not only into our province, but right into our city.

A woman, labelled as CASE 1, had symptoms. Although the diagnosis was not yet a substantiated fact, the overnight effect was as if a giant switch in the sky had been flipped to change the atmosphere over our city. The presumptive diagnosis of a bank employee some forty kilometres away suddenly downsized our metropolis of over 1.6 million to a microcosm. Given the impact on our household, Case 1 might as well have been my next-door neighbour.

Indeed, the entire population suddenly became both my friend and enemy, as each individual became not only a possible person of support but also a potential virus carrier. Surprisingly, some turned out to be furious foes in the shopping frenzy that immediately ensued.

By Friday, Walmart had sold out of hand sanitizer and face masks. Only four one-gallon water jugs could be purchased at one time. Two bank branches were closed for disinfecting, and all employees sent home for two weeks of self-isolation.

Most notable of all, COSTCO and the dollar store were out of toilet paper.

Stores could not keep the product on the shelf as customers purchased exorbitant amounts of the apparently precious commodity, at times stocking up with a year’s supply. Long line-ups, overflowing parking lots, and even customer fights became an unexpected part of the shopping experience.

Had I been shopping to prepare for a two-week confinement, toilet paper would definitely not have been my first priority, and my list most likely would have included:

1. chocolate
2. expensive coffee
3. a jar of peanut butter, or more if on sale
4. an extra charger or two
5. more chocolate

My lack of panic in the face of such purchasing limitations may have been due in part to my fairly recent splurge on an enhancement to my toilet.

Many years ago, I had seen strange extra toilet bowls in European washrooms. I guessed they might be for washing feet but could not figure out how to use them. I later found out that these bowls were called bidets and were well-loved by Europeans and foreign travellers alike. My elderly aunt installed a cheap one, but, again, I didn’t know how to use it, and was too embarrassed to ask.

Last fall, my own bathroom dilemmas became more unmanageable due to a combination of the afore-mentioned ample arse size and the h-word. I am not referring to the fiery inferno, but it is an apt description for attempting to clean hemorrhoids with toilet paper.

I decided a bidet might be the solution, although I had never used one.

I embarked on a few days of research. I found out North American bidets fit on most standard toilet seats, and ranged in price from less than one hundred to a few thousand dollars. I had several options: light or no light, heated water for one-time use or multiple-uses, and varying nozzle positions. I could choose between a remote or a sidebar for controlling water force and drying times. I picked a mid-range product, more expensive than the cheap one my wealthy aunt had purchased, but reasoned that I might need the extra bells and whistles as old age became my new reality.

I finally had a manual so now I could actually figure out how use the bathroom contraption. An unanticipated benefit was that I now only needed a negligible amount of toilet paper. Little did I know that my bidet might become a necessity rather than a luxury.

Just ten days after the initial announcement of the first presumptive case in our city, persons with confirmed COVID-19 were no longer reported as individual numbers, such as Case 1 or Case 20, but rather simply lumped together as one daily number, adding to the steadily increasing global total.

Mount Everest was closed, on both the China and Nepal sides, as was the Eifel Tower. I felt a deep chord of sorrow as I saw the TV report of an inconsolable man from Italy, unable to find a funeral home to bury his sister.

Locally, events were being cancelled. The 811 help line for COVID-19 testing was jammed.

We have since hunkered down at home, and will work from here as much as possible. Alarmed by the diminishing product on supermarket shelves, we have stocked up on diapers, formula, and groceries, although, in my opinion, we are rather short on necessary chocolate.

Hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies, and toilet paper were unavailable, but we hopefully will have enough white paper rolls for the next two weeks as a visiting relative thankfully presented us with a large package as a hostess gift.

However, it is not the lack of toilet paper I fear.

I have a bidet, after all, and for any future incessant drippy noses, I can root out the heirloom handkerchiefs inherited from my mother and grandmother.

I do not fear dying, for I am at peace with my maker and my eventual demise.

However, I do fear deaths that could be prevented.

I am apprehensive that government, corporations, and individuals will not act decisively. North America has observed the global evidence of proactive decision-making and also the disastrous results when preventive measures were delayed. We have had ample time to prepare.

Is it acceptable that the 811 medical help lines are plugged solid? After several months’ notice, and now at least ten days since the first known case arrived in our city, should we not have access to multiple drive-through testing sites, especially for immune-compromised individuals?

Would it not be wise to insist that all travellers from foreign countries be mandatorily tested and quarantined? Should all schools and day cares not be closed as a precaution?

Is it not possible for all of North America to band together to implement strategies to stop the spread of the illness, possibly including a mandatory lockdown if necessary?

I can live without toilet paper.

I pray I do not have to live without a friend or loved one whose death from COVID-19 could have been prevented.

On a lighter note, purchasing shares in a bidet company might be a good idea!

Gifts of chocolate may be left at my front door, along with a roll of toilet paper,

just in case.

Feature Photo: Kananaskis, Alberta, Canada

Photo taken by Michael Newbury, the author’s son. Used by permission.


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  1. Barbara Henriques Barbara Henriques

    Your new article is so appropriate for this time, we need to be able to keep our sense of humor every now and again. I think the New Yorker had an article about our “primitive” toileting habits. Of course, this was a comparison with Japan! I was a bit surprised at the range of these items, from a few hundred dollars, to up to $17,000 for the top line! I’m glad you managed to get one that works for you! But what happens when you are at someone else’s home, or out (if we ever get to this point) when you need to, dare I say, wipe your derrière?

    I think the most important of your post is that you needed something and you did something about it! But the real point is the one that comes at the end; we need to do whatever we can do to support the folks who are taking care of our older residents in nursing homes, seniors in residential homes, and people who have or may have COVIN-19. Let’s try to do what we can to not make the problem even more difficult for others!

    Excellent piece!

    • Marilyn Newbury Marilyn Newbury

      Thank you, Barbara! I didn’t realize the bidets can be that highly priced! A very simple contraption can be purchased in big box stores for a hundred dollars or so. You are correct: going out could be an issue; fortunately, a bidet is a currently a borderline luxury for me at this time.

      You are absolutely right that the elderly and ill need our support. In Canada, we now have four deaths, all in one seniors’ home. So sad. However, I have heard reports that COVID-19 can affect all ages.

      Praying that we will find a way to take action so that the numbers start going down. Stay safe, and it was great to hear from you!

      • Julie Julie

        On your question of what to do when out of your home: I was born in France but I live in the United states. I have always used a bidet, and I think that toilet paper is not sanitary. When out of the house, camping etc. I use a bottle of water. My husband always says that sometime I will confuse it with the bottle from which I drink! But I haven’t haha

        • Marilyn Newbury Marilyn Newbury

          Loved your reply – your life sounds very interesting. Are you writing about it? Loved the story about the banter with your husband regarding the water bottle. My husband and I have our stuff also: he refuses to even try the bidet. Although he loves to save money by reminding me to turn off lights and makes sure every single bottle gets recycled, he does not seem as interested in conserving toilet paper. If we run out of tp, he may have no choice. In the meantime, stay safe and thank you again for your comment.

          • Julie Julie

            Ah, my husband is the same! He is American and for years I have told him that he should use a bidet, but he won’t.
            I am flattered that you think I am interesting. I do write, but I prefer writing fiction to writing about my life. When one writes about real people there is more to consider about people’s reputations, their feelings, no? I wouldn’t tell stories on my husband like this in person, only anonymously on the Internet.
            So, speaking of bidets, here’s one more story that I will ONLY tell anonymously. I first came to America as a student, living with a host family. First thing they did when I arrived was serve me my first “real American food”, that is, big hamburgers. These were maybe a bit too rich for my foreign stomach, so the second thing I did there was use their American toilet. When I had finished, I looked for the bidet. Nothing! What, I thought, is it in another room? Do I have to walk to it in my present condition? I called through the door: “I’m sorry, Mr. and Ms. —–, but where is your bidet?” They didn’t know what that was, but after some explaining on both sides of the door, they explained me how to use those strange little sheets of paper. It was not pleasant, and I started using the bottle soon after, but I made it work.
            So, here is my plan to teach our husbands to use le bidet: We must hide all the toilet paper and then feed them hamburgers! Cheers!

          • Marilyn Newbury Marilyn Newbury

            Hilarious! Thanks for sharing! Have a great day!

  2. Verna Verna

    Great read!

    • Verna Verna

      Also great photo!

      • Marilyn Newbury Marilyn Newbury

        I love the photo also, and fortunately found it on my phone even though it was taken about three years ago. I think Michael should enter it in a contest. Stay safe!

    • Marilyn Newbury Marilyn Newbury

      Thanks, Verna. Glad you enjoyed the article.

  3. Lisa Fisher Lisa Fisher

    Hello Marilyn,
    Your always welcome musings are both entertaining and thought provoking. The picture is absolutely perfect!
    Keep writing my friend! You have a gift!

    • Marilyn Newbury Marilyn Newbury

      Thanks, Lisa – you are so encouraging! I loved the picture too. Michael took it a couple of years ago, so I was glad to be able to use it, but wish the circumstances were not so dire.

  4. Ruth Hahn Ruth Hahn

    Marilyn, I really enjoyed the story. I love your sense of humor. A good laugh is so welcome in a time like this. Thank you.

    • Marilyn Newbury Marilyn Newbury

      Thank you, Ruth! I was hoping others would find some humour in it.

  5. Taneese Wilson Taneese Wilson

    Hahaha…loved this read Marilyn and especially ‘on a lighter note’ ?…the frenzy is just incredible and seeing first hand the many empty shelves, as Bob and I shopped at Thriftys yesterday, almost left me speechless…but didn’t take me long to voice a neg opinion to anyone shopping near me about it ? We are staying at home as much as possible and I pray God keeps us all safe from this deadly virus …our love and prayers to you, Cliff , and family ?

    • Marilyn Newbury Marilyn Newbury

      Glad you enjoyed it! My daughter-in-law & two children lived with us so I watched the children while she shopped. I likely had the easier task! She picked up chocolate, so need for you to travel to Alberta to drop some off, although you would have to come in instead of leaving it at the door. Yes, we pray for wisdom in a complicated world!

    • Marilyn Newbury Marilyn Newbury

      Glad you enjoyed this! Fortunately, my daughter-in-law did the shopping, and today bought some chocolate. Our love and prayers to you all as well!

  6. Lorene Lorene

    Marilyn, could not resisting laughing! I’m with you on the chocolate.
    We’re still struggling. Some days good, almost our kind of normal & some days
    a deep melancholy, sadness & loneliness. I dread going home knowing Susan will not be dropping by for a visit, not ever. I look forward to going home to hug/see our children, grandchildren. Thoughts of the coronavirus don’t occupy our thoughts except when we hear the media reports about some people’s inordinate desire to hoard toilet paper. I long to see my Lord & our beloved Susan. Know the pain of losing someone so dear without warning. Begging for our Lord’s mercy for the timing of our death. What a gift it is to be able to have the luxury of saying good-bye. “My mind knows you are gone but my heart continues to search for you.” Joni Grief to This is a fitting description of where we’re at. Love, prayers, hugs, hugs, hugs, tears Lorene

    • Marilyn Newbury Marilyn Newbury

      Glad I could give you some smiles in this time of sorrow. Your deep loss gives perspective to the trivial stresses in our life, but also gives tribute to the deep grief felt by many around the world. Your journey with a sudden death is unimagineable. Hope to have a phone call chat soon. Our love to you, George, and family.

  7. Your writings are most enjoyable. Marilyn you have let your inner writer out. Miss you. Hug

    • Marilyn Newbury Marilyn Newbury

      Glad you enjoyed this one – my inner writer finds out what I think as I write – and then I hope it resonates with someone else as well. Have a great day!

  8. Enjoy your writings. They provide food for thought. Miss you. Hugs

    • Marilyn Newbury Marilyn Newbury

      Thank you, Barbara. Perhaps an in-person visit will be possible some day.

  9. Janice Winsor Janice Winsor

    Too funny Marilyn but true and sad.
    Hope this madness is over soon!

    • Marilyn Newbury Marilyn Newbury

      Thanks, Janice, for reading and commenting. Have a great day – stay warm and safe!

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