Michael Brown was the reason I went to journalism. And it was his death that led directly to the most important and painful task I have ever undertaken.
It started on Friday, March 13, when his body suddenly began to close slowly. He was 91 years old and had been battling dementia for almost a decade.
I was on my way to the airport when I got a call from my sister. He had passed away just a few minutes earlier. If I had left a day earlier, I would have been there by the end. Instead, I missed the deadline that his body had set for him.
He died at dawn on Sunday, March 15, the Ides of March, an omen of doom in William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.
The 13-hour flight from Hong Kong to London would offer plenty of time for quiet reflection. I fell asleep, unable to cry or think.
The backdrop for his death could hardly be worse. He had spent the past few weeks reporting on the coronavirus outbreak. Now it had spread to England. The family home is located in London, the worst affected part of the country.
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But instead of crying to my father, I began to realize that there was a greater imperative. I had to get my mother out of England. At 86 years old, recovering from cancer, he is extremely vulnerable to this disease. However, if he stayed in London, he faced the possibility of up to three months of self-isolation in an apartment where he had seen my father's gradual mental disintegration. He didn't want her to endure any more torment.
However, I had arrived in London hoping to stay longer. I knew from my mother that there was a serious shortage of masks and disinfectant, just as it had been in Hong Kong a few weeks earlier.
While my sister and I attended to the callous administration of death, we were simultaneously booking flights to Hong Kong. But the confirmations evaporated as more flights were canceled.
Our third reservation, however, was carried out. London-Doha-Hong Kong.
I knew we had the narrowest windows to go out. But nothing could happen until we had a death certificate from my father. That finally happened on Wednesday, less than 36 hours before our flight left.
All my mother wanted to do was cry to the man she had loved for 66 years.
In the new era of social estrangement, how do you comfort a grieving mother?
We are told that to win this war, we must keep ourselves separate from those we love.
Incorrectly or correctly, he was taking her to the other side of the world on an inherent risk journey. COVID-19, after all, has infected airline passengers.
My mother's neighbor, who is a doctor, came to offer her condolences. In passing, she mentioned that she was being recruited for a hospital ward that is specifically treating patients with COVID-19. He also confided that he was preparing to fight the virus without an N95 mask, which offers more protection than normal disposables. We handed him as many of my masks as we could, including five N95s. That incident seemed to clearly summarize the state of preparedness of the National Health Service.
It was a wet and gray morning when my mother and I took a taxi to Heathrow airport.
Like so many other people, the driver was not wearing a mask.
My sister joined us. As British passport holders, my sister and mother can enter and stay in Hong Kong for six months without a visa. But our window was narrowing.
The day before, the Hong Kong government announced that all arrivals would have to do 14 days of self-isolation at home, in hotels or in government quarantine centers.
But the registration staff was confused. A death in the family is distressing and stressful, and the young woman behind the counter was about to make our day worse.
She told my mother and sister that they would not board the flight because they were not Hong Kong residents. I sat with my mother, the bags stacked next to her. It looked broken and sad. My escape plan was falling apart. She was born in the run-up to World War II, and now in the last years of her life, she was facing dislocation again.
Resignation now spread through my body. However, my sister did not give up. A supervisor was called. Finally, he accepted that the regulations had been misinterpreted by his junior colleague. An hour before our flight left, we were finally handed our boarding passes.
During this public health emergency, your ears are tuned for certain sounds, such as a persistent cough. Like the cough coming from the seat in front of my mother. A friendly Chinese student near the back of the cabin agreed to swap seats. After a few forceful words from me, the coughing passenger reluctantly put on his face mask.
The risk of taking my mother to Hong Kong was confirmed by a phone call I received from my travel agent a few days later. There had been at least two infected passengers on our flight.
We now have less than 14 days of self-isolation in my small but comfortable apartment in a remote secluded corner of Hong Kong. We do temperature checks twice a day and so far so good.
But as I was writing this, the police paid a visit.
They have seen me on the roof of my apartment, which they tell me is a violation of my quarantine regulations. A vigilant but understandably concerned neighbor raised the alarm.
I point out that the roof is part of my property. They seem insecure and warn me not to go back up.
A few hours later, two health workers with visor shields and white protective clothing are at the front door with instructions to move the three of us to a government quarantine center in Sha Tin.
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I explain that we have already isolated ourselves in my apartment for four days. It is unclear why they want us to leave. In fact, they seem just as confused and confused as I am.
I explain that we are doing well at home and that it would be better for my mother to stay where she is. I also add that in a few hours my father will be cremated on the other side of the world, and we were planning to mark the moment with a small ceremony.
For now my mother and sister are crying. The nightmare that started 10 days before seems to have no end.
A public health emergency can bring out the best and worst in people. In this crisis I have seen both.
The two health workers make a phone call and then, without a word, they return to the street where the van that will take us downtown is parked. The vehicle and its occupants remain there for two more hours. During this time we remain in limbo, not knowing what the next minute will bring. I call the Health Department hotline to request clarification. He is busy … as he has been on the other seven occasions I have tried to call.
We move on with the ceremony, knowing that another knock on the door may be imminent.
A small makeshift sanctuary has formed on the dining room table. A photo of Dad's 80th birthday, a lit candle, and two small bunches of roses and carnations that his wife left at the front door.
At the exact moment that my father's body was placed in the cremation chamber, my mother, my sister and I held hands listening to the song that we had also asked to be played during the service: Bring me the sun, by the former duo British comedy Morecambe and Wise.
The lyrics include the line "in this world where we live, there should be more happiness,quot;, words that seem to mock these dark times.
Poignantly, my sister just showed me a letter that my father wrote to his three children on March 25, 2004, exactly 16 years after the day he was cremated. It begins, "This is a letter to you three, something I've never done before … and probably won't do another one of these in a long time." It is a love letter and thanks from a proud father.
I hope you thought I did the right thing.
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