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first person

Illustration by Chanelle Nibbelink

I’m looking down at the bottom shelf of a toddler’s bookcase. More specifically, I’m on FaceTime, and this is my view after the phone was unceremoniously dropped by my two-year-old niece, Mila. I keep the app open on my laptop while I answer e-mails in another window, patiently waiting for the phone to be lifted back up so we can resume the conversation.

“Mila, where did Masi go?” I hear my sister, and Mila’s mother, asking off-screen. Meanwhile, I’ve moved on from e-mails to online banking.

MASI! Where you go, Masi?” Mila has just realized her masi (Punjabi for aunt) has been abandoned on the bookcase. I can hear her little footsteps scurrying back to me. Suddenly, a face framed by wide eyes under thick lashes and multicoloured bows in long hair appears on the screen.

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“There you are!” I exclaim as if it was me that found her, and not vice versa. I log out of my bank account and refocus my attention on my niece.

“Now, where were we? Oh yes, you were telling me that it’s raining today? And you want to jump in some muddy puddles?”

“MUDDY PUDDLES!” she exclaims.

The conversation has picked up where it left off. It will include nursery rhymes and inquiries of what Mila is having for dinner. She’s not yet two and a half years old, so these talks are rudimentary and brief, lacking complexity or too many syllables. They happen at least once, and usually two or three times a day, and have become a vital part of my routine.

I live alone and work as a palliative-care physician in a large hospital, so for both my patients and my loved ones, my household of one has separated from all those who don’t medically require my contact. Without question, however, it is the sudden disruption of my contact with Mila – a direct consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic – that is the hardest and most painful for me to manage.

When Toronto went into lockdown for the first time last year, the decision to distance was made with certainty and sadness. Although we knew children were less likely to contract severe symptoms, our households separated with fears for our own health, but also that of our parents, our community and, for me, my patients. The adults’ understanding of the importance of this has not made it any easier to explain to a two-year-old. She’s already very hard to say no to, after all.

She is old enough to ask me to come into the house to play and isn’t convinced by my excuses. Distanced visits together were out of the question, as Mila didn’t know how to stay away from her family who had, up until now, scooped her up in hugs and kisses every time they saw her.

I worry she thinks I’m too busy to see her or that I don’t care. She can sense that time has passed and that she has not seen her extended family for a while. She knows that something isn’t right, but isn’t able to understand why or how.

I worry that she won’t remember who I am after the pandemic is over. I try to think of ways to safely hang out with her, but not confuse or upset her with health protocols. Masks frighten Mila and she demands anyone wearing one to take it off, flouting all public-health guidelines.

Our video chats are sometimes hindered by the occupational hazard of her age: She drops me on the floor, walks away and forgets we were talking, and gets frustrated when she isn’t able to tilt the phone at the right angle to show me something. But mostly she answers with a smile and the excitement of seeing a familiar person on the screen, someone who isn’t a parent she’s been stuck with for months.

For me, online fatigue and virtual burnout from endless meetings and poor internet connections stand in stark contrast to Mila’s burst of energy and earnestness coming through the screen.

These FaceTime chats are what will get me through another lockdown. The content of our talks revolves around the most superficial topics, and the lightness of her questions and her laugh are enough to provide a reprieve from the day. Staying connected in this way has become an exercise in mindfulness, as for a few minutes I focus solely on our communication, which has become so precious when physical closeness is not possible.

There is no way of knowing, but I hope that Mila also feels connected to me, an aunt who wishes for her happiness and health, and safeguards it by staying away.

In this way, one of my youngest and smallest family members, my brand-new niece, has given me the most as we begin a new year with so much pain and fear. She has given me comfort and joy at a time when there is not much of either. Whenever we speak, and as she grows, I will try to tell her how much she has given, so freely yet so meaningfully, and within such a short time.

At least, I hope to get this across to her over FaceTime. I may have to shout it to her when she accidentally lowers the volume or drops the phone down the stairs. It’s the best we can do at the moment.

Harleen Toor lives in Toronto.

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