The door closes behind her, her white coat flapping angrily in hot Manila wind, and the engine runs so loud when she turns the key until it isn’t, until the car’s curved away from the street and turned, moving farther and farther away. We watch the car until it’s gone, until the black shine of her hair is gone from view, until the mask on her face has disappeared with her at the corner of the street.
We resume our quarantine-normal. My brothers hunch over their computers, my father goes back to his calls, and I write. But there’s a frenzied energy about us all, a quiet anxiety that creeps up in all of us. No one ever says it out loud, but we all are better at prayer on the days she’s on duty, caring for patients in the time of a global pandemic. We wait for her comedic selfie in her PPE, the instagram-worthy photo of her tupperwared lunch, and for her to say she is coming home.
Sometimes it’s a few days. Other times it’s every other week. Her having to walk the cemented roads to the dormitories prepared there for some medical workers in the dark of night and telling us all about it as light-heartedly as she can on our family group chat. “They turned off the lights again!!!” She’ll say, and we can all hear it in her voice. We laugh at the dinner table, one seat vacant, before quieting again. No one ever says it, but everyone feels it.
A Saudi doctor returns home from the hospital, tells his son to keep his distance, then breaks down from the strain. pic.twitter.com/0ER9rYktdT
— Mike (@Doranimated) March 26, 2020
The last time my brothers and I all ran to the windows to greet our mother coming home, we were children. Gangly, awkward things with limbs growing at different rates, frizzy hair, terrible teeth. Imagine four children all smiling eagerly as the car comes in, the first faces to greet you. We say hello, kiss, hug–tight hug. It was custom. As we grew older, there was more leniency, more calm, less of that kid-energy that drove so many of us, fueled by too much sugar and too much ice cream.
The first time she came home after going on duty for COVID-19, we all lined up at the windows just the same. Adults now, all of us over 20. But this time we had to open the doors for her, had to clear out of the way like a red sea parting–we could not touch our mother.
When she gets home, we spray down everything she has to touch (doorknobs, bags, the staircase) and we all take a bath thoroughly, just in case. We all wait before coming together, an unspoken sense of relief, and eat dinner together again, silently letting go of held breath.
We all know that doctors are instrumental in fighting COVID, but sometimes we are selfish. Sometimes we dread her being called on to go back to the hospital, to put on all those layers and have to carry out her duty. Sometimes we pray a little longer that she doesn’t have to be the one to go, as if striking a bargain with any higher power that can hear us. And it’s hard to equate a life with another, but somehow it’s harder to bear when it’s your mother.
Sometimes the sheer relief of knowing she’s home makes us all children again, wanting to run into her arms. Because it’s unthinkable to believe a parent won’t come home after a long day at work. We prefer the mundaneity of the lockdown, the long hours in the heat, huddling together for another movie marathon to keep our heads above water, because at least these things pose no danger of loss. Fear is fear of losing. We don’t want that. We only want another long afternoon of tv show reruns and trying new, impossible recipes. Because as long as I can hear my mother’s slippered feet come downstairs to try a new lemon square or cookie or brownie, at least I know she is safe.
We disinfect and we spray alcohol, rubbing our hands together until we get friction burn. We make sure the dogs and their intruding snouts don’t pick anything up from anything she might have touched, only to lick our faces later. Everything is a calculated carefulness, one that has us all anxious but with a veil of quiet calm–a thin, thin veil.
I would not wish loss on anybody. And as I sit here and watch my mother pull on her white coat, another unforgiving layer in this weather–I feel I make more wishes again, hoping that it is not me who has to feel any keen sting of loss soon. I watch her drive away, until she shrinks in the distance, and I bow my head to pray.
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