Call Me Dad. I’ll Pick Up.

Too much time has passed since I last calibrated my thoughts in a blog post – strange reflective time. In my last Text Me, Love Mom column I wrote about moving my dear old dad – the best dad – to a new senior’s residence, as he needed a higher level of physical care. It was a good move. That facility was friendly and kind, trying to cautiously give the residents as much comfort from visitors as they could within the bounds of Covid restrictions. (People talk about caring for our most vulnerable, but I think we need discussions that include listening to their own wise self-determination.)

When Covid first reared its despicable head the senior’s residence where my dad lived then went into full frightened lockdown. He had a small apartment there and was considered only in need of ‘assisted care’ because he’d originally moved in with my mom – his most loving caregiver, but she’d died nine months previous. His immune system was mighty in that he was never ill but his body was frail and worn out, his lungs needed to be on oxygen, his heart on medication, he was unstable on his feet even with a walker, and his short term memory was gone. Yet he had a robust will to live, to be social, to share what was on his mind, to be part of our lives.

My dad, Thomas Allan, was one of seven children – six boys and the sister they adored. More than once I tried to get him to tell me how nine people were able to find space to sleep in their tiny two bedroom house in Black Diamond, Alberta. The answer was always murky. They managed. The first ones in got the bed. He’d talk instead of the family dog, Purp, of hitching rides to the nearest town with a train station to jump on top of a train for a short prohibited ride to the next stop, or of making a raft that broke apart on its first Sheep River voyage, and of being known around town as one of the Allan boys. I remember at an embarrassingly late age being taught by a new sister-in-law that we shouldn’t start to eat until our mom, the cook, sat down. I think both my parents, but especially my dad, came from families where your instinct was to dig in to get enough grub while sitting around a table with nine hungry boisterously talking family members.

               In those first three months of Covid where we washed our groceries, debated masks, and stockpiled canned goods, the assisted living facility shut us out, kept residence in their rooms, and brought them meals on paper plates to eat all lone. My siblings and I made deals with ourselves, if it goes on two more weeks we’ll get him out. Two would become three … but we couldn’t decide what ‘out’ would be. To live with one of us? All without main floor bedrooms. None of us with medical backgrounds. To rent a place more suited to his walker and oxygen and poor mobility, and hire nurses? My dad would say he was a social democrat, but he never ever could get his mind around his complete loss of control in the exercise of ‘being saved’ from Covid. “What have I done wrong?” he would ask me over the phone. “Tell me, Candy, what did I do?” He was breaking our hearts.

That harsh lockdown period lasted too long but we finally argued our own and a dear loving companion’s way in, as what the authorities called essential visitors and witnessed how Dad had lost ten pounds, not from illness but from loneliness. We could finally ease up on the detailed phone call schedule us siblings and his grandchildren had adhered to, and return to bringing him our love in person. Some of our best afternoons after that were slow chats in his room. It didn’t matter that he nodded off continuously – when he woke it was with a sense of calm to see someone there, rather than a panic of where was he and why was he alone? (My humble opinion? Billions have been spent and livelihoods destroyed in failed efforts to contain the virus. Almost 90 per cent of the deaths have been in Long Term Care facilities. What if the billions were spent instead in isolating the sick from the healthy even in LTC?).

On a rainy fall afternoon encouraging him to eat the lemon pie I’d brought, I pretended to need to know how he met our mom again. “At a house party,” he said. “People used to have more of those back then.” I asked if he’d arranged a second date that night, to a movie, or dinner? “I don’t know,” he said. “It was a long time ago.”  In fact he did know, though he told me just this, ”I drove her home to her aunt’s house.” He paused, pushed the pie away. “She captured me,” he said and closed his eyes to sleep again.

I now have in my dresser drawer the bundle of love letters my parents exchanged during the first months when they lived four hours apart. In one he wrote, “I’m sure glad the search is over. It was getting hard on the eyes hunting for you for twenty-four years.” Mom, less the romantic – someone had to be practical – had written in her beautiful script about getting her hair chopped off much too short. He addressed his next few letters to ‘Chop-chop’. Known for his wry humour my dad wanted always to give someone else a smile, though he kept a straight face before and after.  

It’s supposed to be good luck to have rain on your wedding day. The rain was torrential on that June day in 1953 when Tom and Vera promised to love each other to death due us part. In the next ten years they brought five kids into the world, making seven of us at the dinner table, or sleeping in a crowded tent trailer on vacation, and riding out in a big wood panelled station wagon to visit our grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in Black Diamond. In his ninety-fourth year my dad wanted us to plan a family reunion with our big Allan family – imagining us all leaning into each other around a prairie campsite but Covid forbid it.

My dad’s favourite pastime was the circle drive through the foothills landscape he was passionate about. He used to do it with my mom on a Sunday afternoon, stopping for an eggroll in Turner Valley, or a burger in the Diamond, maybe just an ice cream sundae and coffee in Okotoks, before heading home. For the past few years one of us kids would be at the wheel driving Mom and Dad, and then just Dad. Sharing his affection for that small journey, our hearts would lift as we faced the Rockies and we’d make small talk about the measure of snow capping the steel grey mountains, as we as we gave him what he felt was freedom. It became too much effort for him to get out of the car but we’d park and bring him back a treat to eat with the view of the Sheep River – before returning to the city where we’d mask up again to get him and his walker and oxygen back into the tall building he resided in.

Short term memory loss is a bugger. He’d call many, many, many times a day. Sometimes I couldn’t bear to tell him that I’d just left him. Or that it was bedtime for him and me both and I wasn’t going to go there. He’d always ask us to, “Drop by with a latte.” We were both happiest when I could say, I’m on my way and I’ll stop at a coffee shop.

Why a latte? My dad was a Black Diamond boy, who before he gave up his licence at age 86 would drive forty-five minutes to another town to have coffee with his brothers. Coffee was their communion.  But a latte was something that we had to bring to him. A coffee he could get from a caregiver where he resided. Really he was saying, Come over. Bring love.

I wish he would call me now. I wish I could bring him another cup of love. I long for one more circle drive.

My dad died on November 29th, 2020. He died in his sleep. I thank God for that, because it meant he didn’t leave this earth waiting for us to pick up the phone, to bring the latte or take him for a drive. His heart quit beating as he rested. When I arrived before sunup to kiss his head good-bye I longed to tell him that when I stepped from my car I heard coyotes howling at the fading moon. I wanted to tell him that there must have been meaning in that.

John Steinbeck was one of my dad’s favourite authors. Steinbeck wrote in East of Eden, “All great and precious things are lonely.” My dad was precious. I wish that he had never been lonely.

Taking Care of Grampa in All This

Dear Mom, I started writing you these letters months after you died on a day I felt I just had to talk to you. I was here at the lake place, where I am again – but who could ever have imagined I’d be writing you this one. I still can’t believe it all – we were isolating here with three of the adult kids, and one girlfriend. I still don’t know what I believe Mom – whether you are somewhere watching all of this or not. But it helps to write.

I have to say right off that I never ever would have left Dad in the city during this corona virus crisis if I was still allowed to see him. Even though there are no cases in his senior’s home they aren’t allowing anyone to visit at all. And we all came up here to the lake because a few of us had traveled out of the country and had to be isolated. (We came before there was any advice not to and would return if any of us weren’t well). Still Mom I lay in bed at night aching over whether somehow we could have managed his care in one of our homes. But he’s just so weak right now. (Though not weak spirited.) With his CHF it’s almost a struggle for him to walk from his couch to the washroom. I’ve been convinced that the safest place for him is right where he is, where he’s health needs are being met. Oh my Mom, we’re so not alone with our worry over a senior separated from loved ones. And I think Dad ‘gets’ it. He watches that damn news station all day long. All of us smile about how we’re giving him the same advise when we talk to him, trying to get him to switch the news off when we tell him to change channels (that TV remote is not his friend), to move around the apartment more, open his blinds to the sunny skies, and no Dad you don’t have to stay up til midnight just because you always did.

We’re talking to him Mom. Lots. And lots. I rack my brain trying to think of what special treats our wonderful helpers who live across from his residence could drop off for him to have in there in his apartment. Dad’s such a social creature and I know dementia has made that more so by 100 percent. He loved to just get out and about. You know how going out for coffee was a daily event with him and his brothers. Before all this happened and after he lost you Mom – his North Star – we’d set his life up so almost every afternoon one of us visited or took him out – and without you the evenings were so long and lonely we hired those angels across the road to visit every night. Of course they can’t go in either. You know how Dad keeps a straight face but can be such a funny guy, with old time expressions he likes to use. When we call he says loudly, “Thanks for the call.” When we leave he tells us, “Don’t be a stranger.” And he likes to say, “The latchkey is always out,” and the oddest one, “Don’t take any wooden nickels”. He’s frantic and lonely but still funny. I talked to him for a bit just now, and I told him I’ll call you again soon. He said, ” I’ll be here.” Funny Daddy.

Anyway Mom – we’re not alone or special in this – having the head of our clan kept away from us. Your generation, they’ve seen the shit show the world can come up against. Dad talks about when polio hit his little town when he was a kid and how kids couldn’t leave the yard. You had the dirty thirties depression and he saw his older brother and Dad prepare to go to freaking war. And I remember you showing me your food rationing cards. As they are saying on social media – in comparison we’re just being asked to stay home.

I’ll share a funny one. Our helpers across the street called and asked Dad if he could drop anything off at the front desk. Dad requested apple pie and milk. When I asked him if the staff brought it up to him, he said, “Yeah, I don’t know why I got that.” When I told him he was kinda amused. Who knows what he might throw out as a request next. Still my heart aches for Daddy being kept from us for everyone’s own good. We’re doing our best Mom, to take care of him, the way he cared so hard for us, like we told you we would. Love you Mom. Forever and ever. Write back? xoxo

(If you would like to read more of my writing follow my blog or you can read my book Text Me, Love Mom : Two Girls, Two Boys, One Empty Nest – https://www.amazon.ca/Text-Me-Love-Mom-Girls/dp/1771800712

Staying Separate and Apart – Together

To write this story or not – but I’m a writer and it’s what I have to offer. I’m isolated with part of my big family…

Since I was a kid in grade four I’ve found joy and solace by putting words to paper (screen). As we all hunker down in our homes I feel the need to write. I want to share the family humour, the lightness of humanity and the very tough bits too.

To catch you up – here’s a brief tale of our situation at our ‘camp’ away from the world, though at the same time as we’re away we are deeply engrossed in events unfolding everywhere. I was out of the country with my adult daughters for a special short trip. We knew to be cautious in our travels – handiwipes in our purses, hand washing everywhere, hanging together. Even on our return we weren’t worried. Social distancing wasn’t a thing that first day. It was more than 24 hours after that when our world started to be dumped upside down with the disturbing frightful realization of how Coronavirus had insidiously crept into our province.

It was recommended that my husband work away from home because of my having come from away. We decided he would head to our cottage and prepare it in case any of our adult kids wanted to isolate. (It was the beginning of the odd toilet paper hoarding – though honestly folks we legitimately needed some). He packed the truck up with supplies as if it was a family retreat over a summery long weekend but this time he had cleaning products instead of blow up beach toys and canned goods, not marshmallows.

Our youngest daughter was studying for an important graduate entrance exam and followed him. Her big sister is the mom of our two young granddaughters and her husband was out of the country not aware yet that he’d have to head home. So there I was with my husband telling me to follow him to the cottage on the lake to finish this isolation time, but I felt like a big mother hen and needed to take care of my eldest daughter and my granddaughters, at least until her husband was homeward bound. So we were hanging together at bit over meals, the girls doing art at my kitchen table, their mom and I trying to sort out what everyone everywhere was sorting.

It was March 12th and snowing, not that usual spring snow which is heavy and wet and perfect for snowmen, but instead light flakes blowing and drifting through the night and day. Normally another flipping snow storm would be enough to fill social media with chatter but I remember the weather wasn’t mentioned as we all caught up with the threat of the virus and were deep in social media attention mode.

Waiting for my son-in-laws return and the snow to stop making the roads treacherous – I started to pack. But hold on – what was I packing for? … the now recommended fourteen days after travel to be over? Or some long otherworldly escape for how long …? Would I want outfits to maybe go out locally in the early spring sunshine in another week? Or comfy clothes to be sick with some version of the virus? Was I taking a stack of books to read near the calm lake til it was all clear – or bleach, disposable gloves and lotion for hands we’d be scrubbing for who-knows- how long?

We have four ‘kids’ – two sons in another city, sharing a home with one of their girlfriends. More mother hen – I had to know what they were doing as the numbers of people being tested for the damn virus was slowly growing. I was worried about our boys and the girlfriend – all in the entertainment business whose jobs had closed up – but the boys were more concerned for us in this world of the Coronavirus where at our age we were annoyed at being counted among the older folks and in that broad demographic that was most at risk of serious trouble. The mind spins . Damn it I’m not near ‘elderly’. The guys worried that if they’d unknowingly been exposed they could pose a risk to us. I wanted them to leave the threat of the big city and be exactly where we were. We talked a lot. None of us had any knowledge that we’d been directly exposed. Had we in our travels? Had they in contact with a wide swath of folks at work? We changed our minds and changed them again and decided to come together and practise being apart together – however that would look.

Normally in my life I’m pulled tight into my own city by my dad whose in a senior’s residence and wants our company desperately. But I couldn’t visit him. I was ‘free’ to go. (That’s a whole other story to be gently told).

My mom passed last year – oh Mommy, you never ever could have imagined all this. The whole world is so far off kilter, nervous and stunned, watching numbers go up, and now our government is calling Canadians home. When does that happen?

I drove down the highway alone, trying not to stop – so aware that I was isolating from others but feeling the separation of people from me. There were some cars but mostly it was the truckers and me . It took me so long to pack extra who- knows- what for a trip of indeterminate length and purpose that I was amused at my own indecision. Tucked in with a box of chocolates I couldn’t resist in the car were weights for exercising, and my sewing machine ??? I had high boots for deep snow and sandals for hot weather. Should I bring the hair dye from the back of the cupboard though it’s not my current fav colour’? Those young women can go falsely grey but I’m still fighting the good fight.

I passed the biggest herd of elk I’d ever seen standing in a tight group beside the road in the moonlight. No social isolating for them. When I arrived at our cottage my husband was asleep and my daughter headed to bed. It was calm. The lake was still. A slip of moon shone over it. But beyond the mountains I’d driven over, the world was changing, changing, changing.