Just hang in there

May 24, 2020

On Wednesday morning, we were delivered a bouquet of flowers. And a message that we should not cook or order a dinner that evening. It would also be delivered.We, my wife and I, immediately guessed...

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On Wednesday morning, we were delivered a bouquet of flowers. And a message that we should not cook or order a dinner that evening. It would also be delivered.

We, my wife and I, immediately guessed what was happening. This was our marriage anniversary and it was being celebrated in the virtual world in which the three homes of our nuclear family, located on three continents, are joined together.

Hence, we cut our cake rather late in the evening in the ‘video’ presence of our two daughters and their families. But underneath those cheerful moments was the feeling, as Shelley said, though in a different context, that “our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought”.

The saddest thought in the present situation is this uncertainty about when we will be together in real time. Both our daughters do the best they can to cheer us up, looking forward to adventures that are on our bucket list. But we are old and time is slipping by, one day after another. We are now in isolation for more than two months. This precious time is like a perishable gift that lies undelivered.

Being old also means that we are extremely vulnerable to an attack by the pandemic. An invisible whiff of the virus will blow out the candle of our life, we are constantly reminded. That is why our daughters have very strict instructions for us to be exceptionally careful. Don’t step out of the house. Don’t let anyone enter your house. Just hang in there. Wait. Do not give up.

This is an assignment that we have to take very seriously. In a reversal of roles, our daughters have taken over. Yet, we are separated by long distances. That is the reason why it has become emotionally so indispensable to meet as frequently as possible. There is no escape from the thought that not much time is left for us to be together and to rejoice in this providential lease of life and, to a considerable extent, the material wherewithal to make a few things happen.

My elder daughter lives in southern California and the younger one is in northern Italy. From these base camps, we have made numerous forays into enchanted territories. Every time, we want all of us to be together. It is difficult but we try and make it. That is how we had driven 1,000 miles to witness the total solar eclipse in Salem, Oregon, in August 2017. We would gather in one place, including in Karachi, about three times every year.

Now we have to deal with this interregnum. A pause in our lives that threatens to last forever. They are already talking about a possible second wave. Reason dictates that the world will have to find its new normal, which should not be possible without the revival of travel and tourism. Still, there is this great uncertainty about everything.

Meanwhile, we have to hang in there. It does not help to know that untold millions are in the same boat. In fact, so many are bound to be in a dire state. When we look at the rising statistics, the heart sinks. It means that the unbearable grief of losing a loved one is shared across the globe. In addition, the misery of economic indigence, so much more pronounced in poor countries, has taken its toll on the wellbeing of ordinary citizens.

Just look at one measure of this tragedy. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has expressed its concern about the rising number of new coronavirus cases in poor countries. On Wednesday, the WHO said that 106,000 new cases of infections had been recorded in 24 hours -- the most in a single day since the outbreak began. “We still have a long way to go in this pandemic”, WHO director-general told a news conference.

In Pakistan, our lives have been interrupted by Eid in the time of the pandemic. But there is little to celebrate, particularly against the backdrop of a bitter and unsavoury political discord. A new chapter has opened with the release of the Sugar Forensic Commission’s report on Thursday. Then, there is this suspense about the consequences of a massive violation of precautions against the spread of the virus.

In a personal sense, one has to live with a lot of dilemmas. The world is slowly reopening but there is not sufficient freedom of action for individuals. Countries are learning that the way out of a lockdown is harder than the way in. Old people like me are not supposed to go out. A new system of working from home has evolved. All this, according to some experts, is affecting our mental health.

In the initial days, there were many prescriptions for protecting our sanity and remaining calm. There were lists of ‘comfort’ books and movies. Many of us had always complained about not having enough time to pursue our interests, mainly reading. I have been recommending poetry as an antidote to depression.

It has been said that even when the pandemic is brought under control, grief, anxiety and depression will continue to disturb people. One expectation is that this pandemic will generate a surge of creativity among writers and artists. A columnist of The New York Times stressed the value of private thoughts during a public crisis. We can expect “a flourishing of first-person narratives”.

The point is that we all have our stories to tell. But I would identify with those who cannot make plans too far into the future. Yes, talking to our daughters everyday and sometimes to our three grandchildren, on WhatsApp or Skype, is great relief. But this loss of freedom to move around freely, including in distant and exotic locales, is depressing.

Eliot had asked this question: ‘Where is the Life we have lost in living?’ I would like to know: ‘Where is the Life that we were not able to live? To conclude, I will quote another Eliot line: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”.

The writer is a senior journalist. Email: ghazi_salahuddinhotmail.com



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