"Be safe"

Safety is more than a synonym or a metaphor. It is a prayer. I hope you will not have to go through what I just did.


When I say, “Be safe”, I am asking you to be kind to yourself. I am asking that you remember to wear your mask right across your face without any gaps that are likely to expose you to the risks the world is now thick with.

When I ask you to be safe, I am hoping you will remember that surgical masks are one-time use and that if you are using other kinds of masks, you know the extent of protection they offer, and do not stretch them beyond it.

When I utter “mask” every time you step out on one of your short walks, it means I am whispering a reminder that you know to keep a safe distance from neighbours and acquaintances you might meet during your walks. It is me fervently hoping that when you run into someone, you will bring your palms together to greet them from a great distance, and keep to your side of the road and then walk away.

When I say “safety”, the word is more than a synonym or a metaphor. It is a prayer. It is me hoping you will not have to repeat the experience I have had, wherein one is sequestered from the world for weeks on end, often at the end of the tether.

It is a lonely place to be battling for breath and to have to be completely alone doing it, clinging to whatever remains of sanity when you are constantly in such a place— although, isn’t it true that each of us fight our battles alone?

This loneliness is not the one of choice that introverts like me often make. It is layered in different moods and moments. It is mostly about staring from one wall to another, learning every single item in your room by heart. It is about thinking of friends and family and how long since you last held a hand or pressed someone to your bosom. It is about wondering if there might indeed be time for you to finish that story you were writing.

It is also about learning by heart the views your room has to offer. In Kathmandu, it is the squalour, now donned in colours that range from pistachio to fuchsia. They stare back at you as you watch from the solitude of your room, observing neighbours, making a mental note of their daily activities, even though the last thing you want to do is to pry.

Some nights, the solitude will come back to bite as it leaves you reeling, your lungs as if knocked out of breath. And then you grovel, your head scooped in your palms, coughing into bedclothes, sometimes cursing, sometimes reminding yourself that you cannot let the virus stay and that you’re going to do everything to exorcise it from your body. But the virus is a vicious one and it slams you down, compelling you to lie prone sucking in only as much oxygen as your lungs have the capacity for just then.

You listen to the sounds of the night— they become an unending sad song as you try to calm a panic attack, reach for the can of supplemental oxygen and draw some puffs in. You wonder what might be the state of someone who has no access to such a can.

When I say "be safe", I am hoping that you do not have to queue up in public spaces to get a PCR test done. That you may always have the means to not risk closed spaces and long lines. But I am also hoping that the vaccination queues where you go with the hope for protection does not turn you away with the beginning of an infection.

I hope you do not have to lie in bed awake all night worrying about a cousin who is in the ICU or thinking about another cousin who passed away last week after weeks of battle against the virus.

The virus—how commonplace the term and its presence—threatens our very breath, making us toggle from fear to fear. It gives us a start every time a loved one sneezes or coughs.

“How terrible is this? I have to shun my own children,” the mother says, as she speaks from outside a shut door, through her mask at her child who is quarantined.

She wants to cradle her child in her arms, but all she can do is fill the plate with food that she believes will nurse her babe back to health. She puts it down at the threshold, then steps away quickly before the child opens the door to pick the plate and shut the door again, like some criminal.

I wish to shield you from experiences like these.

I wish that after picking your plate, you never have to stare at the food for an hour, wondering if your sore throat will burn as you swallow, wondering why everything tastes like nothing. And then nibble slowly, not knowing whether to love or hate the act of eating food that is now sans taste, sans fragrance, but you must eat even though you have no appetite.

I wish none of these to ever be your experience.

When I say “be safe”, I wish you are not in a country where the government wrestles to stay in power as people struggle to find hospital beds and oxygen cylinders and to put food on the plate. I wish you never find yourself in a situation where there is no room to isolate, or the means to buy medicines or food that will nourish you back to health.

“Be safe.” I want you to always have lungs that allow you breathe without having to lean on steroids or supplement oxygen. I want you to continue experiencing rain without worrying about catching pneumonia or bronchitis. I want you to outlive me.

Pratibha Tuladhar