The half-life of grief: Covid-19 renewed my late best friend’s memory

I have been thinking about Daniel of late.

Five years after his passing, almost as long as the duration of our relationship, it is inevitable that he does not cross my mind as often. Whole weeks, even months go by when I do not think of him. Recently I tried to recall his mobile number – certainly reassigned by the telcos to someone else by now, but always, in my memory, his number – and found that it eluded me for a hot minute.

Shortly after he died, I wrote about how, one day, his voice would go quiet in my head. One day I would no longer be able to conjure up his answers to my questions or his perspective on things. I have read enough about death to know that this is normal.

Eventually, when the sharp edge of grief blunted, so too did my memories. Still, I felt guilty. Who else would remember Daniel, if not his nearest and dearest?

Covid-19 threw his memory into sharp focus. Daniel spent much of his last few months tethered by an IV needle to his hospital bed, while doctors tried to figure out the right cocktail of drugs that would keep his heart pumping and organs chugging along. Born with a heart defect that offered a slim chance of surviving past childhood, he defied the odds and lived till almost 25, undergoing three open heart surgeries along the way.

If you are new to Daniel’s story, this is why he was a medical marvel.

But if you knew Daniel, the true marvel lay in his spirit, how he rarely, if ever, let the circumstances break him. The discomfort, uncertainty and fear. Not knowing if this admission would be his last.

Yet he was almost always in high spirits, brimming with ideas about all that he would do when he was discharged. He threw a watch party for the 2015 Singapore General Election results, made burgers, cooked steak.

In our last exchange on WhatsApp he detailed the recipes he was experimenting with – mint-infused vodka grapefruit tonic (yum) and ciku with foie gras (??). I told him the latter was weird and he said “I love to ‘elevate’ stuff, haha so pretentious”.

How prescient, years before Covid turned us into a nation of ambitious home cooks.

I find myself wondering what Daniel would make of 2020. The virus battering it’s way through homes and hospitals, real markets and stock markets.  The global lockdowns that eventually, Singapore could not escape. The cabin fever and paranoia that plagues us all, less than a week into a “circuit breaker” soft lockdown.

The only conclusion I can draw is that he would not have minded, that he would have seen space and opportunity instead of boredom and confinement. Home was a salve for him, a place to look forward to at the end of each hospital stay. Walking to the toilet becomes such freedom when you have been bed-bound, and what a thrill it must be to peer into the fridge as many time as you want in a day.

Almost-25-year-old Daniel still gives almost-30-year-old me perspective. There are many others who have lived through difficult times – I have seen social media posts about Anne Frank, Nelson Mandela and the political prisoners who lived through Operation Coldstore – each one meant to encourage.

But we relate best to the familiar and I think often of Daniel, when the days feel long and hard. How he acknowledged his privilege and also his struggle. I realise it is okay to do both, and try to replicate his grace under fire. I believe much of the country is doing their best too.

For are we all not lucky in some way, and also tired?

I am employed, I have a safe and comfortable home, I can afford food and entertainment. Yet: It is triply hard to do my job when the country is under a soft lockdown. Stuck at home all the time, my partner and I get under each other’s skin. We bicker and make up, vow to do better then annoy each other again. We sleep poorly and worry about money. We don’t yet know what the light at the end of the tunnel looks like, or if we will lose hope craning our necks into the darkness.

I think twice about documenting these things on a public platform (vulnerability is hard!) and decide to do so anyway because one of the goals I had set for myself at the start of this lockdown was to remember this strange period.

Who is to say how long this pandemic will last, or if I will emerge a different person? What I do know is – Covid happened, and it made me remember Daniel in the unlikeliest of times. Perhaps this means, when it matters, that his memory will always remain vivid.

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