Coronavirus: This is bigger than all of us but it’s about every single one of us
The true measure of who we are is the care we take of each other
Rebecca Long with Fergal Keyes. “If he was here now, in the midst of this global health crisis, he would be part of the most vulnerable section of society. People with chronic diseases. People who are immunocompromised.”
A tree grows on the seaward side of Bray Head, about halfway up, above the rest of the canopy. It is the point beyond which I have to ask something of myself to keep climbing, to keep moving upward.
I think of Fergal Keyes every time I reach that tree. Every time I pause there for breath, for the strength to keep going. I think of what he did, every day, carrying a burden that would have taken the rest of us into the ground.
Fergal Keyes was my boyfriend, my best friend in all the world. His presence in the lives of the people who knew him goes beyond any words I could write to describe it. He was magic.
He lived with Cystic Fibrosis, a genetically inherited disease of which Ireland has the highest incidence in the world. Think about that for a moment. On an island the size of ours.
If he was here now, in the midst of this global health crisis, he would be part of the most vulnerable section of society. People with chronic diseases. People who are immunocompromised. People who are tired to their very bones from the effort of vigilance, from the burden of responsibility they already have to take up every single day when it comes to their own health.
On the 16th of October 2017, as Storm Ophelia was raging across the country, Fergal went on oxygen in St Vincent’s hospital. And we didn’t know it then, but life had changed forever.
Sometimes, during the long nights, we would make a dark amusement for ourselves and guess at how it happened. How the world had changed so much. The checkout assistant who didn’t cough into their elbow. The invisible dangers of dirty money. The unknown stranger at the gig. We would never get our answer but the change remained regardless. And the unthinkable became normal. As life got harder, we lived it deeper.
He made his resolve from the steel of his own character. And his heart was as big as the world. There was no end to him. There is no end to him.
What could I have said to him in the face of this pandemic? Trust the people around us, they’ll look out for us? Take them at their word because they will respect the effort and the sheer will that you put into living, into surviving? Have faith in them because they’ll take on the private sacrifices that you have made every day of your life and make them ten times over without looking for praise?
How could I have said that to him? Asked him to trust a world that seems to have lost the meaning of the word community. A world that doesn’t seem to realise that none of us live in a vacuum. That the very least we do as human beings is affect each other. By our presence and our absence.
This is bigger than all of us. And it’s about every single one of us. So let me ask you this. Why are you making someone else’s life harder because of your behaviour? Why are you endangering the life of someone you’ve never met because you are not courageous enough to make simple changes to your routine? Why does your existence matter more than someone else’s? Your actions reflect what your believe.
Fergal died on the 2nd of December 2018. Before this pandemic began and life changed all over again, I would talk to him all the time. I would tell him how much I wished he was here. Now I tell him how grateful I am that he doesn’t have to face this. Because he faced so much. Because he gave the world everything it asked of him and more. And he did it with that world never knowing how much it cost him.
I witnessed that cost. His mother witnessed it. Our families. Our friends. The people who were brave enough to look.
People like Fergal are paying that cost every day. People you know. People whose lives are beyond your comprehension.
This is my testament.
I would give the world away to see him again.
But not now. Not when people still don’t understand that the measure of who we are is the care we take of each other. The love we give out without expecting it in return.
There is a sadness at the heart of my life that will never be cured. A sadness for him. A sadness for us. A sadness for everyone who loved him. And you couldn’t meet Fergal Keyes without falling in love with him. He knew that sadness. He carried it for his sister Gráinne. He carried it for his brother Darragh. He carried it for everyone who struggled and suffered. Because he cared more than anyone I’ve ever met.
He lived. There was no limit to his magic. But life should not have been so hard for him.
Do the best you can. Because he did. Be brave. Because he was.
And ask yourself if you could look him in the eye if he was here.
That will be the measure of you.