Another friend is leaving. It’s not the first time, but the sadness and reality of transience bites harder.
Two things stand out in my life these past few years with COVID. One was I met the greatest love of my life. And the other one was finding a new family in the form of my climbing friends. The origin of our circle was rather unusual. From a small nucleus, we grew into an actual group of friends by way of different fortunate circumstances. In the beginning, all we did was climb. Once to thrice a week, no strings attached. We met and parted at the gym – our conversations mostly revolving around betas. One day, we dared push the envelope and brought our friendship outside the hold-studded walls.
I said ‘new family’ because I never really expected to form a new set of friends at this stage of my life. Work would have been the most likely source of friends if you know how introverted and unsociable I am. I like sticking to groups of 2-3. For awhile, it felt like the golden years of our friendship would last. It was what kept me, maybe us, positive, preoccupied, even happy, during the isolating days of the pandemic. We didn’t mind if restaurants closed, as long as the gym remained open. It was a familiar routine – arrive, bag down, warm up, gear up, climb until you can’t, leave together and part ways in the usual forks. In periods of rest, we slowly got to know each other’s stories. People from different walks of life enjoying the same past time, solving climbing routes together, shouting allez’s for motivation, progressing through certifications – just writing about it makes me sigh at how time flew by.
As restrictions loosened, our ‘family’ also changed. Some changed to more demanding careers, some transitioned from being single to being committed, some got bored of the excuses and looked for new climbing friends, but we climbed together whenever we can. We were always a group we could each count on. We celebrated birthdays together whenever we could, even Christmas.
As one of them is about to leave Singapore for good to settle down, I can’t help but wonder what our future will be like. It’s the same with all families. The time comes somebody needs to leave, things both change and don’t, yet it’s never quite the same. I know the secret is not to look back, but to look ahead. But before I do, permit me one last time while we’re all still here…
I’m sat here in bed horribly sick. My lamp shines a little brightness into the room along with the laptop I’m currently writing this on. Through the crack of my curtains, I’ve noted that the moon has gone a few notches down, inching its way closer to the horizon. The doors to my balcony are open and I am thankful that it has been a cool evening. It has been tough being this sick alone.
I’m currently down with the infamous COVID, finally. Just a few weeks ago, I was talking to my fellow friends who have been able to dodge it so far. Due to this event, we have had to move our flight tickets to the UK for the second time. I do not even want to think about how disappointing that is, it was enough the first time. And due to the regulations here in Singapore, I’m required to isolate on my own and that has largely meant, despite all the well-meaning messages and calls, dealing with this alone. My table is strewn with various drugs and herbal remedies. My entire room is in disarray, both from being sick and from partially packing for the supposed trip. Half of my bed has the previous day’s laundry. My throat has been full of phlegm, and more recently I can feel that phlegm extending down my airways as well. Yesterday over a video call, I showed my dad my pile of used tissue proudly, he laughed and accommodated my weirdness and encouraged me to build a mountain with it. My nose is constantly blocked, preventing me from sleeping the first 2 nights. Last night, I slept partly sitting up, two of my pillows behind my back. It has not been that comfortable and I felt the punishment from the contortion upon waking up, but I was thankful for finally being able to get a break from the prolonged insomnolence.
While Netflix has been my constant companion throughout this ordeal so far, I have started reading as well. As often the case, in between reading the actual book I’d like to finish, I periodically open the book I wrote about my mom. Whenever I’m feeling bad, physically or emotionally, reading that book has strangely been my source of solace. I am unsure whether it is from reliving those experiences with my mother or returning to the awareness of a past self that gives me comfort, perhaps both.
Today marks the longest I’ve taken medical leave from work – three days. I offered to log on today, but my manager has been kind and assured me that there was no need to do so if I was still sick. I’m thankful I don’t work in a company that glorifies overworking. I am also grateful for my dad and my brother. The last few months have been quite an ordeal for us. I surprised my dad with the news that I was going to the UK with my boyfriend because he had invited me to meet his family. My dad has always been in denial that I’m no longer a baby, and that has meant his general reluctance to acknowledge the seriousness of my relationship. It has also been the first time I introduced him to someone so this has been something new to him. This translated to long messages from all of us, sometimes me on the verge of annoyance from my dad making things more difficult than they need to be, but with no one ever losing sight of the fact that we all mean well. My brother acts as the bridge between me and my dad when things get a bit heated, and as an aside, my dad acts as the bridge between my brother and I when we start arguing about vaccines (a different matter altogether). Understandably, with my mom not around, my dad informed and asked for support from my aunts, uncles and cousins but that has meant having to talk about, and sometimes defend, my relationship and the trip to multiple people. With the initial plan being postponed for the second time (the first time due to COVID as well), I can only imagine what some of those who tried to dissuade me are thinking. But my dad has made a 180 degree turn. Despite being the most disapproving of my relationship in the beginning, he is now fully supportive of the trip and has not even made any quips about the trip being constantly postponed despite the opportunity and his usual tendency to. It has really made me appreciate my family so much more, because despite the difficult acceptance that I may never settle back there, and that my boyfriend is neither a Filipino or a Catholic, they have been largely supportive, even if that has been a slow and gradual process for my dad.
I’d like to end this post with one of the messages my dad sent me. In his words, “…planning is part of the fun in such situations because it’s an effort, a test to succeed despite the odds, all things considered. To come out happy and gratified with God’s blessings. Do your best happily, expect the worst. Pray for the best. God will provide….Nothing is going to be easy, which makes it more memorable in the end.” And with that, I am blessed with a partner who has been even more patient than me with all the constant rebooking we’ve had to go through.
There is a yearning growing more strongly as of late, of books or of places, sometimes hard to tell apart. To get lost in stone pavements and seek warmth in strange rooms – small tables and chairs, mismatched ware, hot tea in cups, some I would I like to take home, some I don’t care for, of free sugar offered and small cakes never tasted before. To feel just enough chill or perhaps a strong gust of wind, to see from above raw Earth not crusted with buildings, and sit on a rock because otherwise it would be moist grass. To hear of stories from strangers from unthinkable adventures to engrossing ordinariness, of once lovers, thieves, souls lost in this world, large, happy families, wandering staff-wielding travelers with no permanent home, of children still struggling with language. To see colors vibrant yet fading, weathered to eternal beauty, muted to blend and bow to nature’s wonders. To sit in the barren cold, right beside a fire dancing and flickering to the evening’s symphony, an orchestra composed of night creatures and critters hidden and mysterious. To lose my breath and catch it in a summit someplace far away from this reality, mud on my boots and grass under my fingernails.
A collection of memories I hope I’ll never have to archive.
18 April 2021
Friday night we make critically acclaimed haikus Saturday afternoon we were Egyptian master builders Sunday morning you’re my ride from the bedroom to the ottoman Some days I just want to tell you I love you, but I can’t bear not hearing it back So I hold you tight before we part ways, and hope you know I mean just that
27 April 2021
We took two days off this week but it’s been crazy busy for you the past few days. We’re trying to agree on what time to meet, and in typical fashion I insist on a later time to let you sleep in while you insist on an earlier time so as not to waste our holiday. I go into my usual long, explanatory monologue text to iron out details and you reply by saying “we took these days off to spend them together”. My anxiety about being another burden in your life disappears and I realize that all I want to do is be with you the soonest – whether you’re awake or still sleeping
12 June 2021
We’re looking out the dark waters of Macritchie Reservoir and we see a person walking towards us. I tease you that it might be a zombie. You then make me promise, for your birthday, that if it ever happens that a zombie attacks us, I will run and let you save me. I don’t agree to it and tell you I’d rather die with you. You explain that you’d rather see me live and be happy. And that though it’s sad, sad things are what make good things good – otherwise everything is average. I don’t say anything because I’m crying. I don’t know if you realized how much it hurt me to listen to you say all that. You have no idea how miserable I’d be if that happened
17 June 2021
Nothing in particular to write about today. Just wanted to appreciate how you always take the time to check on me every day, even when you’re busy. I secretly love how you’ve been calling me “honey” lately, and “Koala”, and “KB”. And though it’s always still a struggle, I find it easier to open up to you about my fears and feelings. If I could solve all your problems for you, I would. But as I can’t, I hope my company gives you a safe space and respite from the daily drudgeries of life. Because that’s how I feel about you. Thank you for always being there for me.
21 June 2021
A week ago I got unreasonably upset because I thought you left me hanging in the middle of a conversation, and it played up a lot of my previous bad experiences unexpectedly. I regretted it and apologized, and am I one lucky girl because you instantly forgave me. We had a talk about it and you listened to me without judgement. You told me you understood where I’m coming from, even if I know it’s an unhealthy habit of mine. You told me you’ll start letting me know when you can’t continue a conversation when you have to do something, and I felt that you valued my feelings. I don’t even do that all the time, but you actively trying to do that was so considerate of you. Today you did that, and I thanked you before the day ended. You replied with “you deserve it”. I wish I can be a person who deserves a person like you.
17 July 21
After a long emotional day – me asking you if you loved me and you telling me you’re not sure, and us talking it all out – I snuggled close to you in bed, wrapped my leg around you and said, “you’re my favorite”.
But there are days lost in a blur of unresolved questions. Like today. I crave for clarity, but maybe all I crave for is a numbness that can take me away from facing hard realities. I speak not just of the daily atrocities committed by human beings to fellow human beings and the existential dread brought about by natural cycles and the affliction of industrialization. I speak of my anxieties fueled by unresolved pasts and the knotted thoughts wound up in my head.
I cry it away most of the time, a song on repeat playing until I’m hypnotized to sleep. Using fellowship as a means to avoid being alone in my thoughts and exercise to redirect the emotional agony into physical pain. Until I come back to lucidity – transient and fragile in nature.
It’s 2 AM and more than a year since I’ve written. I had taken leave from work the last two days which makes it an extremely inconvenient idea to stay up and attempt to complete something I have been unable to do so for months. Unfortunately, the espresso I drank more than 12 hours ago has ruined it for me despite the melatonin and double gym session I put myself through today, or more aptly put, yesterday.
I’ve been stumped by my lack of motivation to write anything for too long a time now. When I think about this thought alone, I rarely come to a conclusion. On the other hand, discussing this with other people has led to possibilities of the waning perceived profundity of my emotions, inability to extract value from the mundane, the fear of judgement, lack of travel and general busyness of life.
I don’t think my emotions were ever so profound, but I could describe them then. They were sharp, even if they were feelings of confusion. I suppose it has been the lack of any dramatic change in my life recently, but which does not mean there have not been any noteworthy changes either. After writing the book about my mother, I wanted to separate my identity from a grieving daughter, and that was how I found a new writing persona of writing about my travels. I suppose that left me with less clear-cut emotions. Grief was easy; happiness was always something I struggled with, whether it was for its celebration or acknowledgement. As for traveling, just a few emotions were needed to meld into the more exciting fabric of actual happenings.
Lack of profound emotions conveniently leads to the second possibility. I know that I’ve never written about things unless I see the intrinsic value in them, and yet I have written about numerous mundane events in my very average life because I somehow still saw value in them. I’m not sure why I struggle with that now, which is a precarious thought to explore as this could just about lead to throwing this draft once again for the lack of extracted value. I shall leave it at that for now.
My fear of judgement has always been there. I doubt if it has grown more, I would have thought less. I don’t really care who reads what I write and I have always published freely on my blog. I’ve met a handful of strangers over the years I’ve written on the internet, which has been a humbling and rewarding experience. I also appreciate friends and acquaintances, who for either curiosity or the lack of other things to do, have taken the time to read what I’ve written and let me know when it has affected them somehow. While I don’t think I write for other people, I won’t deny it is heartwarming for a writer for their writing to be appreciated. It’s not a necessity though because writing in itself is cathartic.
When I shifted my writing mindset to traveling, I guess in some ways I turned off seeing the excitement in my routine every day. That was what made traveling exciting after all, the uncertainty and the novelty of places, people and sensations. It has always been more interesting for me to write about trips I’ve done alone but some of my favorite entries were of trips with another person. Traveling alone allows me full control of my itinerary, freedom to meet people in my own introverted capacity, and the space to reflect in solitude and therefore write. Traveling with friends has provided me many memorable moments on their own, though the trouble with capturing the exact value of these experiences lies in the unwritten context of friendship, often too cumbersome to describe. And anyway, the purpose of traveling with someone, to me, lies more on the shared experience. Now we all know travel has been halted for some time now and I’ve actually not been too bothered about it save for my lack of writing subject. While photos can be easily recycled, a recounted experience taken out of context is harder and quite pointless. I suppose only by being open to experiencing genuine interest in my daily life would I be able to surmount this challenge.
Finally, life has always been busy and I am not especially busier compared to most people. Maybe this is in fact what’s preventing me from writing. I’ve not been busy with anything I feel to be important enough for me to write about. It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge this but I guess everyone experiences this in life at some point. This is not to say I think what I do every day is worthless because I can definitely enumerate a few things of worth. They’re not something I’d write about though, as much as live. Why do they feel separate now? I lived through the coffee and have finally churned out some kind of written analysis. If anything, at least I know I can still create verbose prose.
Took me 3 years to finish this book because I kept putting it off in favor of more interesting things. The truth is, it was too real and required so much of my brain power, that I needed my entire will power to see it through (as I typically read books for leisure and not necessarily learning). This book made me think a lot so I wanted to save the notes I wrote down on my little notebook and asked my brother to type (haha). He had time because of the lockdown. I’ve not put an effort to summarize this book as I think it would be a lie to pretend that I’d be able to summarize all the ideas it put forth. Every single statement I saved here is worth a separate conversation altogether.
It’s a Sunday night and I’m sitting in front of a fully-protected doctor asking me my personal particulars before they assess if I should be screened for the new coronavirus or not. Only some parts of his skin are exposed, I cannot see his face. He positions his gloved hands on the keyboard and pauses to ask behind his face mask, “what do you work as?” I have been asked this question multiple times – in family reunions, on dates, while traveling, in parties (I don’t party), and what not – and it has been rarely fun trying to explain it. I resist saying I’m an instructional designer because the chances of him understanding what that means are far more dismal. It’s 10 pm and I want to get over the anxiety of not knowing whether I have become a harbinger of the virus or not – sounding smart won’t help. “I’m a medical writer”, I answer. “Oh, like insurance?” “No.” I explain using a mouthful of words, then catch myself by condensing it with an “it’s hard to explain”. I understood my grandfather and the generation he came from when he assumed that I wrote drug literature (which I don’t) for my day job, and I try to understand the fact that what I do is not a conventional job description that most people have the familiarity with to understand. The same way I tried to understand when someone I went on a date with had asked me, “the smart girl” as he had annoyingly labeled me, what my PhD was on and I said “tissue engineering”, and him getting surprised that toilet papers needed to be engineered. It’s not uncommon for me that people reduce medical writing to something more akin to medical transcription (which is not lowly work by the way). Though I have also repeatedly experienced people who replied with a more overestimated assumption of “oh, you’re a doctor!” To which I answer with not any more hope of them being closer to the real definition with a, “well yes I have a PhD, but no that’s not what a medical writer is”.
When I was still in academia, I thought explaining what I did was already difficult. It seems like that challenge haunts me until now. I’m actually not a traditional medical writer, although I do some things that a medical writer does – which is to write all sorts of materials on healthcare: slide decks, detail aids, newsletters, down to invitations, flyers, and what not. It’s like copywriting, but with a necessity for disease and therapy understanding. I still read scientific journal articles and clinical trial papers (something I thought I’d escape outside academia), but the fun part is getting to communicate this in a far more effective, clearer and prettier way. As an instructional designer, I specifically keep in mind learning theories and user experience whenever I write content – and that’s why more than writing, I’m also designing. The end goal is of course to deliver effective learning. Our clients are pharmaceutical companies, which probably explains why this job description is overlooked by many as we work behind these bigger names. Think more around e-learning modules, training toolkits, interactive pdfs, patient awareness materials and the like. We bridge the gap between scientists and different stakeholders like doctors, nurses, drug representatives and patients – the science doesn’t simply pull through without us.
In hindsight, it was much easier to say “I repair broken hearts” back when I was doing my PhD on cardiac tissue engineering. At least then I was providing an easy way out to the predictable come back of “oh, could you repair mine?” Unfortunately my answer then was always both a figurative and scientifically-backed “no”. Because you can never regenerate hearts to their previous functionality once you “break” them (ie post myocardial infarction).
Now if only I could figure out a way to explain my current job description just as coyly.