COVID killed my Tito, my uncle.
I feel dizzy. My lips and fingers go numb. I can’t control my breathing. I call my friend. He sets the pace for us to inhale and exhale as one. Another dear friend drops off a flower — an orchid. The striking purple blossoms of the phalaenopsis make me feel less alone, enough to cry myself unconscious.
A few days later, Tita passes away too.
In my apartment, hundreds of miles away, my laptop streams my psychiatry class while my phone livestreams Tita’s burial.
I wish to disappear, but the proud orchid holds my gaze. Native to many communities including the Philippines, each flower’s center has lips that invite pollinators to enter and taste its gold-flecked throat. A crown of five purple petals come together to form star-shaped blossoms. In the midst of despair, its beauty asserts defiance. It dares me to remember my chosen family’s advice, “Grow gardens around your pain.”
At the center of my kitchen table, the orchid listens to my family’s video calls.
One night, Mom calls and weeps as she recounts all the patients who died. Like so many of my Filipinx loved ones, she was redeployed to COVID Intensive Care Units (ICU). She cries for the loved ones who couldn’t even bury their beloved. Us too.
During this purgatory, I take Dad’s advice and talk to my plant: “You grow, girl!” Meanwhile, the COVID toll rises. Another Tito dies. Another Tita becomes a widow. I soak my pillow with tears, pregnant with fear. I know the odds are not in our favor: Although Filipinx nurses make up just 4% of nurses nationwide, they comprise more than a quarter of nurses who have died of COVID-19 and its complications in the U.S. “Is Mom next?” The soul aches.
To metabolize and make sense of the pain, my friends prescribe learning my people’s history. It turns out that when the U.S. colonized the Philippines, they created nursing schools that taught Westernized medicine, creating a cheaper labor supply to fill the nursing shortages in the States. The shortages in the 1980s brought Mom to NYC. The positions that Filipinx folx often filled were the positions that no one else wanted. My blood boils.
During the summer of 2020, heat rises while my orchid blooms. I take to the streets. During vigils organized by Black Lives Matter New Haven and City Wide Youth Coalition, we say the names of those we lost to “both pandemics: the virus and the violence of structural racism.”
Say her name! Breonna Taylor!
Say his name! George Floyd!
Say his name! Ahmaud Arbery!
Say his name! Mubarak Soulemane!
Say his name! Angelo Quinto!
I say Tito’s and Tita’s names as well. In collective protest and prayer, we honor our ancestors, continuing their struggle towards Black and mutual liberation.
Eventually, the last petal falls. Crowds disperse. Winter is here. As a psychiatry resident, I am confined to the route between hospital and home again. No buds. No growth. We’re stuck. What’s left?
But I water it anyway. I learn about the dormant phase of the orchid’s life cycle. As Filipina American author Jenny Odell writes in “How To Do Nothing,” there is energy, feminine energy, that is channeled in maintenance. In a world where there’s so much pressure to produce, I turn to this flower’s wisdom in creating a “third space” of resisting binaries and asking, “Why? What does it look like to just ‘be’?” Just as Odell writes about “Old Survivor,” the only 500-year-old redwood left standing from the time before all the redwoods were logged in the Gold Rush in Oakland, CA, to survive is to “resist in place” or “to make oneself into a shape that cannot so easily be appropriated by a capitalist value system.”
I pay attention to the presence of its glossy green leaves, its gravity-defying stem. It takes resistance and strength to hold its ground. My orchid teaches that in each season, it is enough. I am enough.
I treasure a postcard from 1920, when the Philippines was still a U.S. colony. It’s a photo of my maternal great-grandmother. She sits tall in her traditional Filipiniana gown holding a bouquet of flowers. On the back is a poem celebrating friendship.
A hundred years later, my great-grandmother lives in me: I, too, say thank you, friends and flowers, for being, for being with me.
As seasons change, we persist.
We testify that not only are agony and grief in our garden, but also beauty, joy, community, and power. These too are my inheritance and my birthright.
How vital it is to know that we are not the first.
We are not the last.
We are here, and we will continue to be here.
I channel my elders and chant,
Photo credit: Nichole Roxas
Last modified: August 25, 2022