Crisis forges character. Facing adversity changes us. Sometimes we rise to the occasion and get stronger, other times life overwhelms us; either way, we do not stay the same.
On March 20 2020 when Boris Johnson announced the closure of pubs, restaurants and gyms, life took a surreal turn, just as it did when I was diagnosed with a brain tumour many years prior. Circumstances were different, yet in some ways also the same. There were things beyond my control, but I had a choice in how I reacted.
My tumour was a haemangioblastoma: non-malignant, innocuous even. It was no more than a kidney-shaped bean inside my cerebellum, the lower half of the brain where motor functions reside. The tumour did not and would not have spread, but it caused a cyst – a bubble of liquid – to form around it. The cyst grew. By the time I saw a neurosurgeon, the bubble filled a third of my cerebellum. That’s how I knew it was there: the cyst had begun impinging on my brainstem.
I spent a weekend wishing I were in a dream, that the person who was me was actually someone else. And then I sprang into action. The moment I took charge – to the extent I could – marked the start of my recovery.
This experience was a test run for the future, except I did not know it. I made limited changes to my life.
Ten years later, almost to the day of my brain tumour diagnosis, I faced death again. This time I had cancer, breast cancer, which is relatively common. Still, there is no way to sugar-coat the moment I heard the news. Cancer was something that happened to others; I honestly did not think it would happen to me.
Good things eventually come out of bad. While stuck in a post-chemo depression, I started writing. It was an act of desperation: I never imagined I would emerge profoundly changed and happier, living life with passion.
Good things will also come out of COVID-19, even if we can’t see them all yet. Some positives are already obvious. There’s less pollution, for one thing. And Britain is enjoying a renewed sense of unity. Brexit broke this country; it has taken a virus to remind us that we have more in common than we have differences. That alone is amazing.
On a personal note, this pandemic has helped me resolve key issues around my identity. During the first week of Britain’s lockdown, when Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, put out a call for 250,000 volunteers to help the National Health Service (NHS) I registered at once. I did not even need to think.
My place is here. Finally I know where home is.
I no longer feel torn. Between Britain, where I’ve lived most of my life, Malaysia, which remains in my dreams, and America, where I have family, friends and a literary agent. Thanks to a virus that emerged – ironically – from the land some of my ancestors came from, I understand what it means to be home. Isn’t that extraordinary?
I am exactly where I should be. To know that is a blessing.
The past two Thursdays, cheers rang out along the United Kingdom’s many streets for the key workers of this country: those in the NHS, in social care, in pharmacies, supermarkets and schools (now online). We saluted them right across the country. The moments were so poignant that I cried. I clapped, too, and for good measure, banged on a pot. The entire street was out. A neighbour blew a short tune on the saxophone.
This scourge afflicting us will be defeated. We will come out the other side. When we emerge, what will we see of ourselves?
I want to be able to look back and know that I acted as courageously, thoughtfully and compassionately as I could have. I want to know that I reached out where I could, gave comfort when I could, did all that I could to help.
Some of these same sentiments were summarised by New York State’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo, whose daily briefings have become must-watch events in an America clamouring for intelligent leadership. Here are a few of his words:
‘Ten years from now you’ll be talking about today to your children or your grandchildren, and you’ll shed a tear because you will remember the lives lost, and you’ll remember the faces and you’ll remember their names and you’ll remember how hard we worked and that we still lost loved ones. And you’ll shed a tear and you should because it will be sad, but you will also be proud. You’ll be proud of what you did. You’ll be proud that you showed up.’
It’s not for me to prescribe what anyone else should do. For myself, I know how tenuous life is; to squander this opportunity would be unforgivable. That is why I’m showing up.
But I’m also keeping well and trying to stay sane. Please do the same. Keep well, stay safe. We will get through this.