The author's daughter, Maja (Photo: supplied)

My daughter, on the other side of the screen

Separated from her nine year old daughter in Hungary, Daisy Coles is finding solace in video calling – and Disney gifs.

Two months after I last saw her, I’m still finding my daughter’s drawings around the house. Precise line drawings of squirrels, lions, foxes in her signature style: thoughtfully considered, executed with an exquisitely sharp pencil. A4 sheets, folded and refolded and tucked away. The best ones are coloured in and have both our names on them: my name is a dedication, hers a signature. These little discoveries are precious parts of my day, but man, they’re sucker punches to my gut.

I’m married to a Hungarian, András, and we have three kids together. Maja is nine, Nina six and Jojo two. We are all citizens or residents of both countries, and we split our time, more or less, between Hungary and New Zealand.

Late last year, we came to spend time in New Zealand on a trip that was to be shorter for András and Maja: she’s the only one of our kids as yet in the Hungarian school system, and they make kids repeat the year if they’re out of the regime for more than three months. We planned for András and Maja to return on February 28; the rest of us would follow on April 3.

Nina, Maja and Jojo (Photo: supplied)

Well, you know the rest. András and Maja made their flight; ours was cancelled. In a fit of stupid optimism (early April, remember that time? About three lockdown years ago?), we rebooked for May 5. That flight was cancelled in due course, and in the mean time we’d missed the flights European embassies had arranged for Europeans stranded in New Zealand.

The month-long absence we’d always planned on, and knew we could get through no sweat, has turned into a two-month-long-and-counting absence. We picked the exact wrong month to screw around with.

So here we are – here, and there – for the foreseeable future.

And so we manage, now, like everyone is managing: digitally. Almost all of my contact with András is over Messenger. To my delight, he found an old phone of mine and set up the app on it for Maja, so she can contact me whenever she misses me. I’d always tried to minimise the kids’ screen time, so Maja had not yet become proficient in smartphone communication. Well, like most parents, I guess, I’ve since become a screen-time maximalist; and, predictably, Maja became an expert in the space of about three minutes.

She makes use of the full suite of Messenger tools: I get “Good morning” and “Goodnight” messages along with lines of appropriate emojis. I get voice messages that are four seconds long and say “Well, um, I just wanted to say I MISS you, Mum”. I get gloriously un-self-conscious selfies in which her wild bed-hair takes up most of the screen, and multiple pictures from slightly different angles of a bird on a tree branch, out of focus. Her gif game is strong.

Unexpectedly, she’s taught me to love those gifs that come up first in your searches – you know, the ones that you scroll past because they’re too saccharine, too obvious. The Disney characters that blow kisses, the cute kittens, the virtual hugs. Those ones are her favourites, and seeing them through her eyes, they’re mine now, too.

We video call each other, in various permutations. Sometimes I talk with András; sometimes Nina, my six-year-old, talks to him alone. Sometimes all three of us in New Zealand talk with just Maja, and sometimes all five of us talk together from three different screens. It’s almost satisfying to partake in those typical video call pleasures: offering a bite of the food we’re eating, catching glimpses of ordinary life going on in the background, kissing the screen when we sign off.

Right now, these Messenger interactions comprise Maja’s only English-language input. She’ll be speaking Hungarian with her dad, her extended family and her teacher and classmates (virtually, there too). All the media she’s consuming will be in Hungarian. It’s always been really important to us that our kids are perfectly bilingual; that neither their Hungarian nor their English is less than native. I’m grateful beyond words that when I talk to Maja these days, I hear a beautiful Shortland Street-strength New Zealand accent when she speaks English to me, and her vocabulary is as fit for purpose as when she was here.

(I can’t say the same for my two younger kids, whose Hungarian is increasingly rusty. My two-year-old, Jojo, hasn’t spoken Hungarian since he last saw his dad. It’s heart-breaking to see András talk to Joe and see Joe stare blankly back at the screen. I can see András trying so hard with him. I try to speak a little Hungarian to them, to remind them of who they are and what we have, what we’re losing, but I invariably I falter. I’ve always found it hard to put on that particular hat – that Hungarian-speaking version of myself – when I’m feeling things too deeply.)

The author with her husband, András (Photo: supplied)

I miss András. This feels a little bit like a place we’ve been in before. Before we had kids, there were a couple of long stretches when he was in Hungary and I was here. At first I found it very hard. I remember feeling acutely that my long-distance “relationship” at those times boiled down to nothing more than words like “he belongs to me”; phrases with no meaning beyond their presence as words on a page or spoken aloud. Those times were our hard yards. But we came to accept what it was and how we had to handle it, and we developed the ability to tell ourselves that it didn’t matter; a plane ticket with a date on it was enough to get us through.

Being apart from my Maja, my first-born girl, in this new world, is totally different. I know that András is feeling the same way about being so far away from Nina and Jojo. This situation is giving us an entirely fresh lesson in missing somebody.

Maja, Jojo and a visitor (Photo: supplied)

The thing about kids, any parent will tell you, is that they’re never the same. Not from one month to the next; not from one week to the next. You notice they’ve been using a word with more than three syllables, and you realise that this is how they talk now. You catch them in a certain light and you see that, oh, actually they do look a bit like your sister. Or you see them playing with their siblings and you realise all the things they’ve learnt recently about compromise, tolerance, empathy. You’re constantly rewriting your conception of who they are. As you do, your love for them changes shape and colour, and your heart expands.

When I see Maja again, she won’t be the Maja I dropped off at the airport in February. And I know that I will grieve for the March Majas, the April Majas, the May Majas; all the iterations of who she has been that I will have missed. All the outfits, all the drawings, all the conversations, all the make-believe games, all the walks through the Hungarian fields and the splashes into the Danube that have accumulated to make her into the various girls she will have been, over this time hemispheres apart. All the anecdotes that would have made me laugh; all the worries I could have talked through, the dark thoughts I could have hugged away. All the times she might have had occasion to call my name, and didn’t: not because I was in my office or out in the garden as I usually am, but because I was 20,000 kilometres away.

Hey, I know that we are the lucky ones: we are safe and well, and we are only witnessing from afar the chaos that’s raging around the world. We have food and a warm home and space around us and family close by, in both countries. We still have income. More importantly, we haven’t seen the effects of this disease close up.

Just as importantly, my Maja is resilient. When she answers the phone, she’s always smiling. When she signs off on Messenger, it’s with a Baby Yoda gif, not a weeping Disney princess.

So I know we’ll get through. And in the meantime, I’ll dream about the day when I can be there in the same space as my girl, as she draws and I bake, or tidy, or garden, keeping just one eye on her. I want to catch her face from different angles every now and then as she bends over her work; I want to smell that freshly sharpened HB pencil lead as it scratches across the page. I want to see her smiling to herself as she brings that newest A4 masterpiece to me; watch her anticipate my reaction as I unfold it to find a drawing with both our names on it: mine at the top and hers at the bottom.

Man, oh man, I want to feel her bony wee frame in my arms, and her soft cloud of crazy hair in my face, as I hug her very very tightly, and say “Thanks for this; I love you” into her ear.

I still don’t know when that day will be, but I’m waiting for it with all my heart.



The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.