28 October 2019


Almost seven years ago, a friend I had never met died from cancer. It had affected me, acting as a reminder that life is short. Seven years have passed and I still fail to learn much from that essential, vital lesson. I fail just the same in living my own life “properly” – free of unnecessary stress, free of my own psychological limitations, recognising that I am mortal. I can’t even pretend I have forgotten about the brevity of things: I had my fair share of somewhat heavy surgeries.

I am as annoyingly stubborn as I ever was. My behaviour in my personal life is appalling at times, arguing for no other reason but to be “right” – or so I think. Most often I do attempt to pacify things but it’s too often too late or not enough or not adapted to what “the other” would like to feel. Instead of trying harder, I tend to shut down further, to withdraw silently into my shell – a trait unfortunately shared with my mother and my siblings to varying degrees.

The luxury of being able to potentially disconnect from everything – work included – and everyone becomes increasingly appealing. I haven’t gone to that extent, yet, perhaps because I’m a coward, perhaps because I still have a sense of illusory responsibility for what happens around me, perhaps because guilt weighs on me for not trying harder in becoming a better person.

A coincidental and rare scrolling through automatically-recommended Instagram photos a couple of days ago led my attention to be suddenly caught by an image one doesn’t expect to see on ultra-filtered happy-go-lucky feeds. It was the image of a Chilean woman I had interacted with a few years ago, after reciprocally matching on an online dating app. I never got to meet her in person but we had infrequently stayed in touch, exchanging thoughts, travel stories and aspirations for the future. It was a platonic relationship of sorts, which slowly drifted into inevitable oblivion caused by busyness and distance.

Gabriela, for that is the name of this woman, had always appeared like a kind soul to me. Positive, forward-looking, she genuinely cared for her fellow human beings – and possibly for her own future children.

What will happen now though? It’s unlikely her life will ever be the same.

December 2018. Gabriela returned home to celebrate the end-of-year festivities with her family. But two weeks before Christmas, Gabriela suffered a stroke which left her paralysed of her four limbs and torso. That is the piece of information I discovered coincidentally a few days ago only, upon reading a post from her three sisters.

It was like a dagger to my heart, both pain felt for the ordeal she must be going through and selfish worry about my own health and mortality. Just like in the 2007 film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which is based on a true story, Gabriela can only communicate by blinking. She has recently been able to be fed some porridge.

If I attempt to analyse why I felt compelled to write those words (which took me eleven days to refine and finally hit “publish”), it’s perhaps also due to the fact that we tend to be more moved by stories of the plights of specific individuals than the raw numbers of people injured or dying from natural catastrophes and wars (didn’t the comedian Pierre Desproges sarcastically describe how we don’t really care that much when thousands die?). I thus acutely remember the photo of the 3-year old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, washed up face-down on the Turkish shore. Or that other photo of a Mexican father with his little son whose head is tucked inside his father’s T-shirt, both face down on a river bank. Or that TV interview of a Bosnian boy at the hospital during the siege of Sarajevo. All human beings striving for something better.

Gabriela has a very long way to go. She has involuntarily become a burden to her family who is constantly trying to raise funds to offer her better healthcare than the seemingly poor quality of the public sector in Chile. There is a glimmer of tearful hope. An extremely faint encouragement that should serve us – me – as an extra motivation to be caring and kind towards other humans: a few days ago, Gabriela started moving one toe in jerks – and a couple of fingers with the help of her sister’s guiding hand.

Gabriela, a few years before her stroke