Life and Death at a Distance
We all now live in an era of great loss, but each loss is personal
The virologist who founded our firm closed our office ahead of the curve.
We packed up our laptops and notebooks. The pessimistic among us, sensing this would not be a short hiatus, took their plants. By a window overlooking Boston, my orchid withers.
Yet for a craft so linked to biology (molecules, organs, human life) our work is remarkably distant from the physical world. We are not battlefield heroes like nurses, physicians or grocery clerks. Aside for a colleague who moonlights as an ER doc, we assume no physical risk. We don’t even go to a lab where experiments depend on our presence.
Instead we work remote, grateful to still get a paycheck. The studies we design are executed by contract research labs on the other side of the world, as usual. I read patents and papers, write business plans, analyze data, negotiate deals in redlined Word docs. Even hiring for our companies can be done from afar.
So after a couple days in my 300ft² urban studio, I returned to my childhood home on Martha’s Vineyard.
My mum and little brother weren’t home yet, so I set up to work from my dad’s old office. I hadn’t stepped inside since helping the curator who had come to archive his files from decades reporting on wars and writing history. The boxes, numbered in thick black sharpie up to 25, are stacked in one corner.
A year ago today, in the middle of his last book tour, he died from sudden heart failure.
In retrospect, I could have worked from another room. For the first week in his office, I felt nothing. It is hard to feel, when you bury yourself in the charges and orientations of structures almost too small to comprehend, molecules that inhabit a microscopic world of physics and chemistry where life makes much more sense. There were other rooms.
Instead my camera is positioned so you can’t see the boxes. On video calls, the occasional colleague notes the many shelves of books; one jocularly inquires if I’ve read them all. I remark, not yet, but maybe now I’ll have the time.
It turns out I won’t have the time. Medical crises call for medical solutions. We’re inundated by pitches targeting COVID-19. Biotechnology is ascendant.
So I wake up early and get to work, but also run in the woods with my dog between calls. I bug my brother about his schoolwork. I help preeminent scientists unmute microphones and share their screens to present, questioning how humanity has solved so many of the world’s worst diseases yet still can’t seem to establish a reliable video conference.
I wonder what it’d be like if my dad were still here. What he’d think about all this, how much chess we’d play (we had always played a lot of chess). Each night my mum cooks an incredible dinner and sometimes I set our table for four by accident.
We feel lucky to live like this when so many can’t, and unlucky that he’s gone.
All of us now live in an era of great loss, but each loss is personal.
Thousands of people die every day from this virus; thousands of others from the more quotidian scourges of cancer, heart disease, and neurodegeneration.
But he was our person.
One day, I play chess for the first time in a year with a friend’s son over Zoom. I expect cosmic significance, but it’s just a game against a sharp eight year old.
Months into quarantine we’ve gone a bit stir crazy. My brother tried to bleach his afro blonde and now it’s orange. My mum communes with the oxen at the farm just up the river. I rediscover a favorite high school biology textbook and decide now’s the time to finally learn my amino acids. Then I get distracted by a book my dad had annotated in his vigorous scrawl.
I find him there, in the margins and the empty spaces.
Patterns emerge—hard-coded biology across generations. I realize the same frenetic rhythm in my work. Like him, I don’t sleep well: I have vivid, bizarre dreams. I revisit our emails and adapt his sense of humor to entertain my new correspondents. At one point my laptop dies unexpectedly and staring into the sudden blackness of the screen I see his reflection.
As a molecular biologist who studies disease for a living, I am intimate with death. After my mum survived cancer when I was eight — thanks to chemo, surgery, and radiation; an omakase of biomedical intervention — I’d expected that she would die first. When I grew old enough to read my parents’ books, I started with hers. Before I even really knew what death was, I’d begun to steel myself to lose her, not him.
Yet I’m grateful that my dad, a man so active and engaged with the physical world, never learned weakness or confusion: he left at the peak of his game.
I’m grateful that he made it to sixty at all.
This was a war reporter who was shot at by snipers in Bosnia; who sailed through naval mines in the Persian Gulf; who once stood in front of military bulldozers to stop Iraqi soldiers pulverizing Iranian corpses.
A man who, after reporting for three days nonstop during the Gulf War, slept straight through the shelling of Kuwait in the back of a military jeep.
He and my mum—also a war reporter—knew death up close.
Until this virus, most people expected to be near their loved ones at the end. I was ten thousand miles away, at the end of a trip the likes of which this virus has rendered fantasy, a week from surprising him for his 61st birthday before starting my new job.
I wouldn’t trade the chance to say goodbye for the pain that would’ve come if he’d had to recognize death. He got to skip all that. Instead we reconnect now, in his library and a couple of his books I haven’t yet read: conversations with a best friend, waiting to be had.
Mostly, I’m grateful for all our good years together. I just mourn that we didn’t get twenty more.
And so I dream to steal from death. Every time I hear a pitch or envision a new technology, I reflect on whether it will save lives or buy time. As a venture capitalist in biotech, the best way to calculate most opportunities is to tally the casualties: the clearest measure of unmet medical need. The cold hard arithmetic of biomedical prioritization in a world with limited resources.
The grimmer the disease the more I want to get involved. Google Search is convinced I have cancer and shows me ads for chemo. Like a first-year med student, I’ve developed hypochondria (and the pandemic isn’t helping). Dad was the opposite: to him, it would always turn out alright in the end.
One night, unable to fall asleep, I steal from death another way.
I cast my mind into a parallel universe, where he’s still alive and I’m coming home on the ferry from that long trip abroad. I feel the swell of the ocean as the boat nears the island, the sway of the gangplank crossing onto land. I see him in his worn jeans and a cool black jacket, brilliant smile, standing there as he would.
We close the distance, embrace, and walk to the car. We drive home.
I don’t imagine our conversation, nothing about what was said or what it meant. I just imagine the hug, down to the scratch of his jacket beneath my chin. I remember that hug.
And then I sleep.