Some Families, Very Large (A Christmas Story)

(I wrote and published this story twenty years ago for the Christmas issue of The Philippine STAR, and I’m posting it here as a Christmas offering to my readers, who may not have come across it yet.)

A FUNERAL parlor was the last place Sammy expected to be on Christmas Eve—especially since no one he knew had died. And despite his father’s assurances that the man who lay in the shiny white coffin was a distant uncle of his—maybe one of those people who had come over for games and drinks and had mussed his hair—Sammy could not remember the long, rat-like face in the picture that hung over the burial announcement. 

Sammy was only nine, but he had a good head for faces. The names escaped him—his father kept teasing him for being hard of hearing—but he made a game of attaching a face to something else: mud-caked shoes, yellow nails, pitted cheeks. Most of them were his father’s friends, and while he had seen very few of them between this Christmas and the last one, he felt reasonably sure he could recognize any of them again, if he met them on the street. They had walked many streets that morning, and he had seen many new faces, but he had met no one even vaguely familiar. 

Sammy also knew something about death and funeral wakes. When he was six, his playmate Leo had drowned in the black froth of the estero. He had watched from the bank as they fished out the boy’s body with a hook-tipped pole. Leo looked very fat and very oily, and his tongue stuck out of his mouth like a peeled banana. They had stuffed him into a coffin and set up a wake on the sidewalk, where the borrowed candelabra outshone everything else at night, and passersby threw coins into a plastic can, which Leo’s mother emptied into a large pocket in her apron now and then. Leo’s mother sold fish at the talipapa, like Sammy’s own mother, who sold vegetables when she wasn’t turning scraps of fabric into hand mops. 

But she was gone now, like many things they had let go of over the past few years: the motorcycle, his mother’s sewing machine, the television set, even a typewriter said to have been used by his grandfather, a writer of dramas for radio. Indeed, a small transistor radio was the only thing they had left over from the old times, and Sammy would sometimes imagine hearing his grandfather on it, saying all kinds of important, grown-up things, although the man had died many years before Sammy was born.

That morning, his father had shaken him awake with an unusual gleam in his eyes. “Eat and get dressed,” his father had said. “I’m taking you out.” 

Sammy shot up. “Where?” It had been weeks—months—since they had gone anywhere interesting, like the seawall or the basement of the mall, where there were all kinds of food—and rides, fabulous rides on pastel dragons and rampant horses and bug-eyed fish. That was the one time his father had won anything big—five thousand pesos, his father had said, although Sammy couldn’t imagine what five thousand pesos could buy. It certainly was enough for a few days of roast pork, fried rice, and noodles, and he could run to the corner store and ask for anything without having to mumble that word he had learned to dread, “Lista.” 

That moment came and went, replaced by the old routine of making his own meals—opening a can of sardines and dunking a piece of bread into the red mush, leaving the best parts for his sleeping father—before rushing off for the twenty-minute walk to school. He had never come around to hating his father, although he had many questions to ask. His child’s instincts told him that something was terribly wrong, but his father seemed to have an explanation for everything: Mama had gone back to her hometown, very far down south, to take care of her own dying father, and the government was having a hard time keeping her island from drifting farther away into the ocean; Papa lost his job as a filing clerk at the factory because someone didn’t like the way Papa cheered for his favorite basketball team; the kind and quantity of food on their table depended on one’s success at dilhensya, which was in turn dependent on one’s abilidad

These two words burned themselves into young Sammy’s brain: they were what got you ahead in the world, or at least what saved you from curling up in a spasm of hunger. That was a man’s most important job, Papa said: to put food on the table, no matter what. Sammy had some vague idea of what his father did: a classmate said that he had seen Sammy’s Papa at the jeepney stop, barking out destinations and herding passengers onto waiting rides. When Sammy asked him about it, the father said that he was actually a kind of policeman’s assistant, a volunteer enforcer of traffic rules and regulations. People needed to be told where to go, and how to get there fast. People paid for that kind of abilidad.

That day, they had visited three houses on opposite ends of the city. They waited all morning outside the gate of a large compound on Roberts Street in Pasay. Through a vent in the wall, Sammy could see a lawn as wide as the sea, and a fleet of cars and vans on the far side. There was an armed guard just inside the gate who spoke to them through perforations in the iron. “He’s my congressman,” his Papa said. “We were born in the same hometown. I voted for him in the last election. I just wanted to say Merry Christmas. I brought my son to greet him as well.” 

The guard snickered and said, “I’ll send him your compliments. Go home, he’s not here, he left very early.” A metal panel dropped in front of the holes. 

“I’ll wait! We’ll wait! He knows me, he shook my hand once at a wedding!” They stood outside and then sat on their haunches for another hour. 

“Let me tell you something. This guy,” his Papa whispered to Sammy, “this guy, I saw him hand out crisp new five-hundred peso bills during the campaign, like he was giving away mint candies. I know he’ll be good for something.” At a quarter to eleven, the heavy gate swung open, and a large Mercedes-Benz the color of midnight slid out. Father and son jumped to their feet. The Mercedes paused just out of the gate for a second as the guard exchanged words with the unseen passenger, then the car lurched forward and sped rightward, and the gate closed again before Sammy’s father could say anything. “I don’t think he recognized me,” the man said to the boy. “The last time he saw me, I was wearing a barong.”

They next went to Concepcion in Marikina to look for one of Sammy’s godfathers, whom neither Sammy nor his father had seen since his baptism, but when they got to the neighborhood and the address that Sammy’s Papa remembered, there was nothing there but the charred hulk of a plastics factory that hadn’t even been there the last time. Sammy’s father had only a hundred pesos left on him, and they used some of that for a lunch of two bowls of arroz caldo at a roadside stand. Sammy loved arroz caldo, and would have been happy to let the day end there, but his father had another address on his list. Sammy didn’t mind moving around—the rides themselves were interesting, and he marveled at how his father knew so many places. Even so he was getting tired and teary-eyed, his eyes and nostrils smarting from the dust and the gas fumes. Many jeepney transfers later, they reached Damar Village in Quezon City, where his father convinced the guard to let them into the village. 

They found the place they were looking for—a large white house with Roman columns and statues of fish with coins in their mouths. This, the father said, was the home of his former employer, Mr. Cua. Mr. Cua always had a soft spot for him and would not have let him go, he added, but too many people felt threatened by his smartness, and in the end Mr. Cua had no choice but to sacrifice him for the sake of industrial peace. Sammy’s father announced himself to another guard—this was, Sammy thought, truly a city of guards, and he wondered if his father had ever considered becoming one himself, seeing how they held the keys to everything—and again they waited while the guard checked them out with Mr. Cua. But even before the guard could get in the door, Mr. Cua himself emerged, wearing a Santa hat and leading a group of children out to the yard, where small tables had been set. Some of the children wore masks that made Sammy’s heart leap with envy—Batman, King Kong, and other cartoon and fairy tale characters he could only guess at. Sammy stared at a pigtailed Chinese-looking girl who stared back at him, and his father stepped forward to get to Mr. Cua before he could vanish. The guard still stood between the two men and Mr. Cua shrank back as if by instinct, but Sammy’s father began to speak. “Mr. Cua! How are you, sir? I was a clerk in your factory, remember me? My name is Felipe Dinglasan—” At this point the guard drew his gun and the children shrieked, and Felipe Dinglasan, not knowing what else to do, seized Mr. Cua’s hands and said, “I just came to say Merry Christmas, Mr. Cua! Look, I brought my son Sammy, he’s only nine, but he knows—I told him—what a great and generous man you are! Say good afternoon to Mr. Cua, Sammy!” The boy stepped forward and said, gravely, “Good afternoon, Mr. Cua.” The guard lowered his gun. Still shaking from what he thought might have been an assault on his life, Mr. Cua forced himself to laugh—to come up with his best Santa ho-ho-ho—and patted Sammy on the head. “Good afternoon, Sammy! Ho-ho-ho!” Sammy’s father sidled up to them and said. “Wait for your present, Sammy. Santa will give you a present.” Caught in the middle of another ho-ho-ho, the befuddled Mr. Cua reached for his wallet, looking desperately for small bills, but finding nothing smaller than a five hundred, he peeled out a bill and made a show of presenting it to the boy. “Merry Christmas, Sammy! Be a good boy!” All the children cheered as Sammy mumbled his thanks and as Mr. Cua glared at Felipe Dinglasan, who had the good sense to begin walking backwards, flashing his most non-threatening smile.

“What did I tell you, boy?” Felipe said as he flipped the five-hundred-peso bill between his hands, before folding it neatly and sticking it in his wallet. “All you need is a little ability—well, more than a little, more than a little!” Sammy got the feeling that he, too, had done something marvelous for the both of them, and the boy smiled in anticipation of a reward—a movie, perhaps, or, dare he say it, the one Christmas present he wanted most, the battery-powered laser sword he had seen at a Rizal Avenue shop window.

The sun had fallen now, and Sammy could imagine that incandescent saber cutting swaths in the gathering darkness.

But they walked past that store, and as large as the lump in his throat was, Sammy did not complain. “You must be getting hungry,” his father said, and Sammy nodded. “There’s this special noodle place I know, just around one of these corners, your mother and I used to go there. We deserve something special—special beef noodles, what do you say?”

“You’re the boss!” Sammy chirped, and they veered off into a warren of streets and alleys. Half an hour passed and still they could not find the noodle shop Felipe remembered. In the dark the streets looked even more alike. Sammy trudged behind his father, wishing, praying to be carried, but he was too big for such favors now, and he soldiered on as one alley led to another. Finally they emerged into a street with one side lit up like a carnival and smelling like flowers. Boys Sammy’s age ran from one end of it to another, and men and women sat in chairs on the sidewalk, smoking and chatting, scratching their ankles. Vendors sold fried bananas, jellied drinks, and duck eggs on the street. It seemed incredibly alive, this nook of the city, and Sammy soon understood why: it was a street of funeral parlors all in a row, and even Christmas saw no let-up in business here. Sammy himself felt his senses quicken, awakened by the sweetness of caramelized sugar.

Felipe Dinglasan felt revived as well, for in a trice he had spotted a group of men in a corner, huddled over what he did not need to see to know. Breathing even more hoarsely than when he had been walking, Sammy’s father drew a ten-peso bill from his wallet—the remainder of his last hundred—and gave it to the boy. “Get yourself something to eat,” he said. “I won’t be long.”

The money was enough for a large glass of gulaman and a packet of cookies. Sammy watched his father insinuate himself into the group of men—at first watching, then chatting the others up, then finally taking a place in the circle, his back to Sammy. Once or twice, Felipe cast a furtive glance over his back toward his son, knowing the boy would never stray too far away. When Sammy approached him, wanting only to ask if they were waiting for someone again, Felipe excused himself from the game and quickly found themselves a solution. “Aniceto Navarrete,” read the sign on the door, but it meant nothing to the boy. “You wait here,” his Papa said. “I knew this man, he was a cousin of mine in Dipolog, it’s always good to meet new family at Christmas.”

And this was how Sammy—finally yielding to boredom and fatigue—found himself straying into the quietest and most desolate funeral parlor of the lot, the Funeraria Dahlia. Indeed there was no one and nothing in it but the white coffin when Sammy stepped in. A weak bulb kept flickering overhead like a solitary Christmas light. Sammy took one of the back pews, and soon fell asleep. 

When Sammy awoke hours later, jarred by the retort of a tricycle on the street, there was a woman seated beside him, holding a glass of milky coffee in one hand and a lighted cigarette in the other. A curl of lipstick marked the coffee glass. She had a large, hooked nose, and she looked much older than Sammy’s mother. She wore a collarless black dress, and her hair towered above them both in a pile of buns. The first things that struck Sammy were the bags under her eyes, and her broad red lips.

“What’s your name, boy?” the woman said.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Sammy cried. “I was just waiting for my father!”

“I wasn’t telling you to go,” she said, flicking her ashes on the floor. “I was just asking who you were.”

“Sammy,” the boy said. “Samuel Dinglasan, ma’am.”

“Thank you,” the woman said, bowing to the boy. “My name is Mrs. Concordia Navarrete, and that’s my son Necing over there. Do you want some coffee? Are you old enough for coffee? Go get something to eat.” There was a small table on one side of the room with a thermos bottle, a jar of coffee, three or four Chinese apples, and a tin of butter cookies.

“No, ma’am, thank you, ma’am.”

“Well, then, suit yourself. Where’s your father?”

“Out there, ma’am.” Sammy could see his father, still hunched over the card game. 

Mrs. Navarrete looked at the men and blew a cloud of smoke in their direction. “He’ll be there all night. Unless—”

“Unless what, ma’am?”

“Nothing. My son Necing, he was going to be a lawyer. Do you know what a lawyer is?”

“No, ma’am.”

“A smart person—but never mind.”

“I know about smart persons, ma’am. My Papa is very smart.”

“Oh, is he, now?” Sammy noticed that Mrs. Navarrete’s eyebrows had no hair on them. “And just how did you find that out?”

Sammy began telling Mrs. Navarrete about his father, and the events of the day, as far as he understood them. When he got to the part about Mr. Cua and the guard with the gun, he giggled, although Mrs. Navarrete seemed very upset. “What’s so funny about that?” she asked.

“Well,” Sammy said, gesticulating breezily, “they were pointing a gun at Papa—and then they gave him lots of money!” It wasn’t how things worked—even Sammy knew that from the movies and from their games at recess.

“Well,” Mrs. Navarrete said, mulling over the story, “I suppose that’s funny. And where’s your mother, by the way?”

Sammy fell silent, and he looked fervently in Felipe’s direction, wanting to go home. The lady took his hand and her fingers felt like a bony animal perching on his. “Some families are large, very, very large,” she said. “Some families are small—very, very small.”

“My Papa says—” Sammy began, then paused, seized by a sudden doubt.

“Your Papa says?”

“My Papa says he knew your son. My Papa says they were cousins in Dipolog.”

“Is that soooo?” the woman said, arching her eyebrows again.

“What did you say your name was, again?”

“Samuel Dinglasan, ma’am. Samuel Occeña Dinglasan.”

“Dinglasan…. Weeell….. Like I said, some families are very large.  What else did your Papa say?”

“Papa says—”

“Papa says we should go home,” a voice behind them said, and there Felipe Dinglasan was, looking for all the world like he had lost everything, and while Sammy could not recall Mrs. Navarrete ever coming to their house, it did seem to him that she and his father had met before by the way she was sizing him up and his fortunes, that they were all relatives like he said, and therefore family. “I’m sorry if he’s been bothering you—”

“Not at all,” Mrs. Navarrete cried, getting to her feet. “Mr. Dinglasan, how good to see you, how nice of you to come and to pay your respects, it’s been such a long time!”

“But how—”

“Sammy here, of course, told me everything, reminded me of our connections—Dipolog, wasn’t it? Yes, Necing often told me about Dipolog, and how well he was treated by family when he came to visit. Please, have a seat—”

“But we really have to—”

“Go where, do what? It’s Christmas Eve—what should I call you again?”

“Ipe, ma’am—”

“Don’t call me ma’am, it’s always been Tita Connie. Lola Connie to you,” she said to Sammy. “But of course everyone forgot. That’s just how things are these days. I’m used to it. Tonight we meet, tomorrow no more, maybe never again. So take a look at your, uhm, cousin, go pay your respects—you, too, little boy, don’t be scared of the dead—while I make us some coffee.” Without taking another look at Felipe, she went to the small table and busied herself, lighting up another cigarette while pouring the water.

Sammy’s father lifted him up so he could see into the coffin, so they could both look very closely at Aniceto Navarrete for any kind of family resemblance. The dead man’s skin was very dark, and long thin whiskers stuck out stiffly from both sides of his mouth.

“You were right, Papa,” Sammy whispered. 

“Here, have an apple,” Mrs. Navarrete told Sammy when they regathered in the back row. “Rest up a bit and tell me stories, that’s all I ask, tell me stories. You, too, Ipe.” Leaning closer to him, she added, “And I’ll give you your fare in the morning.”

“Thank you,” Felipe croaked.

The woman made like she didn’t hear, and took the lid off the can of butter cookies. “Dunk these into your coffee, then close your eyes, and imagine you’re having ham and cake and grapes and cheese. The imagination, it’s a wonderful thing.” She demonstrated her technique with flair, holding the coffee and a cookie out as far as she could in front of her and shutting her eyes while joining the two.

“Yes!” Sammy shrieked, aping the woman. Even Sammy’s father found his own eyes closing.

The errant bulb flickered again and finally gave out, but not one of the three or the four of them knew it, not for a long moment.

(First published in the Philippine Star, December 24, 2001)

Martha, Martha (A Christmas Story)

(Twenty years ago, instead of a regular column, I wrote and sent in a Christmas story for The Philippine STAR, titled “Some Families, Very Large.” This year, I thought of doing that again, this time a story set in a Covid ICU–about loves and lives lost, power and disempowerment.)

THE GENERAL LOOKED hard at the tinsel star on the Christmas tree across his desk and convinced himself that it was leaning to the left, perhaps by an inch, and he wondered if he should fix it himself or let someone else do it for him. The tree was too tall even for him to reach the star on tiptoe, because his secretary and his aide had perched the four-foot tree on top of a painted stool to create more space beneath its plastic branches for the mound of gift-wrapped presents that began to arrive in the first week of December. 

Two years earlier, a mayor from Cagayan for whom the general had done a small favor had sent him a washing machine covered in gold foil, and he had raffled that off to the delighted staff, just like all the baskets of canned ham, English biscuits, and cheap California wine that gathered under the tree. Some came all the way from Manila, an eight-hour drive away, a token of the esteem in which the general was held, and of his prospects to make chief of staff. The most serious gifts never made it to the office; he was corrupt, for sure, but the general was nothing if not discreet, and he was proud of managing his affairs with a certain style. The Christmas tree and the pile of presents, to be honest, offended his sensibilities; it was too loud, almost vulgar, but it endeared him to his staff, and that was part of his charm, his ability to make people feel that they were being cared for. 

He was a man who could just as easily shoot a rebel in a back alley or a safehouse as he could lift a baby out of a flood to a chopper. Back at the Academy, he excelled both in boxing and mathematics, skills he later put to good use in Mindanao when he was honing his skills in procurement and dealing with unreasonable parties. The rough edges had come off as he rose up the ranks—now he knew smoother and more efficient ways to inflict pain or punishment and get things done—but the urge to ball up his fist and beat up someone senseless never quite left him, and he knew that the best gift time had given him was restraint, which accounted for his cool demeanor. 

As a young father, he had been heavy-handed with his son, now a ballet dancer in Chicago, but they had begun to learn how to talk over Facetime. His wife Martha never quite understood his sacrifices for the family, demanding that he account for the silliest things, and failing that she buried herself in bonsai clubs and Bible-study groups. At some point he discovered—she confessed—that she had had a brief affair with a college flame, an insurance executive they played mixed doubles with, and only the fact that he was then due for his first star stopped him from unloading an M-14 into his wife’s lover. Despite her tearful entreaties, he never expressed forgiveness, but neither did he mention the subject again. 

As the cars grew in the garage until they had to move houses, they aged together in a sullen but civil stalemate, remarking occasionally on the TV news and serving as wedding sponsors with practiced ease. At their last wedding in Tagaytay, he had caught her staring at him from across the aisle where the women were, and try as he might he could find no malice in her expression, as if they had done each other no wrong, and he remembered the soft and unlined face of the girl he married, and then she smiled and he looked away, feeling somewhat embarrassed. Now that the general was back in his regional outpost, he saw less and less of her, but that memory of Tagaytay lingered in his mind, and it bothered him that he couldn’t tell if it was the wife of the present or the bride of the past that called to him.

He was still looking at the star when his mobile phone rang, from an unknown number. That in itself was not surprising; sometimes his contacts and assets used burner phones. He let it ring four times before taking the call. He rushed out into the anteroom and told his secretary, “Get me a chopper, right now.”

THE DOCTOR SLUMPED against the wall and ripped off his face mask, in willful violation of the protocol that governed the use and disposal of PPEs. The prescribed order was gloves, gown, eye protection, and surgical mask—he had done it hundreds of times over the past many months—but bathed in sweat, he felt out of breath and was desperate for a smoke. To step out of the hospital even for a minute would be too complicated, so he punched a cold Tru-Orange out of the vending machine, gulped it down, inhaled what stale air he could in the corridor, replaced the mask, and staggered back into the ICU. Someone had strung up Christmas lights above the nurses’ station at the far end of the hallway and they blinked indifferently.

The doctor had not been home in two days and was living out of his locker, taking showers and catnaps and calling his daughter Sheryl when he could, but he had interrupted one of her Zoom lectures once and he made a note to be more mindful of the hour. Ellen was six hours behind in Lowestoft, which oddly enough would have worked better for his night shifts, but the last time they had spoken on Facetime, just before the Delta surge, she seemed not just six hours but six months, six years, behind, growing fainter and blurrier, although he could see the crisp numbers of the wooden clock on her wall and a shadow dipping into the picture. It would have been easier on both of them if they had said curt and final goodbyes and dropped all pretenses to remaining friends for Sheryl’s sake, but it was she who had made the last call, on the excuse of asking about the unexpected death of a batchmate from med school, and even as he merely repeated what he had read in their group chat, he could sense her staring more than listening, trying to recover details of his face, and in them, perhaps some sign of contrition. 

The doctor noticed that a new patient had been wheeled in during his break, and he glanced at her chart, not expecting to find anything outstandingly different: female, 52, a resident of Miranila Village, brought by ambulance to the ER after collapsing on the sidewalk from acute respiratory distress, positive for Covid, further tests pending. Despite her condition, he could see from her manicure and her slim, untroubled fingers that she was a woman of leisure; a pale stripe marked where her wedding ring would have been—put aside, along with her other personal effects, by the attending nurses.

It was nearly two years after the pandemic started, and the world outside the hospital had begun to resemble a happy memory of a time taken for granted: people on the street, stores open, cars locked in traffic, even a masked Santa Claus at the entrance of the mall. But in the Covid ICU the grim parade continued—of the unvaccinated, the careless, the unsuspecting, and the merely unlucky.

Two-thirds of the beds were full, each one of them a mess of tubes, machines, and bedsheets within which a body struggled mightily to remain viable despite the violence raging through its fevered blood. The patients once had faces, but now they had receded into their oxygen masks and blankets with only tethered limbs to gesture this or that, if at all. Early on in the pandemic, the doctor had toured the wards and spoken with each patient who came in who was still conscious, reading off their charts and asking about the weather in Paoay or about grandchildren, affecting a voice of benign reassurance. 

But then the cases came one after the other, like waves to an unmoving shore, and over the months they ate away at something in him, at the parts that remembered birthdays, green grass and gentle rain, the White Shoulders on Ellen’s cheek, the words that came after “let nothing you dismay.” There were no more stories to tell or to ask for in the Covid ICU, only predictable and unhappy endings prefaced by feeble grasps at hope. “Doctor, doctor,” some relative would call him, “we found it, the Tocilizumab! In a hospital in Bohol, of all places, can you believe it? We’ll have it airlifted in the morning.” And he would feign relief and take a deep sigh, knowing that the next morning could be too late, because this virus seemed to have a mind of its own, leaving it to God’s mercy or whimsy to decide which bodies would heal at home and which would burn in the oven. 

THE DOORS DOWN the hallway suddenly flew open and the general strode in, trailed by an aide and a flustered nurse. The doctor saw the intrusion through the window of the ICU and hurried out to head it off. The general was wearing a face mask but the doctor could see from the neck down who and what he was dealing with. 

“Where is she, where’s my wife?”

“Who, what’s her name?” 

“Arguelles. Martha Protacio Arguelles,” said the nurse. “The wife of—General Arguelles.”

The doctor could read the namepatch on the soldier’s fatigues and noted the two stars on his collar. 

“I want to see her now,” the general said, in that tone no subordinate had ever said no to.

“I’m sorry, general, but your wife is in the Covid ICU and no visitors are allowed in there. I’m Dr. Cañete—” 

“I’m not a visitor, I’m her husband—”

“And I’m her doctor—sir. Everyone who goes in there, they’re our patients, my colleagues and mine. We do our best to keep them alive—and you.”

“I’ll hold you responsible—”

“Of course, I understand.” And what will you do if she dies, the doctor thought—shoot me dead? Because some virus found its way down her throat and made a home and a neighborhood of her chest cavity? Because she did something foolish like stepping out and taking her chances, thinking the worst was over? “I can show her to you—from the outside. Here.”

The doctor walked him over to the window closest to Martha’s bed. There was little to see but her prostrate body swaddled in sky-blue sheets and the ventilator that straddled her face like some exotic, long-tailed animal. 

“How is she?”

“She can’t breathe on her own. You might have known she had lung problems, but Covid made it worse.” He could see the general looking intently at his wife, and he wondered about the thoughts running through the man’s head—a cadets’ ball, courtship, furtive sex, a wedding, childbirth, midlife, secrets, rages, regrets, distant thunder, black sand. “We’re still running tests for the usual complications—her heart, her liver, and so on. You seem to be a strong person, general, so I won’t sugar-coat my words. Mortality rates in the Covid ICU run to as high as 65 percent, lower for those on mechanical ventilation, but it’s never just about the numbers. Everyone here is on his own. Sometimes they fight hard, and sometimes they just give up.” 

“‘Surrender’ is not a word in my vocabulary,” the general said in a way that made it obvious he had used the expression dozens of times before, in speeches to the troops and at the poker table with governors and congressmen. “I can get you everything—anything—you need, just let me know…. I didn’t even know she was sick. She never told me anything.” The last time they spoke on the phone a few days earlier, she sounded chirpy, and was hoping to fly out with her friends to Bacolod, now that airports were reopening. 

“Maybe she didn’t know herself. Or maybe she did—she could have felt dizzy, had difficulty breathing, felt warm—some sick people like to stay in air-conditioned rooms or face the electric fan, did you know that? But women have such a high threshold for pain, and of course you know why, so they tend to say nothing, and endure it. Until it’s too late.”

“Is it? I mean, is it too late?” the general asked, but he wasn’t looking at the doctor. “There are—things, important things I want to tell her.” The general’s voice had come down to a near-whisper. He had flattened his palm against the glass.

The doctor remembered Ellen at the airport, flying off on the excuse of taking a position with the National Health Service, but really to get away from him and the overweening pride that came with being a savior of lives, so embracing of others and yet so hurtful toward those closest to him. What had he said to Ellen then? Perhaps something so banal as “Don’t forget to ask for an upgrade—tell them about your medical background”? Or was it “I’ll remind Sheryl of the time-zone difference”? It seemed much easier to tell a patient that he was dying and would be a jar of ashes by day’s end.

The general seemed lost in thought; his frame had gone limp, and the doctor felt a twinge of pity toward the man, but only a little. From what he knew of the military, you had to have done some pretty horrible things to reach certain positions, and surely this man was no exception. At the ICU, or just outside it, he had seen tycoons, society matrons, sports heroes, and media superstars fall to pieces as soon as he told them, “I’m sorry, but you can’t go in there.” 

But tonight he could be generous. It was Christmas, after all, and he could always say, how do you say no to a general? Perhaps the whole protocol was wrong—why keep the dying away from their loved ones? Could the possibility of infection be worse than forever leaving remorse or forgiveness unspoken? 

“You know, general—” he was about to say, when a nurse approached them with a logoed shopping bag from an upscale mall that told everyone where the general’s wife had been.

“General,” the nurse said with a tremor in her voice, “these are Madame’s things. We made sure everything was secure as soon as we realized whom it belonged to—and who she was. We put her cellphone and her jewelry and her handbag in there. Please, take them. We don’t want to be responsible for these valuables.”

The general was about to motion for his aide to get the bag and then he changed his mind and took it, thanking the nurse who scurried away. He looked around and found a vacant bench at the other end of the corridor. “Stay here,” he told his aide and, by implication, the doctor.

So Martha had gone shopping, not unusual for the time of year. Probably already feeling some discomfort and unsteady on her feet, she had gone out by herself to buy a few presents. The general laid out her goods on the bench—the iPhone, the ostrich Hermes, some lingerie he kept in its discreet wrapping, his favorite cologne, and, at the bottom, yet another bag from a luxury watch store with a stapled receipt that made him take a deep breath when he saw the six-figure price and an additional charge “For Engraving.” He knew she had the money—he had always made sure she did—but could he call her out for extravagance if it was meant for him? He smiled, and immediately he felt the pain of her possible loss even more deeply, at a moment when it seemed they had the world to gain. He would retire in three years from the military and be appointed by the President to head this or that authority, but before reporting for the new job he would take Martha on a cruise around the post-pandemic planet, from the fjords of Norway to sunny Belize. She was telling him something, and if he could only rush into that room and take her in his arms, he would. He had so many things to tell her as well.

He could not contain his exhilaration and, abandoning all caution, he tore the receipt away and opened the bag. Inside was the watch box—an expensive but unfamiliar brand. He lifted the top and saw a gold watch with a brown crocodile strap, blued hands, and roman numerals on an ivory face. He had expected something in steel or titanium with a rotating bezel, something he could dive into the Great Barrier Reef with, or lead an assault into the jungles of Basilan with. But perhaps she was civilizing him further, completing his transformation into a proper gentleman. Perhaps she had asked the engraver to say this in script: “To my dearest Ronnie, For peace and joy in our golden years. Your loving Martha.” He could feel hot tears welling in his eyes. Oh, Martha, Martha, let us be happy, Lord give us time to be happy.

He turned the watch over and his face turned ashen beneath his mask. His chest tightened and he could not breathe.

The doctor rushed to his side. “General! General, are you all right? Look, if you want to see her—but only for a minute—”

The general looked up at him, and all the doctor could see was his eyes, but he recognized what he knew was the face of utter defeat.