How fortunate that I didn’t waste years in medical school studying epidemiology, as we are all experts now. Poor old Dr Fauci, the White House medical expert, was slogging away for decades under all those presidential administrations when he probably could have played golf instead. “Loser”, as Donald Trump might say.
This was confirmed in a conversation I had in a taxi on the way to a dental appointment. We were talking about the BioNTech/Pfizer breakthrough, and the driver asked if I’d take the vaccine. “Absolutely,” I confirmed. “Would you?” I asked. “Never,” he replied. “Why not?” I responded. “Remember thalidomide,” said the voice of doom, and I just about lost it. Thalidomide was a drug, not a vaccine, and much has changed in the sixty years since that tragedy.
Apart from everyone now knowing all about epidemiology, 2020 has taught us many other things – to be kind, to be grateful, to wear face masks, to sanitise, to Zoom and to make sourdough bread. It has been one helluva year. But some days just encompass all of life and that, for me, was Friday the 13th.
In these lockdown days, I find myself dressing down and wearing running shoes, despite my penchant for heels. Because almost everyone is wearing masks, lipstick sales are down, something else that, pre-pandemic, I assiduously applied.
So I was caught off guard when I ambled into Marks & Spencer in my leopard print sneakers, only to see someone I had worked with on Fleet Street when Fleet Street was still the Street of Shame. “Richard,” I blurted out to someone who was clearly wary of being recognised and, in that instant, I was catapulted back to the time when I was just starting out in journalism, and he was not quite yet a rising star. It was as if I was tumbled in a time machine when all the years and experiences had disappeared.
But those years and experiences had passed. In that period, I had achieved many of my journalistic goals, including going to Kabul, where I met Carmel. Later that afternoon of the 13th, I would attend her virtual funeral. Carmel was three weeks short of her sixtieth birthday when she succumbed to cancer. For someone as accomplished as Carmel, she was incredibly humble. She spoke seven languages fluently, and her sister said that in high school she had won debates in both English and French. She was an Ontario scholar who trained as an international lawyer. Most profoundly, she was a humanitarian in the true sense of the word and had worked in war zones from Afghanistan to South Sudan.
The service was live-streamed from her hometown of Stouffville, Ontario. The priest said that Carmel, who was a devout Catholic, asked him: “How do you die?” I think this was perhaps the worst moment for me. As a very private person, not many people knew she was sick, and not me. We spoke when I was in Toronto and had planned to get together. Lockdown was easing, but I was grieving the loss of my father, and our meeting never happened, which I will regret forever. Carmel would be with Jesus, the priest said, and that must have given her great comfort.
As Richard and I talked, he asked if I would remove my mask and so, for a nanosecond, I did, confirming the lesson of 2020: always wear lipstick.