After months of near isolation inside her senior care facility—India Home—Suman Pandey no longer recognizes her daughter, Tanya.
Tanya stumbles out of her mother’s room towards the nursing station just outside, too overwhelmed to speak. She’d expected to see some changes, yes—after four months of not being able to visit Mummy she’d felt her chest heave at the shrunken woman she found slumped against the pillows, her thick black hair had gone fine, wispy and completely white. Bits of pink scalp showed through. Had it truly been so long?
But what made Tanya’s knees buckle and her mouth fall open in a cry that was like the wail of a broken, desolate heart was the blank face her 87-year-old mother turned to her as she entered, bearing a box of Mummy’s favorite besan ladoos.
“Who are you?” Suman Pandey asked, her eyes huge and confused.
Tanya sags against the door frame to draw great rasping breaths as the antiseptic smell invades her nostrils. The young pretty nurse on duty slides out from behind the desk and touches her arm gently.
“I know how you feel,” Nurse Leah tells her, a shadow crossing her face. “We put these restrictions in place to lower Covid risks for our residents, not realizing that separation from family and friends would take such a mental and physical toll,” Leah finishes, wringing her hands and passing one over the other in a weak, helpless way.
Tanya shudders. There is a bitter taste at the back of her throat as memories from last year crowd her mind.
Mummy and she had attended her distant cousin Deepa Vora’s wedding in New Jersey. As had been happening with her mother lately, Suman wandered off before the wedding ceremony when Tanya went to get them breakfast from the buffet. Tanya scuttled around the milling guests—drinking, laughing, exchanging pleasantries—while she searched frantically for her charge. The wedding mandap (pavilion) had been opened to the grounds beyond it and everywhere there were chairs and tables of decorations—marigold flowers, garlanded arches, giant letters spelling ‘Love’ and the sweet cloying smell of incense in the air.
Tanya was all darting eyes and pinched mouth until she spied her mother talking to the bridegroom, Michael Daly.
“You’re the young man who is going to be getting married,” Tanya overheard her mother say as Suman drifted, smiling and waving into view. “Why is that you are hiding here in the side of this . . . ,” Suman looked around at the vast red and yellow canvas marquee, “very large tent?”
“I’m contemplating my last few moments of being a bachelor,” Mike joked.
“Not having second thoughts?” Suman teased.
“No,” Mike replied, a little too firmly and a little too quickly.
Suman went on, apparently not fazed. “I am Suman, “she said. “I am here with my daughter Tanya. Do you know her?”
Watching from a polite distance Tanya could see that Mike didn’t want to say ‘No’ and appear rude, but he was a poor liar too. Caught by indecision, his face contorted.
“She’s a third cousin of Deepa’s from California.” Suman waggled her eyebrows at Mike questioningly.
“Oh, yes, yes.” Mike cleared his throat noisily.
‘We are enjoying being here, and this large tent, “Suman waved her hand airily, “it reminds me of my own wedding in New Delhi.”
Tanya could see Mike’s mind wandering away from her mother’s babbling recollections. Yes, it unquestionably was a large marquee, more suited to being in a field at a festival. Rumor had it that Deepa had found it from a rental website right at the start of the planning, and it was that which had driven the size of the guest list rather than the size of the guest list requiring the enormous tent.
Tanya walked forward purposefully, hand outstretched. “Hi Mike, I’m Tanya, Deepa’s cousin from San Francisco.”
She turned towards Suman gripping her arm tightly. “Time to go eat, Mummy. I’ve got puri-cholay for you. Your favorite, remember?”
The memories pour over Tanya like freezing water. Her teeth begin to chatter. She grabs her arms to keep the shaking under control.
Tanya turns to the nurse. “Mummy’s just not there. Her brain has turned to mush.”
“It’s very common,” says Leah, tucking stray ends of her blond hair into her cap. “The man in the next room, Ramesh Malavalli lost 37 lbs and stopped speaking because he had no visitors. These residents are collateral damage of this COVID-19 seclusion, passing away or deteriorating because of a broken heart.”
Tanya walks out to the parking lot and inserts the key into her Mini Cooper with a shaking hand. On the radio, Governor Newsom is talking about the Pfizer vaccine that could arrive as soon as next week.
“Too little, too late,” mumbles Tanya as two fat tears slide snail paths down her pink cheeks.
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