2 years of Covid-19

In a quiet time, making peace with myself

Straits Times reporter Rohit Brijnath at Ion Orchard as the circuit breaker kicked in on April 7, 2020. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - No language, no musical instrument, no sourdough bread. In the months at home during Covid-19, I mastered nothing substantial nor did I build anything lasting. No real muscle, no flower bed, no bookshelf. I saved no one's life but I made peace with myself.

Even with my cooking which tastes like cardboard left in the rain. It's okay. Only I have to eat it.

My journey through Covid-19 was a jumble of much sitting and some soaring. From October 2020 to March 2022, I took 17 flights, endured more swabs up my nose than is reasonable, did seven weeks in total in quarantine, and found only a little comfort in Aldous Huxley's insistence that "the more powerful and original a mind, the more it will incline towards the religion of solitude".

Single folk like me had their own Covid-19 experience, for our only company at home was our reflection and our shadow. Most days, for a year, I'd call the same friend overseas and we'd talk, or say very little, and just sort of hold hands virtually.

I should have kept a diary but life some days seemed as empty as a page. But I learnt things. Like a life lived in boxer shorts can't be overrated. Cities, I realised, make more comforting noises than I thought. A child at play, couples going to work, a man on his phone - just the background sounds of the living. But for months, all we got was silence in all its tones.

I stared at the horizon, looking wistfully at places far beyond where I wanted to be. I missed birds. I decided David Simon (The Wire, The Deuce) is part-genius. I forgot what it was like to sip a beer slowly and glimpse a beautiful woman across a bar.

It's the little things, isn't it?

I saw suffering on a scale I hadn't before. How does a day labourer work from home? How does she feed herself? Covid-19 offered us perspective, it was ours to take or shun. If we treat nurses - who came to work every day, for no great pay, and at great risk - rudely, then we are pitiful folk.

I found that people fear but then they forget too fast. In an old movie, The Gumball Rally, an Italian driver yanks off his rear view mirror and tosses it aside with the words "What's behind me is not important". The world kept casually doing that with its masks. But Covid-19 is still in front. No?

Straits Times reporter Rohit Brijnath at Raffles Place as the circuit breaker kicked in, on April 7, 2020. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

I realised that science is just another opinion on a planet brandishing "alternative facts". Soon the Flat Earth Society will make a comeback. It is best not to let a child watch TV: The things adults argued about during Covid-19 were less than inspiring. A man who suggested injecting disinfectant as a cure remains a political hero to millions.

But mostly during lockdowns and quarantines, I made peace with myself. Any accounting of a life requires time and this is the only thing we had. Calendars turned slowly, enough to take trips down roads of regret (who had I let down?), to let go of vanity, to acknowledge my flaws (among them pettiness and irritability), to be content with the choices I had made.

I figured it was unlikely I'd ever fall in love again nor visit every place which called me (Serengeti National Park, Reykjavik, Yankee Stadium). Yet I appreciated that not every desire can be met.

Making peace - an endless process of reckoning - matters, for middle age can be like a bully kicking you around. A parents' life starts a final chapter even as age starts to jeer at us. Lines accumulate on a face and they can't be conquered by over-expensive cream but only through acceptance. Niggles multiply and I learnt during those days to be less scared of the slow mutiny inside my body. Osteoarthritis in a hip stopped me running and so I opted to cycle. Don't mourn, move on.

Straits Times reporter Rohit Brijnath at Changi Airport's Jewel as the circuit breaker kicked in, on April 7, 2020. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

But for all this equanimity I couldn't make peace with one thing. Distance. Love is a tactile thing and Covid-19 stole this. For separated families, within cities or overseas, there was not even a kiss on the cheek for over a year. So many things are replaceable, but not time which is lost.

But then in India, a fortnight ago, two nephews - once kids who rode with me on my motorcycle, now 30-plus married men - arrived from Dubai. I hadn't seen them since my father's death in 2019 and we embraced tightly.

It was a moment of defiance and relief. The very beauty of the hug is that there is literally no distance left between people. Damn the virus. Love is best felt from close up.

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