“Promise me that if I get sick, you will come back,” my mom said, as I stood in the doorway of my parents’ home in Windsor, Ont., trying not to burst into tears. It was mid-March, and my four children and I had come to visit one last time before we all hunkered down to isolate as much as possible, to stop the spread of COVID-19.
“Maman, of course,” I said, trying not to show my stress and surprise. A petite force of nature, my 5’2” whole world and the most resilient woman I know, she hugged me tight. “I love you, my baby!” she said in her normal voice, as though she hadn’t just ripped my heart out.
I held her for a few moments longer, then got into the car, where four chirpy teenagers were arguing about legroom and whether to throw my youngest in the trunk. My eldest son was in the driver’s seat. “We good?” he asked, sensing my emotion. “Yes,” I told him. “Let’s go.” If I stayed a moment longer, I’d start sobbing.
I know that my parents won’t live forever, no one will. My older brother and I have regular conversations about how to manage their illnesses and doctor’s appointments. We coordinate our visiting schedules, since we both live three hours away. But the global pandemic has wreaked havoc on our plans and decimated our strategies. In addition to thousands of lives, COVID-19 has stolen the time my parents and I have left to share.
For many people over 65, including my parents, the enjoyment of what was supposed to be their golden years has come to a crashing halt. They love traveling and visiting family, but because they are both immunocompromised, they can’t see their adoring grandchildren right now. Their age puts them in the most vulnerable category for infection and as a result we police their movements. My father has been banned from going to his favourite place–Costco.
My mother is a warrior. She has thrived, even while being discriminated against in the male-dominated field of medicine while struggling against racism as well. She has always been my pillar of strength, through my struggles with depression and anxiety, and when I was going through a horrible divorce. She has celebrated my every achievement, however small, and been there through hard times, including loaning me rent money when COVID-19 wiped out 80 percent of my income.
Whatever the challenge at hand, Maman always emerges with a joie de vivre–and shoes. Lots of shoes. This is why it was so hard to see her vulnerability, why her words–“If I get sick”–have haunted me for weeks.
Although she’s over 70, she was still practicing psychiatry when COVID-19 came to Canada. In the initial stage, she was not fazed by the disease. Having survived polio, the partition of India and the 20th century, she was mostly irritated by the manner in which her frantic children were trying to restrict her active lifestyle.
“Stay at home!” my brother pleaded.
“Shaddap!” would be her joking reply.
As time crawled on, her concern grew, and she moved her practice to the phone and internet. This is a time of stress and anxiety, and for those battling mental health issues it can be crippling. So she forged on.
In one of our recent video calls, she confided that online and telephone counselling was tough, and exhausting. Over her career, she has perfected in-person communication, and virtual connection with her patients doesn’t come as naturally. Craning to hear through her computer put painful strain on her back and neck.
Her honesty about her challenges was surprising. She seldom complains. But of course she gets tired. We all are. I am 30 years younger than her, and exhausted.
Last month, I attended the online funeral of a dear family friend that I called Babu Uncle. In life, he was an active philanthropist, doting grandfather and relentless champion of equality, always surrounded by family and friends. But because of how infectious this disease is, he died alone, in an intensive care unit in a Mississauga hospital, as his devastated family waited in the parking lot. Only his wife and daughter were given a few minutes to see him before he died.
Hearing this broke me. That time, I couldn’t hold back tears, both for Babu Uncle, and for the possibility that my parents could face the same fate.
Like Babu Uncle, Maman is an extrovert. She loves adventure and crowds and has always surrounded herself with people who bring her delight. Right now, we are observing the month of Ramadan, but unlike any holy month before, my parents can’t break their fasts during lively community gatherings, or visits with friends. Isolation is a new challenge for her and for many older folks, and it is something to fear. Despite all they’ve lived through, it’s not quite enough to summon the courage or strength that got them through previous challenges, because the pandemic is not something they can fight themselves.
No one has a roadmap for the situation we all find ourselves in right now, and I personally am very confused. Early on, my parents asked me to stay with them, but I share custody of my children with their father, and can’t be that far away for very long. Making that decision was heart wrenching, and ever since, the pit of my stomach has been filled with worry and guilt.
But when I told her, Maman said she understood. She ended up consoling the sobbing mess that was me. Other than a few moments of raw honesty, she has been grounded and strong ever since.
I can’t ever give back a fraction of what my mother has done for me, but our video chats, incessant texting and ridiculous Snapchat filters are meaningful, and feed her in a way that only I can. I send her little presents, and then she sends me a photo of the fabulous outfit she is wearing, always with matching shoes.
Finally, my mother is giving me some of the weight she has always held. Am I strong enough to hold it? I have to be. And in years to come, when my own kids come to me sad and scared because their worlds have turned upside down, I hope I have a fraction of her strength to shield them.