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Masked Heroes

Yesterday, my sister sends me a selfie.

It’s less filters, more medical gear: masks, masks, masks, and a big face shield that makes her look like she should be carrying a jackhammer to complete the picture. The shield is all fogged up so I can barely see her face.

What I replied: WOW look at you sis

What I wanted to reply: Oh my god / I’m so sorry you have to do th

is / You look like if Mysterio and Derek Shepherd had a baby / Can you see? / Are you not stressed you’re going to get infected? / I’m so proud of you still / We’re all so proud / We love you / Please stay safe / stay safe / stay safe.

There were so many events that led up to this photo. If I was to backtrack and show snippets of her life in slow motion, it would go like this: five years of medical school before graduating with a bunch of fresh-faced idealistic about-to-be doctors in 2013. Ready to get out there and save lives, and then actually saving lives because she is good at her job, and saving more lives, and more lives, and missing family holidays and birthdays and Christmases because she is so busy saving lives and then week by week, day by day, case by case, getting more and more worn down by the system until in 2019, the dam breaks.

After many tears, she makes the decision to begin a teaching job at a university near the end of the summer, ready to prepare the next batch of about-to-be doctors to get out there and continue the chain of keeping human beings alive. Her entire existence is dedicated to bestowing the gift of life. It’s more than I’ll ever be able to contribute to the world.

This brief respite from the work lasts up until March 2020, one or two weeks or so before lockdown was reinforced. I was leaving my accommodation before things got too bad, and she was there to help carry an academic year’s worth of my living materials to my dad’s car when she got the email.

“Well,” she had said slowly, “I’ve been drafted back in”.

And so, the not-going-back-to-a-hospital again thing didn’t work out.

“This was meant to be the year I didn’t have to do that”, she had said, almost imperceptible, when I drew her in for a hug. And by “that”, she had meant saving lives, because she is human, and she has already given so much of herself.

Back when I was fifteen, for our PSHE class, we had to interview someone we knew and ask about their job. I had thought, I have got to interview my sister about being a doctor. I did and ended up with a loose rendition of Scar bellowing Run away, Simba run, run away and never return: the NHS is a crumbling infrastructure, people will never be satisfied, you’ll work twelve-hour shifts and no one will give a damn, and so on. I could imagine the fifteen-year-old Greys Anatomy fans in my class wilting along with their doctor dreams, and my final question was asked almost ironically: Do you regret choosing this career?

“No”, she had said. Long pause.

“You want to elaborate?”

“Well. I don’t regret it. Others respect you when you say you’re a doctor. It’s an admirable job. And at the end of the day, you’re saving lives.

Not many people get to say that they’re saving lives.”

She went back to work last week.

So, yes, she is saving lives in the midst of this pandemic and is making us all proud. She is also a better person than me because I am someone who cried after working four consecutive days as a cashier during my sixth form days. She is a hero; everyone forced to leave their houses in the midst of a crisis in order to help others are. And surprisingly, I am not scared for her, because my body is filled to the brim with my pride for her and there is no space for anything else.

This isn’t the case for my parents, and this is why they are heroes number two and three in my eyes. It isn’t always to recognise - their stress can be infuriating to live with - but on a deep, instinctive level, I get it. I read a quote once, attributed to Elizabeth Stone, that terrified me and made itself home inside my heart. When I eventually have a kid, it is going to come out and haunt my thoughts forever, no doubt, and it goes, “Making the decision to have a child (...) is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body”. I know this to be true, because my parents are so desperate to keep that piece of their hearts unharmed. I know this because they spend every waking moment researching masks, and their different types, and texting my sister asking to see pictures of her in those masks because they love her so, so much in the way only a parent will. I told my mum to chill once, and she snapped back with, how could you tell me to stop caring for my daughter?

I had nothing to say back to that. I never will be able to. The masks, to my sister and I, were symbolic of our mum meddling too much in our life. To our mum, they mean, I love my daughter so much I cannot bear the thought of just sitting there while she puts her life on the line. My mother is so strong for carrying this burden on her back, knowing that a piece of her heart is risking herself to save lives, knowing that it is dangerous to be good. The world seems unfair, but the people in it more than make up for that.

In this pandemic, I have seen so much goodness.

My parent’s friends are on the phone to them, giving advice and talking them through it. We have family friends who send my sister, and other doctors, masks and goggles and other things for free - out of the goodness of their own hearts. I see it in the neighbours who send letters through our doors with their name and contact numbers in case we ever need help with our grocery shopping. And even though my sister is going back to a job she thought she wouldn’t need to return to in order to save more lives, she’s still okay. She’s sending me cat memes and complaining about how our mum is setting her up with contacts who have more masks and making cat memes about how our mum is setting her up with contacts who have more masks. It’s a horrible time right now, and the future can sometimes feel shrouded in darkness, but the light of the people around me and the love they have for one another keeps everything afloat.

Not all heroes wear capes: some wear a fogged-up mask that does make them look like a Mysterio x Derek Shepherd hybrid. My sister thought she would have time off for herself once, and she didn’t, but, like she said all the way back in that 2015 interview, she is saving lives and that is all that matters. I cannot put into words how proud I am of her, and I know she’ll be alright.

We’ll all be alright, in the end.


Edited by Ketki Mahabaleshwarkar