(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.