When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air

The room I stay is crowded with people like me–feverish and sick patients who peer above their face masks from time to time and feel like they are drowning as they struggle to take in gulps of breath. Although the room is crowded, a group of newly arrived patients take their seats on empty chairs. They are so scared and morose. We all wallow in the same feeling and ask the same questions: is it today we die? Doctors and nurses scurry about, sheathed in their protective garbs, unrecognized by even their co-workers. No one is taking chances.

I continue with my breathing exercise. I turn to the bed next to mine, it has a different person on it. In this place, you are faced with just two choices: walk out of the door alive or be carried out dead. No one is allowed in here, not your friends, not your family–you die amid strangers.

It’s hard to peer into faces here because masks hinder you from getting a good glimpse. But I eventually realise she’s a little girl. She smiles, trying to break the ice. I smile back. She tries to speak. I can’t make out the words; they turn to vapor as they reach the mask. Her face is a crimson red every time she tries to breathe through her mask.

“You will be alright ” I whisper to her.

This jolts me into nolstagia. The hospital is riddled with the smell of disinfectant, as I flurry through corridors wheeling Nana after she complains of shortness of breath. Later that day, as the doctor, in a subdued voice, explains the nature of the illness, I fall into shock.

“Covid-19. It’s critical now, we might have to take her to the ICU. “

I mutter these words for hours hoping to wish it away, hoping it is just another joke. I start making incessant visits to the ICU, and each time I watch my baby breathe through a tube, I mist up. I hold her hands during her moments of consciousness.

“Mummy,” she says, “I don’t want to sleep anymore, I want to go home. The tube hurts so much.” I tell her everything would be alright, even though I don’t believe it.

One of those tumultuous days, I rush to the hospital, after receiving an emergency text from the doctor. Heart racing, blood pulsing, I dash into the hospital. I am ten minutes late; my baby isn’t breathing anymore. A feeling of numbness suffuses my entire being, whisking me out of the hospital. My heart is broken. 

Forgotten emotions crawl back into my heart. I feel a strong urge to protect the girl on the bed next to mine. She is so young and sweet, like my Nana. But how do you protect when you are in the same condition?

“What’s your name?” I ask.


I nod. Ireti. Hope.

We don’t say so much to ourselves; but while we still can, we continue breathing.



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