The last time I said goodbye to my dad was in an airport. Like many people in Dubai, I’d been living abroad so long we had a practiced routine, but this time it was all too brief. The concourse was crowded; my seven-year-old daughter was fractious; I wanted to buy British magazines and my dad was eager to get back on the road.
As my daughter threw her arms around his neck and I leaned in to kiss him on the cheek, I never imagined for a moment that would be the last time I saw him. That other than on all-too-fleeting video calls, I’d never hear his voice again, experience one of his rib-cracking bear hugs, or even be able to attend his funeral.
It’s been almost a year since COVID-19 killed my dad and (other than my husband and daughter) I still haven’t been able to hug a single family member, return to the house I grew up in, or even say goodbye.
Losing a parent is one of the hardest things we ever have to experience; losing them to COVID-19 makes it a thousand times worse.
The risk every expat takes
If you choose to live in a different country from the one you were born in, or the one where the rest of your family live, there’s always a risk that a family member might get ill or be involved in an accident while you’re not there.
Most expats comfort themselves with the knowledge that if the worst comes to the worst, family is just a flight away, particularly when you live in Dubai, one of the most well-connected cities in the world.
Even from Perth, where I moved to from Dubai just before the pandemic, I knew I could get back to London, where I grew up, in the space of a day.
Or I could before COVID-19 hit and airlines slashed flights and passenger capacity, entire countries locked down and many places, including Australia, slammed their doors shut.
The cruelty of COVID-19
Before the pandemic hit, it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be there for my dad when he needed me. He wasn’t ill; if anything, he’d been on a health kick and was looking well right before he caught COVID. But once the virus got him in its clutches, it wouldn’t let go. He went into hospital with it on Tuesday and by the weekend, doctors told my stepmother there was nothing they could do. He died the following Thursday.
Australia had already closed its borders so there was no way I could get back to the UK. Even if I had been able to, I wouldn’t have been able to see him; hospitals weren’t allowing visitors due to the risk of catching the virus. In an amazing show of compassion, Chelsea and Westminster hospital, where my dad was admitted, did allow my stepmother to sit with my dad so that he wasn’t on his own as the life ebbed out of him. I will always be grateful for that.
An all too common pain
Over 100,000 in the UK and 2.5 million people in the world have been taken by COVID-19 and the figures are climbing all the time. Not only is it heart-breaking knowing that millions of people are suffering the way that I am, but it also feels wrong to lose my dad the same way as so many others when, to me, he was such an extraordinary man.
He truly was one of those people who leaves a mark or a memory on every person he meets. He loved coming to visit us in Dubai; he wanted to be friends with everyone – from our friends and neighbours to the compound security guys. It was so special to share that part of my life with him and some of my happiest memories are of him swimming in the pool or drinking black coffee on the balcony.
But even the brightest memories are edged by resentment because he was taken too soon. There’s so much I still needed to say to him, things I wanted to show him. We’ve moved countries and begun new lives that he’ll never get to know about. He’ll never see the book I wrote on the shelves. And worst of all, he’ll never get to see my daughter grow up. Trying to explain his loss to her has been hard, particularly as we haven’t been able to hold a funeral or mourn with the rest of our family. She doesn’t understand how the last time she saw him he wasn’t ill at all and then in the blink of an eye he was gone. But that’s the cruelty of COVID-19.
Looking to the future
I have to remind myself to be grateful for the time I did have with my dad and what a privilege it was to see him form a close bond with my daughter, spend time with me as an adult and know I achieved my dream of having a book published. The proposed cover was one of the last things my stepmother showed him before he lost consciousness. That’s something I hold onto.
And now, when I see my friends in the UAE and the UK, queuing up to get vaccinated, I feel the first stirrings of hope. As soon as I’m eligible for the vaccine in Australia, I’ll be rolling up my sleeve. I’m counting the days until I can jump on the first flight back to the UK to see my family again and to hold friends and loved ones tight. I just have to get used to knowing that my beloved dad won’t be among them.
Polly Phillips is a British author and mum of one who moved to Dubai in 2016, and whose addictive and twisty psychological thriller ‘My Best Friend’s Murder’ won the Emirates Literary Festival book prize in 2019. Her book is now published by Simon and Schuster and is available to buy as a hard copy or in e-book on www.Amazon.co.uk