Written by Varrick Kwang
Art by Michael Burrows
The canvas painted with a pastel orange background remained seated in the study room. Claire had wanted to paint some clouds and a big sun later. She will never be able to. Tom never will either: he never fancied himself to be a painter. He knew he would never be able to fill in his wife’s shoes.
The canvas was mounted between the bookshelf and the desk. Light shone through the tinted windows and onto the ceramic floor tiles mopped so spotless that Tom could use it as a makeshift mirror. The room looked as if nothing was out of place.
But the most important piece was missing. Claire was missing.
Tom pictured Claire with a wide smile on her face as she swerved from the desk to the canvas in her office chair after she was finished with her work.
“I’m going to paint a sunset.” Tom recalled that her words held so much excitement as she looked at him with those doe-eyes. “Do you think I should put seagulls in the background later? Maybe us, even?”
“Yeah, I would love that.” Tom spoke tenderly into the emptiness of the room, as if she was still there.
He was appalled by how life could suddenly become so cruel. He had been told many times by his elders how life was unpredictable, but he had never been hit in the gut by the magnitude of this statement until his wife was infected.
What had happened? Weren’t he and Claire going to have the life of their dreams?
The Claire at their wedding, he remembered, was vastly different. Him in a suit and she in her gown saying their vows with joy and bliss. They were healthy and happy.
Tom drafted their entire itinerary with Claire for their trip to Europe. After their month-long honeymoon, they wanted to have many children in their new home.
Tom talked about their plans with such passion during the Chinese New Year of 2019 to their friends and relatives whom they visited. Even if it stung a little that they had to be the ones giving out angpows to the unmarried, he told Claire he was happy to celebrate and welcomed whatever life brought them next.
He now regretted making that statement.
What he remembered about the start of the pandemic was how fast it brought the world down. At first, the virus was only in Wuhan, and like most people, they never would have guessed that the virus would spread around the world so quickly.
It was clear to Tom, by mid-March of 2020, that his plans with Claire would go up in smoke.
Instead of going on vacation in Europe, the couple stayed at home. Instead of touring from England to Malta, they toured from the bedroom to the fridge.
“Well, that’s ok. At least we can decorate and clean up our house from here.” Claire had said, trying to be optimistic. With that twinkle in her voice, who wouldn’t be comforted?
Soon, Tom received the termination email from the human resource department at the food catering company he worked in. In a matter of months, he lost his source of income.
The termination email was filled with pointless fluff in such a pretentious effort to caress hurt feelings as if the person writing it actually knew and cared about him. How about they let him keep his job and work from home instead of outright retrenchment?
He was crushed, but Claire was there for him, reassuring him that she still had her job. But still, being terminated so abruptly infuriated him.
“Maybe you can be a Grabfood rider?” Claire’s comforting voice shone through his indignation and worry. “Or help out around the house while I work from home.”
And so Tom did the latter. It would be less taxing than running around house to house lugging takeaway food.
Sometime after, Circuit Breaker was over and the country started to open up. When things were looking as if they could go back to normal, Tom started to look for a job again.
Claire, on the other hand, started coughing and had a persistent cold. Fever followed soon after.
It must have been that in-person work meeting that Claire’s manager had made her attend because everyone who attended that meeting got infected. She had no choice, and to go against that would put her rice bowl at risk too.
He vividly remembered the morning she ran to the office at six before the sun rose.
“Is that you, dear?” Tom said in a groggy voice as he heard his wife’s hastened footsteps in their room and the sounds of wardrobe doors being opened and closed.
“I have to go.” He heard the dread in her voice. Even when he could not see her face properly in the dark, he knew the look to be an exasperated one.
“Are you sure you have to go? Why can’t your manager simply arrange it as an online meeting instead?”
“I have no choice, honey, he said it was too important to not attend in person,” she responded with a sigh.
The first day after that meeting, she started coughing. Tom heard her loud and clear all the way from the study room to the kitchen at the other end of their house for the entire day.
Two days after that meeting, Claire started to complain of chest tightness at the dinner table.
By day three, Tom suggested Claire go to a doctor, and she did after hastily booking an appointment with the polyclinic.
On that same afternoon, when Tom was stirring a pot of carbonara sauce. For the first time in a long time, he was in a good mood.
Claire would enjoy such a good meal after her doctor’s visit. He did not say anything about cooking carbonara: it was supposed to be a surprise.
Right then, his phone rang.
“Hello, Claire,” Tom said enthusiastically. He did not need to see the call screen to know it was her. He had a separate ringtone set only for her.
“Hey, Tom.” She coughed, this time heavier.
“Is…everything ok? What did the doctor say?”
“I have to go to the hospital. He suspects that I’m infected with the new variant.”
That statement hit Tom like a cinder-clad kick to the throat. His phone slipped from his fingers.
He froze in his position. What did that mean? She was infected? Did that mean she would be gone? Would he be able to see her again?
After a long moment of pondering, he turned off the fire to the stove and let the sauce stop brewing. There was no point in cooking it if Claire could not enjoy it.
She was taken to the hospital to be intubated while Tom was issued a quarantine order and given swab tests. The medical staff came to his house an hour later fully geared up in their PPEs and made Claire pack her clothes before shipping her away.
Tom missed his last window to see her in person because the medical staff isolated her from his view by forming a big protective ring around her.
Having cotton sticks pried deep into his nostrils was unpleasant, but it was nothing compared to the agony of the illness Claire suffered. He could not count the times his heart sank whenever the hospital gave him updates on her condition.
Throughout those months that followed, Tom could not stop himself from ruminating about what had occurred, from retrenchment to Claire’s hospitalization.
Even in his sleep, he wasn’t spared from the loop of tragic events that he could not stop in his head.
Insurance helped with the bills. However, Claire was unceremoniously dismissed from her job through email, just as Tom had been. How could they? After everything that Claire sacrificed for her job, that was how they treated her?
The view of the study room blurred with tears that formed again.
Tom clenched his fists and jaw, his mouth pursed in a thin line. Sobs blubbered through his lips regardless of how tightly he tried to hold them in.
By this point, he could no longer force himself to try to stop the repetition. His stream of memory was overrun by a flood of empty rage and worry. So empty and pointless, yet so overwhelming and destructive.
To combat this, he sought the advice of his family and friends, who in turn suggested that he clean the house to regain some sense of control in his life. The house was dirty anyway, with Tom being isolated at home for three weeks.
He put in frantic efforts to organize and clean his— no, their home, to the point where it looked like something out of a home decorating magazine. He made sure there were no clothes lying on the floor and all the books were arranged in the bookshelves just as it was done in libraries.
That was where he started to hold on to the idea that Claire would be back to a cleaner, sparklier home. After all, she always complained about how dusty the house always seemed to be. And she would be able to keep painting, to finish the sunset.
But that little spark of hope was doused with more updates from the hospital. He never once heard any good news.
On that fateful day, Tom further polished the house so clean that it could not be cleaned any further. He laid in his bed and formed a prayer in his mind like he had made for Claire countless times.
The ringing of his phone broke the weary young man from his train of thought.
Seeing the phone’s screen, it was Dr. Bala, the doctor in charge of his wife’s ward. A pit of dread formed in his gut.
“Mr Tan?” Dr Bala said, with a gravelly voice. “Do you have a laptop with you?”
“Your wife is going to die. Please get your computer ready to see her off in her last moments. I’ll…send you the zoom link.” Dr. Bala promptly hung up after saying that.
Tom’s heart sank upon hearing the words. It felt like a meat hook had plunged into his gut and clawed out everything in him. Any moment from now, he was going to lose his wife. The composure he had tried to muster all this while went down the drain. Tears flowed involuntarily from his cheeks, but he was not moving or saying anything. It was a stunning blow to his very consciousness.
HIs world swayed and his head became heavy again. Could he believe any of this?
The final moments with somebody, especially his wife, would be the most important. Even more so when it came so abruptly. Yet this doctor is telling him that he had to see his wife die…from a screen?
He could not hold her hand and kiss her goodbye for one last time. The most he could do was kiss the screen as the grainy video showed her take her last breath, and transmitted her last words through the filters of her oxygen mask and the speakers of his device.
How would he send her off properly with all the safe distancing restrictions and measures?
Her funeral would not draw many people. Their families would not get to mourn, hug and cry together. Their friends, most of them the same people who attended their wedding banquet with the most jovial smiles, biggest red packets and merriest partying would only be able to cry from a distance, all alone in the homes that they would be required to stay in. They would not be together when they needed each other the most. How shocked they would be to go from celebrating a joyous marriage to mourning a sudden death in months.
The funeral would be a shoddy excuse of a proper send-off for a human life gone too early.
Millions of questions joined the assault on his psyche and body along with the white empty rage, the flooding grief and the clawing feeling in his gut.
Why this pandemic in the first place? Why her of all people?
The world as he knew it lost all colour and sounded like an old faulty computer slowly breaking down, fading to an empty, black screen.
Just then, his phone’s message notification chimed again. It was Dr. Bala sending the Zoom link via Whatsapp.
Tom knew he had to click on it.
He wished he could at least freeze time to process this news first. Claire was dying.
In the face of reality, Tom let out a broken screech and flung his pillow against the bedroom door. He walked to the desk where his laptop was among a neat stack of books, which he had been reading to distract himself.
With a violent swing of his arms, he plunged the books onto the floor.
He turned on his laptop, wetting his keyboard with tear-and-sweat-stained fingers, going to Whatsapp Web to access the link.
As his hands trembled and his vision blurred from tears, he had to click on the link a few times because he could not see it properly.
As the screen loaded, he wondered how lonely and hurt Claire was, with no one around her as she would take her last breath. What kind of sick joke was this from Providence that they would spend their last moment apart?
What closure could there be?
Tom tried to shrug off the scene in his head. There was no way he would relieve that scene of his wife wilting into death from the screen.
Tom watched all the way till the heart monitoring machine flatlined and his speaker stopped transmitting Claire’s voice. The screen froze, and the call ended.
His wife was just switched off like a buggy program.
Now all that is left of her is the swivel chair she once sat on, the clothes she once wore, her desk, and the sunset on the canvas that she never got to finish painting.