Major Benjamin Balthazar Heraldo Ignatius Tom checked into hospital on March 28th. For a week he’d had a dry cough, slight fever, lack of energy and, over the last few days, some difficulty breathing. For a while longer than that – a few years, perhaps, by his observation – he’d also suffered from a somewhat scattered mind; not confused, exactly, but lacking in clarity; and that had made it hard for him to know what to do, especially with so much information – so much uncertain information – and so many opinions going around. It was difficult to gauge what was fact and what was fake, and he was caught between a sense of civic duty not to add pressure to the health system, and not wanting to imperil himself through inaction. Eventually Tessa, his desperate wife, got him into the car and drove him to hospital, where she was told by hospital staff to go home.

As requested by the admittance forms, he obediently wrote out, in full, his four first names, which had been piecemealed together by his parents between his conception and birth out of references to minor celebrities and obscure artists. In his professional days in the military he had, of course, been Major Tom, which quickly became an old joke and which he felt undermined his position and the respect it should have demanded. But to his friends he’d always just been Tom. His title was still “Major”, though, and that is what he always wrote out on forms (where it was never offered as an option he could simply tick or underline, like “Dr” or “Mr”).

Hospital protocol demanded that he be accordingly addressed as Major Tom. The nurses, despite their stress, or perhaps because of it, delighted in it; they got a kick out of “hello, Major Tom” and ” how are you feeling, Major Tom?” On his first evening in the hospital, at dinner time, he had to be roused from a sleep, and he woke up to a nurse softy nudging his shoulder, saying “Ground control to Major Tom,” which stuck, and which all the nurses started using as a standard greeting.

On the second morning he was moved to intensive care and given oxygen. His test results hadn’t come back yet but his condition had worsened and the doctor felt his symptoms were sufficient, and sufficiently severe, to assume he had the disease. 

The hospital, Tom thought, seemed to be in a state of limbo, or purgatory. The ward was almost but not quite full. The staff seemed to be on edge, anticipating something that hadn’t yet come. 

He felt he, too, was entering a kind of in-between state that he’d seen his grandfather in years before: after several days recovering in hospital, his Pappi had no idea if it were day or night. Already, Tom struggled to remember what day of the week it was, though perhaps that was just an extension of having been home under lockdown for a week. At times, the scene around him seemed to become a blur of white, pale blue and silver. Voices were indistinct, mixed with the beeps and breaths of medical equipment around him. 

Late in the day, amidst this haze, he felt himself floating in a most peculiar way, and in a half-dream he recalled with fondness the poster he’d had on his wall when he was sixteen, of David Bowie as an astronaut. He’d spent many hours listening to Space Oddity and looking at that poster and, though he never made it into space, Tom felt that the poster had somehow guided or at least accompanied him through the course of his life. He had wanted to be an artist (he’d drawn his own versions of that poster), a writer, a philosopher. But he’d been conscripted into the army after school and, somehow, never left. It wasn’t that he’d wanted to be a soldier, but he was good at it, and he sensed the structure was healthy for him: he’d worried he might otherwise become a deadbeat or a junkie, and at difficult times he’d thought of the poster and it had somehow made him feel better, as if he were in space, unconstrained, un-suffocated, able to breath.

“Ground control to Major Tom?” he heard a woman ask. When he opened his eyes a nurse was looking at him softly. 

“We need to put you on a ventilator.”

“Has my wife been to visit me?” Tom asked a nurse the next day, wondering if Tessa might have come while he was sleeping.

“She’s not allowed to. I’m sorry. It’s not safe.”

Tom mourned, for himself and for Tessa. In normal circumstances, he considered, loved ones are there at bedsides, but these are not normal circumstances. In a moment of acute pain and fear he sobbed, audibly, abruptly, once only, then lay in silence, picturing Tessa at home, on her own, sitting in a chair, thinking of him, feeling the same helplessness.

They had saved each other. More than once.

In 1982, on a weekend pass, Tom had paid Tessa for sex. But afterward they had kept talking until the morning. By sunrise, they knew they would stay together.

“Could you be with a prostitute?” she’d asked him.

“I can be with someone who has been a prostitute, but I won’t have you sleeping with other people if you’re mine.”

“Then I’ll stop.”

“Could you be with a drug addict?”

“Are you one?”

“I think maybe I am becoming one.”

“What drugs?”

“Marijuana, LSD, mescaline. But I feel like I would try anything.”

“I can’t be with you if you are using drugs.”

“Then I’ll stop.”

And he did. And she did. Tom continued his career in the military. Tessa slowly built up a gardening and landscaping business. Once, while on holiday overseas, they had passed a truck with the words Major Tom’s Ground Control – Gardening Services. “Why didn’t we think of that?” Tessa had lamented.

They had also lost their only child. When she was eight years old, Francis had gone home with a friend after school. Two blocks from the friend’s home, a car went through a red light and hit the passenger side where Francis was sitting. She died before the ambulance arrived. The friend’s mother had phoned; Tessa knew as soon as she heard the woman’s voice. 

“This sadness will never go away. There’s a hole that can never be filled,” Tessa said.

“No. But we can get each other through it,” Tom said.

He didn’t know how, and if you asked him now he wouldn’t be able to recall or explain; but they did get each other through it. They cried together, were quiet together, and slowly started to do normal things together, even though it never really felt normal. It still hurt, decades later, but they were able to laugh again; they were able to better appreciate branches swaying in the wind and crisp, clean sheets and the smell of freshly ground coffee and the smiles of passing strangers.

Now Tom wondered if they would see each other’s smiles again.

“Are you afraid of dying? I am afraid of dying,” Tom had confessed to Tessa one evening when they were in the garden drinking tea. “It’s not that I fear what’s waiting, or that there is nothing waiting. It’s that I don’t want my time to be cut short.” That was maybe twenty years ago, but the feeling had not gone away. He was now not yet seventy – by today’s standards, not an old man – and could reasonably expect another ten good years, at least.

“I don’t know if there is anything more scary to us than dying,” Tessa said. “Maybe that fear is the reason we do all the best and worst things that we do.” 

They made love in the garden that evening; a lovemaking they both remembered and sometimes reminded each other of. 

Tom recalled other times they had made love. The time they were on holiday in Venice. The time they moved into their house, before they unpacked. A time that had nothing exceptional or different about it other than that he remembered it. 

He wanted to remember all the times. He wished they were available to him to play back on demand. Why should some events be remembered and so many be forgotten? Are they not all valuable?

His phone rang, and it was Tessa.

“They say I can’t come see you,” she said, weeping. “It’s awful.”


There had been no improvement by the fourth morning. Breathing was a physical and emotional strain. In one of the many articles he’d read in those first, uncertain, panic-stricken days of the disease, someone had described it as feeling like you were drowning.

Only once in his life had Tom felt anything like that, when he was dumped by a wave, tumbled so viciously around that he didn’t know which way was up, and powerless to the force of the water. He’d taken a lot of water in, and when the wave subsided and he found his way back to the surface it took him what felt like much longer than a few moments to remember how to breathe.

This didn’t feel like that. The wave was brutal in its suddenness. This was a slow burn. Uncomfortable, to be sure, but the real agony was in the uncertainty. Would it get better or worse?

He had read that one of the characteristics of resilience was the ability to face reality. Optimism, it said, was not necessarily an asset in a crisis. The theory was that if you know and are realistic about what you might be dealing with, you are better equipped for it. That makes sense, but how, he wondered, are you supposed to deal with the possibility of your own death, or the death of those closest to you? You cannot scenario plan that. There is no if-this-then-that. Death is not job loss or financial hardship or emergency measures. Death is final and absolute. And you deal with it however you deal with it, if you are the survivor. Or not, if you are not.

When the enormity of the pandemic began to dawn on people, Tessa said she thought the world was going through a collective mourning. She saw in herself and others denial, bargaining, depression and anger (but at that point, not yet acceptance), often at the same time.

“We are scared we may die, or people we love may die,” she said, “but we are grieving because something in all of us is dying.”

“Maybe some of our stupidity will die, too,” Tom had said. “Maybe we’ll realise how obscene it is what people earn to run after a ball on a football pitch. Probably not, but maybe we’ll start to appreciate teachers and nurses more.”

“Major Tom?”

Tom opened his eyes and looked at a nurse.

“Ground control?” he replied.

The nurse laughed. Tom smiled. He had maintained a sense of humour. That was something the resilience article should have mentioned.


By day five the ward had got busier and Tom’s condition had got worse. His medication had him drifting in and out of consciousness. He dreamt he was in space, one man sitting in a tin can far above the world.

Communication with ground control was erratic. Was it because everyone was sick? “Stay put,” they commanded him, “you’re better off.” His military training compelled him to follow orders, but it was against his will. He didn’t want to be up there, alone. He wanted to be with Tessa. But he couldn’t get back to earth without ground control’s help. Nothing to do but float, wait, hope.

And hope, he knew, coming out of his dream, was something. Hope was more than faith. It was a sensible somewhere between fantasy and surrender, preferable both to wishing and giving up.

In more lucid moments, Tom was able to take in what was happening around him, and there had been a change since he arrived in intensive care. There were more beds in the ward, he thought, and they were all occupied. There was more movement, and greater pace. There was more urgency, and greater desperation. When he thought he heard a doctor say something about a shortage of ventilators, he wondered if being on one meant he was depriving someone else, and if he might be costing someone else their life.

He imagined the hospital waiting rooms filled with sick people, and doctors having to decide who would get treated and who wouldn’t. And he wondered if a doctor having to make such a choice might feel more personally responsible and more traumatised than a soldier killing an enemy. And then he was back in space.


Tom had no idea that his sixth day was his sixth, or even that it was day. It was simply shades of darkness and lightness. His life was not yet flashing before him, but in the moments of light he attempted to relive the best of times. Francis, of course. Her birth. Her birthdays. Her first ice cream. Her pretty green floral dress. Her arms around his neck, as she kissed his forehead.

Then darkness.

Then lightness. His own boyhood. Sitting on his dad’s shoulders. His mom putting a plaster on a cut. A swim in a tidal pool he couldn’t remember the location of. His best friend David (did David know he was ill, Tom wondered?); the two of them riding their bikes; the two of them giggling in his bedroom; the two of them talking about girls. The first time he kissed a girl. 


Then light again. His parents’ pride at him finishing school. The road trip they took that summer. Introducing them to Tessa; Tessa’s nervousness. He and Tessa going to see Pulp Fiction, staying in the cinema after it ended so they could watch it again straight away. He and Tessa going dancing. He and Tessa making a paella. He and Tessa drinking coffee in bed in the morning. He and Tessa…


Light. Tessa laughing. Tessa crying. Did he speak to her on the phone today? 



The seventh day.

“Ground control to Major Tom.” 

The nurse feeding him breakfast. 

The ward disappearing into a blur.

The nurse wiping his chin. The nurse trying to be cheerful. The nurse being tender. The nurse holding back tears. 

The breaths, shallow and laboured. 

The phone next to his bed. The silence.

The nurse’s hand around his. The nurse’s eyes looking into his. 

The weightlessness of his body. The poster on his bedroom wall. Francis’ voice, after all this time. Tessa’s tender smile.

The nurse listening to Tom slowly getting the words out.

“Tell my wife… I love her very much.”

*Illustrations and inspiration by Clint Bryce. (Thanks buddy.)