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My father grudgingly started his morning walks last year. Soon, he made friends in the park. And sooner than one could give him a medal for his fitness regime (which by the way was non-existent for about half a century), the walking group started having Sunday morning parties. Every weekend, one of them would get goodies ranging from halwa to samosas and they'd all eat, laugh and walk, of course. They are a happy bunch. Some Sundays, one can hear loud singing too.
One morning however, the group was quiet. The government was not lambasted, the whereabouts of children were not discussed, even the stray pups that follow them around for the scraps of bread-pakora were unusually calm. The group was one member short that day. One member who had had a heart attack the previous day. One member who had thrown the last Sunday party after exchanging his turn with someone else. He wanted to host it then. One member who won't be there for the next Sunday get-together.
He came back home with disbelief written all over his face. 'He was just 72. It wasn't time.' In a few days, he bounced back and the group fell back in the comfortable routine of Sunday goodies, frowning wives at the choice of high-calorie food, and puppies with bellies full of goodness. It all seemed normal. On the surface. But somewhere deep down there was a tiny amount of nagging disquiet.
A few days later, while talking to mum, it all came tumbling out. 'When we were younger years had a different meaning. We always had enough time. We had a long way to the retirement. The kids had a long time at college. We saw your babies and comfortably saw them grow up.' She paused for a few moments. 'Now it is as if someone has hit a fast forward button. I lost my mum at 83, your dadi at 91, and suddenly it is all too real. Your father will be 70 this year. And suddenly it seems the days are slipping past a tad bit too quickly. When I look back, time seems have to changed its meaning. It had seemed a long six year when I was working in Chandigarh. And now those six years seem to have melted away like yesterday's sunset. There are no guarantees I know. But it seems that we just might have a decade or two with us. We'll be gone in a blink.'
I resisted the urge to scream and hold her, to hide them both somewhere where time cannot find them. But I know, what she said was true. I have two pairs of parents and they are not getting any younger. Sometimes, fear gets the better of us but most of the days I am grateful for having them around, near us, with us. I do not have to wait for an annual holiday to meet them. We are all perpetually in each other's face all the time. The kids have the good fortune of having four superheroes protecting them from their witch mother.
But then, everyday, I come across old folks whose eyes reflect an endless wait - wait for a phone call, a visit, footsteps, wait for the inevitable. The children are rightly busy with their lives - there are children to be educated, bills to be paid, and careers to be carved and ultimately a pyre to be lit. That is all it boils down to - A phone call in the dead of the night informing of the passing, a hurried air ticket, and a pyre.
I am no follower of the Baghban style narrative. No siree, I have my moments of storming out of a roomful of parents who refuse to stop nagging. But at the end of the day, I am there and so are they, with each other. My life isn't on hold. I educate my kids, pay my bills, have an interesting career, and go on solitary holidays, yet my folks are a part of my life - a big, inseparable part. It doesn't take much. You, out there, are busy. But not busy enough to connect the dots to their hearts every once in a while.
1. One phone call. Stepped out for a coffee? Or to stretch your back after a two-hour meeting before you step into another? Make that call. Even if it is a few seconds. That is all it takes to let them know they matter, that they have not faded away yet.
2. Write to them. I know it sounds old fashioned. But every time we are on a vacation, the kids write to both sets of grandparents. Sometimes the letters reach long after we are back. But when they do the smile on their faces is worth the trouble of finding a post box.
3. Visit. We all take days off. Come on. One day can be spared? Chances are that they prepare for your visit for months and look forward to your next one all the time. There are enough days in a year for other stuff. I agree, we do not owe them anything. After all, us being raised by them is a natural thing, the way of the jungle. But even in a jungle, animals stay in a pack.
4. Keep them in the loop. It is not a breach of privacy if you inform your folks of your plans, trips, or the dinner date. I have seen my mum-in-law grin from ear to ear when her son calls her to tell her that he'll be late from work. She loves it that he thinks that she is important enough to be told. That is all. They feel wanted, included. So I called mum-n-law the moment we reached our vacation spot and I could hear the relief in her voice. A few seconds is all it took.
5. Family trips. These are the maddest of them all. From missed flights, to the kids fighting over who gets to share the room with the grandfolks - it is a rolling chaos that levels cities and bewilders other tourists. Maybe not every year, but whenever possible, we try to be together on neutral grounds where people won't recognise the mad bunch of beaming grandparents, hassled parents, and kids who are having the best time of their lives. Totally worth it.
They won't be here forever. It could be days, months, a couple of years or a decade or two before they become a mist in our minds clouded with guilt of not being there. But if it is the anticipated guilt that propels us to make that call, then it is better to stay in separate worlds, for anticipated guilt only gives way to unnecessary angst and frustration. But if we are that pack deep in the jungle that got pulled apart by life, it is time to reconnect.
Like everyone else our age, I thought they were my superheroes who never fall, never age, and never stumble. I assumed they will always be around should I decide to turn back. After the day when I heard mum reflect, I see a different set. They are aging, they stumble, they wait, and they snatch whatever little fragments of the day that the children share with them. Each time I look back, there is a new strand of grey, an added wrinkle and I hear the clock. Tic-Toc, Tic-Toc - the hands of the clock sweeping the years away, taking them along little by little. I want to hold on. Desperately. But all I can do, is be there. Always.