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

Letter to Mom – Written Two Months After She Disappeared

Dear Mom,

I’m so sorry about all of this. If there was something wrong with you before you broke your hip and had surgery for it, why didn’t we figure that out? I’m not supposed to think like this – because you were old and old people die.

God Mom, I miss you so much. I want to talk to you. It’s just little things that I’d say. Today I’d tell you that I went for a swim in the rain. And that I’m scrapping off some old wooden chairs to repaint. You’d admire the chair job because it’s frugal – and will be bright and colourful. You lived a whole long life without learning how to swim so you might not think of it as enjoyable in rainy weather, but it was.

And I’d tell you about going to the farmer’s market at the near-by community hall. Remember, it’s not like the ones in the city. Out here at the cottage they really are farmers selling cucumbers (got some) and zucchini’s (got those too) and fresh potatoes and corn (our supper). Maybe I wouldn’t tell you I bought a beautiful little bird house made by a local artist. It’s exquisite but you’d wonder how many bird houses I could own?

Did I ever tell you that we got the birdhouse off your garage before your house sold? How many birdhouses do I have to own before I’m a bird house collector?

Those are some of the things I’d talk about with you if you were still here. But you’re not and so what I want to talk most about is Dad. God it’s so hard with him. When you first left us (where did you go Mom?) his dementia seemed suddenly less of a factor. Like he was shocked into being clearer. Mom, I know you were 89 and I guess in worse health than we thought, but we were shocked when you died. (You know Dad doesn’t like the term ‘passed away’ so I try not to use it.) When you were first brought to the hospital with that stupid broken hip you said, You didn’t want to do ‘that hip thing’. And I knew what you meant – how a broken hip and surgery can lead to a slow downward spiral. But it wasn’t a spiral at all. It was way faster than that. I’m angry with myself for not staying with you at the hospital 24/7 but I had no idea we were going to lose you. If I could go back in time – I’d go back to then, but I’m guilty of magical thinking believing that I could have changed anything by being there. Your lung collapsed Saturday night but no one knew that . I’m glad I had a sister with me at the hospital, holding your hand and wiping your brow, but she and I are also glad the others didn’t see you, so they can remember you differently than that.

So yeah it’s hard with Dad. Cause he’s not clear now like he was that first week. He’s so lost without you. But maybe I shouldn’t tell you that. Though is there some way that you know? People I’m close to are saying there is. I don’t know what I believe. Are you looking over my shoulder at my fingers moving quickly over my iphone keys right now? Or are you just gone? I thought that I would have somehow felt you by now. There was one morning when I saw you in a dream and it was comforting then, but it wasn’t enough. I’m waiting for something like that again.

Mom we’re doing our best with Dad. It’s so hard as he doesn’t always seem to know that. And they are wonderful with him where he lives. He’s getting out a lot – like really a lot. He asks us to take him places constantly and none of us can say no, even if we’d taken him on a long drive in the country the day before. But we’ll barely have him back and he’s asking when we can do it again.

You’d be proud of your grandkids – they’re visiting him too. Hey, we made the family jelly – your special rose petal (maybe I felt you watching me that night), and raspberry jelly, and the peachy pear. I think we did alright.

Oh – and in this high tech world I taught my granddaughters how to embroidery one evening at the lake. I knew that would make you happy. Oh mommy. I miss you so much. I thought this letter might help. Maybe the first try is the hardest.

I could just imagine your response. I know you’d give me advice about the jam (it all set, but I did have one runny batch). And you’d just love that your six and nine year-old great-grand daughters were embroidering. It was cool to see how much they liked it and went free hand with their names above their carefully stitched puppy and butterfly.

I think you’d tell us we were spoiling dad and we don’t have to take him out so much. I know behind the dementia is my ‘real’ dad, who would never be so demanding. But both that dad and this dad are so lonely for you. I’m sitting here on the end of the dock, feeling as lost as daddy. I’ll slip into the lake and swim, I guess. I don’t know how to sign off.

Love you forever Mom.

Ps. I haven’t done the best job with your bills. Some got paid late. I know you’d hate that. I’ll do better.

Pps. Did I ever tell you that Rose says if she ever had a baby girl she’d name it Vera – after you. I hope I did.