I wrote this as a reflection for Stories of a Pandemic, the book of the SOAP Awards by The Majurity Trust. It is a celebration of writing, photography and illustrations related to the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic. Go to http://www.sgsoap.sg to buy the book or view the winning works.
Waiting for the end
In April 2020 I imagined the Covid-19 pandemic would be over by September and we would be able to make year-end travel plans and have everyone over for Christmas as usual.
The new year arrived and months went by before it sank in that the pandemic wasn’t going away anytime soon. The touted travel bubbles burst, new outbreaks occurred and the faster-spreading Delta variant of the coronavirus made its presence felt.
Making plans used to be something we did so well before Covid.
I turned 67 in 2020 and boy, did that feel old. No more kidding myself that 60 was the new 50 and all that rot.
For days on end the advertisements wrapping The Straits Times said “Seniors Stay Home” and they meant me.
I hated it when old people became the unwitting stars of videos circulating online, showing “covidiots” caught without their masks, eating in off-limits food centres, failing to grasp the new rules of behaviour.
For months, I went out only to the supermarket and for a haircut.
I did not get depressed, but there were days when I did not want to speak to anyone, and sat by myself in a room listening to old keroncong songs by Kartina Dahari over and over again. I found that soothing, and still do.
On days that I don’t have to work on stories from the Hong Kong newsroom, I cook dinner for the family. I’ve cooked a lot through the pandemic, posted pictures on Instagram, and felt happy when strangers turned up and “liked” them.
Instagram is a funny place where strangers turn up and say they liked what you cooked last night. And it’s funny because it makes you happy to know that.
My wife insists that we sit down to dinner together, the others being our daughter and son and sometimes his girlfriend. My wife will initiate conversation, telling us stories from work, the newspaper, TV or the novel she’s reading. She works harder at it when I’m being quiet, bless her.
Out of the blue, my daughter announced she had become a vegan to save the Earth. I needed two weeks to recover from the shock before I turned to YouTube and started experimenting with meals that needed no eggs, butter, milk or cheese.
I landed in hospital, twice. It felt incredibly stupid both times, first to remove a painful kidney stone and then because of dengue fever. I mean, Covid-19 was wreaking havoc everywhere and I go to hospital because of a mosquito bite?
There is no escaping facing your own mortality even during a brief hospital stay. The pandemic did not make me fear death, but I thought about it a lot more. My older sister and a cousin died in 2020.
Just before Christmas a good friend succumbed to cancer after a more valiant fight than most people could put up. He was the fittest man my age I knew, a runner, swimmer, cyclist, the ultimate outdoors guy. A dancer too.
He had so many interests and so many friends he would have had a crowd at his send-off, but the pandemic meant only 30 of us could be there.
Some days, it became an effort to keep your chin up, focus on the positive, and count every blessing, however small.
Over several weeks, I was a regular at the Kebun Baru Community Club in Ang Mo Kio. It is where I got vaccinated, and took my children and some friends to get their jabs too. Everyone there was helpful, courteous, efficient, fast. You could be in and out in under 45 minutes and then you had to tell anyone within earshot: Only in Singapore.
Will being vaccinated be the ticket to travelling again?
I don’t have a bucket list of places to visit. I’m grateful for a lifetime of travelling, first on a shoestring by myself, then with my wife when we had no kids, and later with our children whom we never left at home.
But there are places I always hoped to return to one last time, and would leave for tonight if I could. Turkey. Italy. Kenya. Port Fairy at the end of the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia.
My mum and me around late 1956 or 1957.
My last trip before the pandemic was to Kuala Lumpur. My 92-year-old mother was happy to see me and clutched my hand tight, although her fading memory sometimes made her forget who I was.
There were some years when we did not get along, but in this final stretch – hers, or maybe mine – I’d started seeing her again.
The pandemic ended my visits, and videocalls do not always work because while we are chatting, Mum will sometimes glance at me on the screen and ask my nieces: “Who’s that?”
I know it will be better if I could just go and sit by her side. At the end of every call, I wonder if we will see each other again.