For those waiting to see elderly parents who live in other countries, there is a sense of helplessness in a time of Covid-19
A mother gives a child a name and then Alzheimer's steals it from her. Most days, Radhika's mother can't remember and then sometimes, amid the slivers and flakes of remaining memory, she will find her daughter's name.
"Radha," she'll suddenly say and then, like a lamp in a callous wind, the winking light of recognition will extinguish.
They'll be talking on WhatsApp video, the mother listening over 4,000km away in Delhi, the daughter in Singapore talking about old movies and chicken dinners. It's like a role-reversal of bedtime tales. It is love at long distance, but now, among the many things that haunt Radhika, who last saw her mother in February, is this:
"Let that not be the last time I see her."
Maids, crane operators, bankers, me, all those from foreign lands unable to visit home because of Covid-19, wonder about last times. Last times we watched football with fathers who live in distant lands and last times we went for a walk with mothers in faraway towns. It's not distance we fear in a time of the virus, but uncertainty.
When can we see them again? No one wants to say, will we ever?
Family was always just there, a cab ride, a flight, a bad movie and a drink away and now the familiar has become remote. There is no way home. We can't fly down for a surprise, on a whim, to hold a hand, for a surgery, to attend a funeral and, below our evident calm, helplessness spreads as quietly as a ripple on water. The architecture of our lives has altered and my friend Devika, whose elderly parents live in Kolkata, says: "It's just unreal. It's like a freedom has gone."
Families who live apart usually function according to organised calendars of caring. See you at Christmas, dad. Coming on your birthday, ma. We plot summer getaways and 50th-wedding anniversary celebrations. Mihir, a fund manager, made a deal long ago with his widowed mother in Mumbai: "I will see you every three months." Now promises are beyond keeping.
Parents are at the start of their 70s or deep into their 80s and time has become particularly meaningful. They're often diabetics, heart patients, cancer survivors and the one place you don't want to send them to is a hospital. The virus is ill-mannered, for it is unmerciful with the elderly.
Video is our glue, our new living room, where families gather in a global huddle, brothers from Des Moines, sisters in a Dutch village, mothers in Baguio City. "Reconnecting" the screen says. It's morning in one land and night in another, but everyone recognises the value of this time. The virus, inadvertently, has united families and we will be grateful forever for the conversations we are having.
In a way we've been lucky, for in another time, when families were divided by wars and seas, concern was written down and dispatched via sea mail and bad news was revealed in the terse code of telegrams. "Father ill STOP come urgently STOP."
It is an emotional time of constant reassurance, of relationships re-examined, of longing expressed, duty embraced, panic subdued and frustration fought.
As I've done before, I spent an hour or so wandering through the Digitizing Immigrant Letters Project at the University of Minnesota. From Latvia in 1956, Anna Paikens writes to her son Edwards, who is in Minneapolis after World War II "as part of the displaced persons' group from Germany".
Her translated letters echo across the seas. "You know well that I am lonely. When I receive your letter, it is like the sun after rain for me." Later, she writes: "Yes, you are too far away from me, but I know that I have one close person in the world. Possibly, I will never see you again." Separation is as old as humankind.
Now the phone links us in a few seconds and almost everyone I know has increased the frequency of his or her calls home. We can be talking idly about the rain or what we ate for lunch, but it feels precious. Often we're talking but also studying, searching our parents' faces for clues, gauging a mood, weighing their loneliness, over-reading their body language, aware that sometimes to protect us, they hold back the truth. "I'm fine," is the beautiful lie of our times.
To compensate for not being there, we sometimes suffocate them with concern, for as fear nags us, we nag them. Wash your hands, ma. Wear a mask. Stay home. "I refuse to be a trapped bird in a glass cage," my mother snaps and arches an eyebrow at my instructions. The kid she painfully gave birth to and directed through life is now bossing her and she must smile to herself at the irony.
What we don't always adequately recognise is the resilience of our parents, for beneath their papery skin is the muscle of experience, developed from a long life of adversity worn. Many of our parents, from Asia, were born before World War II, have seen their countries gain independence and have made do with little. Says Paul, whose widowed mother lives in Goa: "My mother is stronger than we imagined. During family conference calls, she sounds the most positive."
Loss is familiar to them, for spouses die, brothers pass, sisters fall to illness and they endure. Some know a grief so piercing that we recoil just hearing the tale. A friend's mother was three years old in Myanmar when her parents and younger sister were killed by Japanese soldiers in front of her. People helped and she walked, took a boat, found her way to India and now, so many years later, she is 82 and frail but within her is the instinctive resistance of the survivor.
It's complicated, of course, for strength is entwined with vulnerability, and as Mihir says: "My mum is strong and we joke, but once in a while, I hear the fear in her voice." Either way, it is an emotional time of constant reassurance, of relationships re-examined, of longing expressed, duty embraced, panic subdued and frustration fought.
Mostly people wait, sighing at the rising numbers, scanning the news for resumption of flights, looking for a way home. It'll be okay, we tell ourselves, and yet we don't know. And so when Radhika calls home and there's a moment when the fog of Alzheimer's passes and her mother is laughing, she takes a screenshot. Just in case she can't get home in time and just so that she will always have a memory of happier days.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 28, 2020, with the headline 'Long, hard wait for a way home'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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