Family & Friends, Nikhil


Is it possible to lead a modern (or otherwise) existence without relating to the concept of time? Imagine waking up each day, not knowing or understanding what time it is, indeed what day, month, or the year. Perhaps a troglodyte could, but even he would have some inkling of the seasons when the juiciest berries abound or the seasons when tasty game is afoot. Perhaps he would observe the phases of the moon or knick a twig to keep track of the days and seasons.

I’ve ruminated about what ancient stoic philosophers, as well as Bollywood songs, have to say about time in a previous post. While most of that post deals with the value of time, once in a while when I observe my son Nikhil I wonder if it is possible to exist without an interpretation of time as we understand it. Nikhil perhaps has a general idea about the passage of time, but I’m not sure if he relates to it the same way as you and I do. His iPad has icons for the days of the week, months of the year as well as seasons. During breakfast, my wife asks him the day of the week and the month of the year. His default choice is Monday or Saturday.

While we all suffer from the Monday morning blues, for Nikhil, Monday is a happy day. It means his school van will show up on the driveway for a fun ride to school with the promise of another exciting day with his friends, teachers, therapists, and other staff. As a young boy, I dragged myself reluctantly to school on Mondays, especially if I had done badly on a weekly test knowing the teacher would be distributing the papers during the first period. Nikhil has a spring in his step and he claps in joy as the van turns into our driveway. No such worries for him.

Saturday is trash day. That is the day, Nikhil and I drive down to our town’s Transfer Station to dump trash and drop the recyclables into giant bins. Now “trash day” is an exciting activity for Nikhil. Each day is marked relative to trash day. “What day of the week is it today?” my wife asks Nikhil. “Monday” he selects on his iPad. “Try again, Nikhil”. “Friday.” “That’s right Nikhil, tomorrow is the weekend!” “Saturday” jabs Nikhil with a laugh, “trash!” Nikhil is gleeful, he claps his hands in anticipation.

If Saturday is trash day, then Friday has to be Chinese food day. As I change his clothes in the evening before we head out for our customary van ride, Nikhil is pointing furiously to his mouth. He does not want water, he is not hungry. He gets frantic as I deliberately venture random guesses. I hold up one hand “Do you want to go to Costco?” I hold up the other hand “do you want to go to the mall?” He pauses and selects the latter. But he is still waiting expectantly. “Do you want to go to the restroom in the mall or the food court?” He selects the food court but still waits. “Do you want to go to the food court or the restaurant?” His finger beats a steady tattoo on the “restaurant” hand and he gives me a broad grin. But we are not done.

“Fried rice” or “Noodles?” He selects one. I switch the choices three or four times, he is consistent in his choice. As we sit in the van, he points to his mouth again. As we drive around the corner, he calls out from behind, a finger pointing to his mouth. He fears I’m growing old and forgetful and his fears are probably not completely unfounded. As I call the restaurant to place the order, there is a whoop of joy in the back seat.

Friday gives way to Saturday. Nikhil has no problems guessing the day that morning. He points to the trash can in the kitchen for added emphasis. Every now and then during the morning, I’m reminded that it is trash day with Nikhil pointing downstairs to the van. I don’t think there is a teenager out there who is so happy to accompany his old man to throw trash on a Saturday afternoon. It is veritably the highlight of his week. The singular moment that marks the end of one week and the beginning of another.

Months are easier to answer but in a way also harder for Nikhil. After a few days into a month, when asked the month, he gets it right. But alas, time flies, and months change. So to Nikhil’s consternation and confusion, January gives way to February and then to March. But Nikhil takes it in his stride. He humors his mother. It is not his fault that she cannot make up her mind and every now and then she arbitrarily gives a new label to the month.

Suitcases in the bedroom are an indication that a trip to visit family as well as his sister is imminent. Mom hypes up the trip. “It’s Wednesday today, Nikhil, we will be going to New Jersey on Friday.” The countdown begins but if Nikhil understands it, we don’t know. However, seeing is believing. When Nikhil sees his mother packing the suitcases, he knows it’s finally time to go to New Jersey. It does not matter what day, month, or year it is. It is time to visit his sister and he is happy as a clam. For the last few days, he has been pointing to her picture and he has been mentioning his aunt, uncle, and cousin’s name on the iPad. He is finally going to visit them. It does not matter what day it is, it is the journey that is the real deal.

When I moved to the US, it took me a little time to get used to the month-day-year format of dates. I was used to the day-month-year format. I wonder if Nikhil will ever look at a date and be able to understand what it stands for or interpret it. My high school history lessons were a long list of dates of wars and sackings of cities by ancient kings that had to be memorized. For what reason, I know not. But there are practical uses too. I write the date as I sign a check. I consult dates as I plan trips. I wait expectantly for a long weekend. I wish family on their birthdays. I cherish anniversaries. It’s hard to imagine a world where none of these mean anything. The dates in the history textbook do not, at least to me, but all the other dates that mark our personal milestones and hold such dear memories to us do mean something. Nikhil is oblivious when it comes to these.

Not being bound to time means Nikhil has all the time in the world. We could be late to visit a friend’s house or to head to a store at closing time. Nikhil is not harried by these constraints. He pauses at the door to the garage and points to the car. He does not budge until I acknowledge the fact that his sister does drive the car when she is in town. He then knocks on the windows of the car as he walks around it. He then stops and points to the backyard. After being reassured that he would be taken for a walk upon our return, he takes a couple of steps.

He pauses at the entrance of the van. Meanwhile, I’m looking at my watch frantically and am half cajoling, half pushing him to get into the van. But Nikhil is a man of principles, things have to follow a well-established routine. I have to acknowledge the fact that if the car is his sister’s, the van is his vehicle of choice. I then have to give him a choice of whether he wants to ride in the car or the van. He will not budge until I give him the choice but when I do, he looks at me as though I’m crazy for even asking that question.

He points to the van and then slaps the door a couple of times affectionately as he would slap the rump of a pony. Nikhil is growing up and he does not know his own strength. A pony would have neighed in alarm and bolted away but the van is indifferent to his attentions. He then climbs in and peers into the back. The back is cavernous and he is checking to see if his adaptable wheelchair is still there. After ascertaining that there is nothing new that is worthy of his attention, he then slowly ambles over and settles into his seat while I run around and strap his seat belt and hurry into my seat. Nikhil can’t understand what the fuss is all about.

Walks in the backyard as the seasons change

For the last couple of years, Nikhil has been enjoying short walks in our backyard. He looks forward to them each day with great anticipation. I wonder if he notices the changing of seasons and associates them with the passage of time. The verdant foliage in spring, the welcome shade cast by the shadows of the trees during the summer, the carpet of leaves in fall, and the frosty air in winter when our breath fogs up. We walk as long as there is no snow on the ground. When it snows and the backyard is a plush carpet of snow sometimes up to 24″ thick, Nikhil is out of luck. It’s time to tell him that he can’t go for a walk since it is “Winter”. So winter for Nikhil is a time when he cannot walk outside.

Birthdays are associated with cake for Nikhil. He does much better now with the cake and the song. Early birthdays found Nikhil in tears each time we sang “Happy Birthday” to him. He certainly wasn’t lamenting the passage of another year, he just didn’t like the song or perhaps the way we sang it. He has come a long way now and smiles indulgently at us as we light the candles and sing to him. It’s just another day for him and he does not associate with the societal norms that accompany birthdays. As he turns sixteen he will not wait in anticipation for a license. Turning eighteen will not mark the rite of passage of graduating from high school and entering college. It will just be another day with cake and a song.

Days of the week, months of the year, and seasons are perhaps nebulous but the quadrants of a day are more tangible to Nikhil. Mornings are when he goes to school and during holidays it is when he plays in his room. The afternoon is lunch followed by a post-prandial walk in the backyard. The evening is the time to ride in the van but it is prefaced by a couple of shows of “House Hunters” on YouTube. The night is piano time before turning in for the day. If his sister is at home it is a highly anticipated moment.

Nikhil gets these spot on when he uses his iPad. “Van ride” he signals on his iPad. “When do we go out Nikhil?” “Evening” he replies and then with a big smile on his face “Night piano!” It stands to reason that he can associate events and activities that occur closer to the present moment. He grasps the meaning of “tomorrow”. “School tomorrow?” he will ask while having dinner at night. “Airport tomorrow?” is when he is missing his sister and wants to know if she will be coming home soon. I haven’t observed him use “yesterday”. I’m sure he remembers what happened the previous day and he will let us know by identifying the activity but “yesterday” is not associated with the activity.

The night is….piano time!

Freed from the shackles of time, Nikhil is patient. To a considerable extent, his activities and routines depend on us. He might have many plans but he depends on us to execute them. Sometimes his plans come to fruition and sometimes they don’t. A rainy day implies that the much-awaited walk has to be shelved. During the pandemic, he could not make his pilgrimage to Costco for well over a year. But Nikhil does not give up, he bides his time. And perhaps that makes him savor the moments. Each time we walk into the backyard it’s as if he has won a lottery. Each time his sister plays the piano for him, his joy is as though he has listened to a wonderful melody for the first time in his life. Each trip to Costco is like a much-awaited trip to Disneyland.

I don’t know if Nikhil yearns to store time in a bottle, he lives in the moment. I doubt Nikhil will look back upon his youth and reminisce “Time it was, and what a time it was, it was. A time of innocence, a time of confidences ” His is a life that will always be one of innocence. If there are confidences to be shared, Nikhil is limited by the vocabulary on his iPad. Does he understand that to everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven? I just hope that we and life are good to him so he has joy and he has fun and every season for him is a season in the sun.

The hardest perhaps for Nikhil is to grasp the duration of the absence of his loved ones at home. A trip to the airport usually means that we are picking up his sister and it is accompanied by a lot of excitement. Within the last week, his airport trips have found us dropping Akku (sister) first and then Mom off at the airport. Mom will be back in two weeks but for Nikhil, it will mean days of anticipation hoping for his mother’s return without really knowing whether she will be back that day.

What does Sunday after two weeks mean? What does a fortnight mean? What does half a month mean? What do 14 days mean? I can’t tell if Nikhil can relate to that. But Nikhil marks the passage of time each day one activity at a time and by following a predictable routine. So it will be a series of school days, punctuated by walks in the backyard and the customary daily rides in the van. And then one day a drive to the airport and Mom returns! It does not matter what time it is or how long she has been away, he will be enveloped in hugs and smothered with kisses. Time will stand still for a moment as Nikhil savors his mother’s love. And then he will point towards the road and gesture to me to move on. It’s time to move on with life.

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