Dad Was PH129. And We Found Out on the Internet
The last time we saw my father-in-law was on March 7. My two-year-old, as always, bounced toward him in a mall in Makati.
They had a special relationship, the two of them. My son was as vivacious as his grandfather was not, but they were alike in so many ways. They looked alike, too: the same eyes that turned downward, the same high forehead, and the same wispy hairline with hair that gave up at the slightest breeze. They had the same twinkle in their eyes, too—a trait that skipped over my husband—as if they were chuckling at a joke that only they could understand.
They loved each other truly. My father-in-law because he was a genuinely loving person and my son was his first grandson. The latter because Yeye (Chinese for grandfather) always came bearing French fries.
We had fries that day in Makati, too.
Yeye was already feeling under the weather, but when we saw him, he didn’t look particularly off. There were no alarm bells. COVID-19 was looming, but so far, it was just a jumble of numbers.
On the morning of March 11, my mother-in-law informed us that Yeye had dry cough and a fever. They went to a testing facility, but were eventually directed to a hospital where they spent nearly the entire day in the emergency room. Oxygen levels were bad. Just before midnight, he was finally admitted into the ICU, intubated, and sedated. My husband and I were barred from going, as well as a sister-in-law and her husband due to our own high risk of contamination.
No one said it was the dreaded coronavirus. The only thing we knew was that it was pneumonia and was being treated as such. It was nerve-wracking. Pneumonia in itself was perilous in a senior citizen and we couldn’t shake off the possibility of COVID-19. We could only communicate via Viber and phone calls. The doctors were tight-lipped about information.
Despite the stress of the situation, I had to keep pressing my in-laws: Is it COVID-19? Is it COVID-19? We were all exposed. Not only was I pregnant, but I had also unwittingly exposed my entire family—my senior mom, my asthmatic brother, my two sisters, one of whom is already under threat of the virus at the frontline, my eldest sister and her own brood, including three kids—to whatever Yeye had.
The test was conducted on March 12, but the results would take time. Until then, we had to pretend that everything was normal—work as always as we self-monitored and self-quarantined—as if our lives were the same as it was a week earlier. Updates on Yeye’s condition were made through digital filters. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law were PUIs and they needed to self-quarantine, as well. The last time they saw Yeye was on March 13, though the ICU glass.
On March 15, we still didn’t receive any notice about the test results. My brother, who constantly monitors coronavirus news, started randomly asking me questions. “How old was Yeye?” “When did Yeye exhibit symptoms?” Already stressed, I snapped and asked why he was being so curious. He sent me a Twitter link to a news website revealing information on the latest COVID-19 patients. At that point, it had ballooned to 140 confirmed cases. PH129 was remarkably similar to my father-in-law: same age, same hospital, same city, same “no known exposure.” The only difference was the date indicated for when symptoms appeared. Yeye's was March 7. The note said March 5. Confirmed: March 15.
I immediately sent the information to my in-laws. Even then no one had said anything. They didn't know was the reply. For the duration of the day, my mother-in-law would constantly call the hospital, but no one would tell her anything, even when confronted by the DOH press release. Eventually, nurses said they weren’t allowed to release any information. The doctors were unreachable. Everything was doubly difficult because we couldn’t physically move. My mother-in-law just decided PH129 was Yeye. This is the Philippines. What is it without clerical errors?
But there was that 0.001-percent chance that it might not be him. As with any crisis, connections are more valuable than gold. I asked doctor friends who knew people from the hospital. My mother-in-law did the same. Through this, we finally received confirmation.
Yeye was a fighter. He was, according to my husband’s stories, a firm overprotector who, through the years, had mellowed and contented himself as a kindly supportive player in the background. He was always reliable and dependable. He would constantly tell us to eat vegetables and drink warm water. He would always remind me to exercise. The day I met him, he told me not to sip my tea with the spoon in the cup so I wouldn’t poke my eye. On March 13, he even lifted his hands at an attempt at a Korean heart.
Throughout his time in the ICU, his stats fluctuated, but he always pulled out of it. Earlier, when family was allowed to stay in the hospital (albeit outside the room), his youngest daughter, an award-winning singer, would sing to him through the door. You hear stories of octogenarians recovering from the disease and hope is free.
Things stabilized and the family was informed that all severe cases of COVID-19 had to be transferred to the Lung Center, one of the hospitals that specialized in the virus. It was not presented as an option, so my mother-in-law, with hesitation, acquiesced.
Moving day was March 16, but it took a while to actually mobilize the transfer, which happened at nearly 11 p.m. My mother-in-law, who was asthmatic had to stay home, so my youngest sister-in-law had to process the paperwork and accompany Yeye to the Lung Center. She continued to send updates. Things were going swimmingly. My husband and I fell asleep that night concerned but encouraged.
Our toddler woke up at 12:47 a.m., but he settled down after two minutes. I woke up abruptly at 2 a.m. with a faint feeling of dread. I checked my messages and there it was: the message I imagined in my head over and over again since March 11, but never truly expected to be sent at 12:32 a.m. Yeye did not make it. After he was transferred into the isolation room, his heart stopped beating. He went away peacefully in his sleep. Alone.
What do you do in these circumstances? Grief is always made doubly difficult when you have to navigate your emotions through payments, signatures, and paperwork. But the country is at a standstill. Compassion—not to mention common sense—could only stretch so far in an environment of precaution and panic. Because she was a PUI, my sister-in-law wasn’t allowed inside the building where she had to pay to move Yeye. Everyone in the household was a PUI.
There is a coldness in the air despite the looming summer. DOH protocol states that the body had to be cremated then sent to the family. It’s a straightforward instruction, which is helpful amid this chaos, but who mediates between the hospital and the funeral home? Who takes care of the forms? In any case, funeral homes weren’t particularly forthcoming about this type of business. Two funeral homes rejected Yeye. Bargains and more strings had to be pulled before the third one agreed. There’s something reassuring about how, despite the seeming dystopia, bureaucracy was still well and good.
Amid the anguish and the red tape, rumors started to spread. Neighbors were whispering about why, with the lockdown, our family was still moving about. The day after Yeye died, I received a screencap of a message saying that both my parents-in-law were dead from the virus. I would receive numerous copies of that text in the hours to come. My mother-in-law received a message saying that her mother was dead. My husband's aunt received another message that I was dead. Fear makes sympathy inconvenient. When other people sincerely sent their condolences, I felt compelled to clarify that only Yeye passed. We were PUIs but no one was showing any significant symptoms. That’s another reassuring thing, we guess. No matter how sad and chaotic the world gets, gossip lives on.
This was not the appropriate farewell for a man who lived a full life. We cried through sanitized screens. Yeye was a quiet man who didn’t ask for much. Maybe it’s what he would’ve wanted, but it’s only a fraction of what he deserved. People, after all, would remember COVID-19 for decades to come. But to most of them, Yeye would just be the nth victim, the nth death, a sad casualty of age, pandemic, and a warning to many against the consequences of the virus, but he was so much more than that.
You see the rising COVID-19 numbers on the screen and you pray that you won’t be part of that statistic. And when you get it, you start praying that you are part of the statistic of people who recovered despite the odds.
Yeye was a loving father, a loyal husband, a dutiful son, and a generous man who did everything for his family. He wore long socks with cargo shorts during Korean winters. He watched a lot of K-dramas and liked to nap in the afternoons. He still ate with chopsticks even though he's lived in the Philippines all his life. He always volunteered to drive his children to the airport no matter how old they got. He preferred shirts with pockets on the left breast (he was efficient that way). He was a talented pianist who had a library of sheet music in his home. He always bore a crinkly smile on his face.
It’s easy to see it as a virus with a mere 3.4-percent mortality rate (or whatever it is now) when your personal understanding of COVID-19 only goes as far as sitting at home and eating canned corned beef. And I pray that's how far it'll will ever get for you. Even so, try to remember that COVID-19 is about people as it is the numbers.