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.