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I met them finally. After almost two years, my parents and sister stood in front of me, a big smile on their faces that belittled any exhaustion they must have been feeling after not just travelling through the night, but also nervously taking their first flight in almost two years.

But such are the times, that hugs are no longer impromptu and even after a long separation like ours, mask disposal and a cleansing ritual — the latter more a feeling than anything — must take precedence.

Staring, gawking and dancing on their toes my children waited, barely. Patience finally ran out and the pent up, emotions of not having seen their grandparents for what was, eternity made all filters disappear.

While COVID has made impulsive embracing into a cultivated and sometimes awkward art, in those moments my children showed us that they had been craving their own healing touch. The pandemic has made our kids grow up before their time.

The unrestrained excitement of the girls was also a poignant revelation- they may have hid, it well but the cup had been brimming for a while. In this moment, they allowed it to run over.

Legacy of COVID-19

COVID’s legacy especially the gutting second wave has also been one of unspoken fear that could only be assuaged now- by seeing their grandparents standing physically in front of them.

For my girls, it has not been easy to see their friends back home nesting with aunts and cousins despite the pandemic and celebrating birthdays and other festivities cocooned inside but secure in the safety of numbers. The zoom parties of the first year of COVID for us had quickly fizzled out by the time the big day came around the next year.

The children resigned to a life apart but that didn’t stop them from hoping for some fairy dust. At last, it was sprinkled.

For my parents these lost years snatched the ability to make precious memories with their grandchildren. There is absolute truth in the belief that children grow up quickly, they last met two girls laughing gleefully over Chota Bheem cartoons on television and running barefoot with a water pipe in the garden.

The puzzle will forever miss a piece because what they saw instead were two confident kids- one a teenager who sat down to discuss World War history with her grandfather and the other eagerly playing word-search with her nani. The twain did meet as four happy heads tried to get the right answers in the show ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati.’

The world is closing in- never have words been turned on their head as these were when a pandemic decided to have some fun. It was particularly brutal for families living in different countries, because boundaries came up so quickly that we had to reboot- the world had never been one big family.

It was like a single stroke of a brush mussed up a painting and the canvas will never be where we left it. The anger, the hate, celebrating another’s misery- it all seems so small.

Absence the say makes the heart grow fonder, forced absence makes the heart, jittery. As a generation that is sandwiched between our children’s needs and concern for our parents, the separation played the devil’s advocate. Senior citizens though have been remarkable in how they realigned their lives in a world gone awry, there was barely a fuss or complain, they are not our parents for nothing.

Brick wall boundaries of our home

But because we didn’t hear a murmur doesn’t mean that they were not unsettled. My parents stayed within the brick wall boundaries of our home in Punjab’s Jalandhar since the beginning of the pandemic till their first trip out, to me. It was pointless to even glance outside the gates, the street beyond was equally lonely. Life was lonely.

Sitting far away, I often wondered how these years were treating them? Would they have aged? Nothing scares our generation more than seeing the parents helpless and adding wrinkles generously. We don’t need this reminder from time. Maybe it is because we aren’t ready to be their caregivers because that is an admission of fragility of life.

A video chat can hear the voice but often miss the signs. Is, this what exile feels like?

Milestones came and went- my father’s 75th birthday, the birth of my nephew who lives in a third country where the borders are still not open and frankly, in the age of uncertainty even a small celebration became a moment lost. Don’t go by the Instagram pictures, the first rule of social media is that it flatters to deceive.

From, evening walks to school drops and pickups, and dancing to Lara’s theme, in the three weeks that my parents were here, they grasped at the wonders of a connection with both hands and were perhaps more exhausted than they were on their flight here.

They didn’t mind because the hugs started coming fluently and the dinner table was loud- politics, homework and comfort were a heady mix. Time tests but grasping an opening and owning it is magic sprinkled with that fairy dust.

Farewells don’t faze someone like me who has studied in a boarding school and then shifted to Delhi during college. But this time, it was different. Perhaps, we are only as strong as a family hug.

While my parents brought me home with their visit, I haven’t been to Jalandhar since 2018, the longest period, of time away for someone who every three-four months went back just to disappear from the grid and rejuvenate.

Whether the sound of a single koel on the large tree outside the veranda that blooms orange in the spring or the familiar nasal pitch of the vendor selling some dubious ice-cream shrieking in the back lane while we eat lunch, the sounds of small- town India have a familiar solace that only those who were brought up there will identify with and as I grow older, I seem to be coming full circle.

Perhaps, chasing the dream of big city lights dimmed even more in the last couple of years or then, this is what they say about coming home.

Another Diwali is around the corner, and once again the scent of festivities will bring nostalgia- I still have a couple of months before catching that flight back to India. This time though when I do glimpse our pre-partition bungalow, I don’t want to disappear. Instead, maybe I will join my children barefoot in the garden with a water hose.