April 07, 2020
Life and Death in the Time of Corona

The death of her best friend’s father to COVID-19 makes her contemplate what kind of world will be left when – and if ever – the pandemic is over.

by Gabrielle Kembuan
English
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“He’s gone!” my best friend’s voice croaked from the other end of the line, almost sobbing. “They told me he’s gone! Gab-“

“What??” I was just out of the shower, still in towel. “Who said that-“

My best friend was reduced to tears: “Please call someone; confirm this…. It’s impossible….”

I tried to calm him and went into a flurry of phone calls with my anesthesiology-resident cousin, a pulmonology resident I know pretty well – this cousin and that acquaintance – to find out if the news was true. It was.

My best friend lost his father.

***

There are four of us. D is the most similar to me, my drinking and curhat buddy, who now works in the thick of the COVID battle in South Jakarta. W is my best friend and ex, before we figured out we were much more compatible as best friends. He now works in a regional hospital in his hometown. And then there’s A, my best friend since 16 years ago, when we first met at an English language class. A whom I can talk nonsense with for hours, who knows my deepest secret (and the reverse), who’s been with me through my darkest depression and all the heartbreaks, who’s at this point a brother.

We gossiped and sent memes back and forth. We went out – eventually rarer as we all entered the medical workforce – driving around town singing off-key to The Greatest Showman soundtrack. We analyzed whether this girl or that guy is The Mother for either of us. We pondered what to name our respective future kids and agreed that they would never be allowed to date each other.

And at this moment, more than everything, we should be together and I should be there.

We ate sushi on our last outing, in early February.

“Do you see the Wuhan news??” he asked, dipping his sushi into shoyu. “It’s like The Walking Dead!”

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“Not quite,” I said. “Well, the mortality rate isn’t that high. Just 4 percent or so.”

“Oh, really,” he said chewing.

The next day, in the middle of  gossiping, he said, “Oh, by the way you’re right! The mortality rate, I checked. It isn’t that high. I guess it’s just overblown.”

Did he ever expect losing his father to that same disease just a few weeks later?

At that time, we were both fledgling doctors, excited to begin our careers. The future was looking bright. He was already working at a regional hospital, interning with ophthalmologists, and he seemed set to enter the highly competitive field. He had volunteered at earthquakes and disasters sites and performed cataract surgeries to the poor. He had big plans, so was I.

Today I learned, your plans and your whole world could get upended in a day.

I can’t even be there for him.

And he didn’t even get to meet his father again. He didn’t get to see him when they pushed him into the isolation room, and inserted the breathing tubes. He couldn’t do anything when he knew his father’s condition was unstable, or that his father was in pain. He had to find out about his death over the phone. His father had to die alone, unable to breathe. He couldn’t probably bring his father’s body back home.

All because of a germ.

That day we ate sushi together? Now it seemed but a distant dream.

I have a hard time recognizing this new reality, when not coming home is an act of love. In this world, loving my boyfriend means refusing to meet him. Disinfectants are liquid gold and masks worth more than banknotes. In this world, you don’t get to hug your best friend when his father passed away and his whole world comes crumbling down. With all your degree entails, you can only observe, knowing full well there’s no cure. 

In this world, my best friend is going through the darkest time of his life and I can’t even go near because he’s exposed. If I did, I would have to isolate myself then, and that is not possible seeing how overstretched we are already. Things being as they are, I’m already staying in a hotel to keep my parents safe. I can’t risk exposing myself and therefore other occupants.

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In this world, New York’s streets are empty, and you wash your hands ten times a day, and you let your loved ones grieve alone. You spend your spare time making protective equipment for yourself, your personal cardboard armour. You hear news of deaths every day and times like this it struck too close to home. You begin to feel, incredulously, that this loneliness and grief might be too much even for you, a lifelong introvert. You try to ward off ominous thoughts: what if there is no end? What if this is the end?

You begin to feel fear like you’ve never felt before. At how pathetically, squarely, vulnerable humanity is. At how this tiny thing – a string of RNA encased in a crown-shaped envelope – managed to bring the entire humanity to its knees. At how fragile our entire understanding of life and the world truly is.

I try my hardest – finding it hard to do – to hope that at the end of this, my world as I knew it could finally return. Packed theatres, kisses from my beloved. Sharing the same bottle of cola. Brushing stray hair aside. Breathing without a mask. Cafes, crowded sidewalks. Classes to teach, buses to catch. My piano in my own bedroom. Hospital gossip with my parents. Sushi dinners.

And before that: a long, tight hug with my best friend, and crying all the tears and pain and grief and anger we both needed to cry.

But, I doubt that after this, either of us will still be the same.

Gabrielle Kembuan is a physician, aspiring writer, and passionate amateur in a multitude of things. She’s currently baking and reading as she figures out what to do next in the crossroads of career and life.