How to kill time with your phone

Image of Long Story Short Award - 2022
Image of Creative Nonfiction
"The fifth wave of Covid is hitting Hong Kong. Over 12,000 confirmed cases awaiting hospitalization. People rushed to public hospitals by different public transports." The news report from my ‘living room' woke me up. I live in a tiny studio flat, so my ‘living room', ‘bedroom', ‘kitchen' is the same. Never mind. This is common in our city. Living atop the busiest street, I used to hear the hustle and bustle of traffic, and drunk people drunk bursting out wild laughter ‪until 3 am‬. Yet now, it is so oddly silent. Is this the so-called calm before the storm?‬

Amidst every chaos happening in the world and scattered thoughts in my head, I started to scan through my phone, Instagram, Facebook then messaging on WhatsApp. Wait, it's "Meta" anyway. I have done with all updates but still feel extremely bored, so I started to look at my photo album. Those were the fun days where I had gatherings with friends, outings and fabulous suppers. Suddenly, I stopped at one photo and could't stop staring at it. I felt a sweet and bitter wave of warmth. I saw familiar faces, very familiar indeed. I took a selfie during an extended family gathering photo. In tradition, we had dinner on the last day of Lunar Year.

At one side of the table, the only old lady in the house was holding the bowl of food chopped into very fine pieces. She was my grandma. After that dinner, I sent her to the hospital as she felt unwell. We were not allowed to visit grandma because of the worsening covid situation. Until after ten days, we received a call from the hospital that we could visit grandma due to "special conditions". We immediately did all the procedures required by the government then the hospital, registration, check-in, temperature recording, health declaration and Covid quick test. Finally, my dad could see his mother. He did not say a word on the way to the hospital.

To my shock, he came out after seconds. He said the nurse would not allow him to get in as he was not vaccinated. So what was the negative Covid quick test result which costed us hundreds of dollars for? I just wished my dad could see his mom finally. The best thing I could do was to facilitate a video call. I entered the ward, after another round of procedures, I showed my father's face on my phone to grandma. She was so excited but the sound and visuals on the call were not clear. She was trying to wave her hand, but my dad couldn't notice her movements, as if grandma did not react at all. I have never tried so hard to make communication sound that obvious. "Grandma is waving to you, Dad" "Dad misses you he is just right outside this pair of (thick, cold and locked) doors." As I was trying to "fit in" between their conversation, grandma and dad were very focused and looking into each other's eyes, on the phone screens. No further words were spoken, yet a million thoughts were exchanged. It was all silent, but all at peace.

At last, grandma did not make it out of the hospital. I rolled my eyes and hardly took a deep breath, fearing that my tears would come out, again. That night when I sent my grandma to the hospital, she proudly told me, "I am 97 years old." As I recalled, a gentle smile naturally came out from my face.

In the photo, next to my grandma was a mid-aged lady. She recently has more white hair, bent shoulders, and a hoarse voice. She was the sole caregiver of my grandmother. She was also my aunt. After two months of medical consultation and checking, she was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer, spread to her ribs, liver and cervical spine. As I stared at the photo, my mind went black. My neck muscles strained so hard as if a giant eagle was grabbing me from behind and I was paralyzed. I wanted to support her more, but I don't want to disturb her. It takes time for her to accept that she may not have much time left to live, or her mother she has been living with for over 50 years has passed away. There was nothing much I could do. Will I waste her time if I just call her now?

I swiped away the photo and continued further up to older times as if I could escape from the reality and go back in time when all of these have not yet happened.

Then I saw another photo. My family were at the airport bidding farewell to our beloved sister, who was embarking on her new adventure in the States. I have never been to the airport for two years now, you know why, nor I have been at the airport not with excitement but feeling sentimental and nostalgic. While we were saying "see you again until don't know when" to my sister, a lot of other families were saying goodbyes. Full of tears and hugs at the gates of the restricted area for departure. What a scene. Since 2019, a lot of my friends have left Hong Kong to seek a better place to live in, but among all, I miss my little sister most. Thanks to the 12-hour time difference, our chit-chat was mainly "Good morning. Goodnight."

We took another photo when my mom cooked her favourite home dishes the night before my sister departed, and she was holding Puff. I first met Puff in 2007 when he was two-month-old. At first, we picked his sibling, a blue British short-hair female cat, Chloe, just because she looked cuter. I was young but old enough to know the importance of a family. "Mom, take that skinny little cream brother as well, pleaseeee." I begged. "We could not separate them. They would be happier growing up together, like me and my sisters." We were glad that every single day in the past 14 years Puff and Chloe were around us.

Chloe left us in 2020. She had a tumor in her cheek, so we had to feed her all sorts of fluids, milk and medicine, in her last days. Every meal, she endeavored to sip just one spoon which I gave her bit by bit, even her tears wet her tiny, cute but swollen face. She was too old for surgery. One day, I again gently passed her the spoon. She suddenly walked away and stood at the other end of the corridor. She looked into my eyes. I could tell she wanted to give up. My heart ached like it was falling apart, but not as much as she felt I bet. Tears just simultaneously came out from my face, as well as in hers. We let her go to sleep the next day.

Unlike Chloe, Puff loves eating. His routine daily ‘morning call' for food at 7 am woke our entire family up every day in the past 14 years. One day in the morning after my youngest sister left Hong Kong, we did not hear him yelling. My mom found Puff lying underneath the piano, no longer breathing. The warmth of his body faded. He was gone. Chloe would have envied him leaving so easily. Anyway, I hope he was now back with Chloe in the rainbow fighting and playing with each other again. Was grandma with them now?

I should put down my phone. It hurts.

News about the global pandemic and political tensions have been flying around on social media networks, while everyone has been crazily obsessed with headlines and then keep believing in what they believe. My scattered thoughts only stopped wandering until I reviewed my photo album to reminisce what I saw, heard, felt, experienced and loved. I could see again the ones I no longer see. But now, I also want to put down my phone to see those while I still can. Yet, lockdown makes me see no one.

Here's what I promised at the beginning. I have wasted some precious minutes of your lifetime. What will you do now?