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April 27, 2020

Together Apart

Fostering Community

I miss my mom. Like many families in Ontario with loved ones in long-term care homes, we’ve been unable to visit her for many weeks. As if that weren’t challenging enough, her telephone stopped working and it will require a visit from a repair person. (That’s not happening.) A cell phone isn’t a viable option because the technology simply confounds her (hence the move to a landline approximately five months ago). We’re problem-solving and hope that the imminent delivery of an iPad 3G might allow us to FaceTime as a family. (Call me an eternal optimist but I’m placing a bet that an iPad with very few apps on the screen will be easier for her to navigate than a cell phone. My sister isn’t so sure.)

Sadly, like many Ontario seniors in long-term care homes, my mom contracted COVID-19. It’s devastating to receive news when your parent tests positive, and it’s made all the worse knowing they will be alone and isolated from family throughout the course of the illness. The only time a family member can visit is to say goodbye.

At the time of writing this blog, my mother is on day 23 of the illness and still going strong. She’s been blessedly spared the more severe symptoms, and while we know things can change quickly in the elderly, I am slowly allowing myself to feel ever so slightly optimistic. I don’t know if it’s knowledge of my mother’s legendary stubborn streak, her generally hardy constitution or the wealth of prayers offered up from those who love her but I choose to believe the odds are on her side at this point.

Reflecting on my journey over the last three weeks has confirmed what I’ve long known about myself: I am a problem solver. I am a doer. I am an optimist. (I am also stubborn but have reframed that trait as charmingly and doggedly determined.) Nothing about my mother’s isolation and illness has changed who I am but it has deeply challenged me to find positive ways to respond. You see, I am typically the person in a crisis who stays calm, makes a plan and leads the charge up the hill. Being limited to taking action “from afar” feels frustratingly inadequate.

There are many families across the province and the country feeling the same way right now, asking themselves the same questions: How can we feel connected from afar? How do we stay together while apart? How can we feel useful?

I’ve come to a helpful realization. I’ve found that transferring some of that energy to helping others, to making a direct difference where I can, provides a sense of relief. It’s almost as if I’m vicariously supporting my mother by helping others. Whether it’s leaving dinner on the doorstep of a friend who’s battling cancer (yes, such hardships pay no heed to global pandemics) or dropping off cookies and a small supply of masks to our local pharmacist who always asks after my mother every time I see her – these things make a difference. They are small acts that feel useful.

One of the most beautiful things I’ve discovered through this journey is that others are doing the same – rolling up their sleeves and helping where they can, even when their actions provide no direct benefit to them or their loved ones. Caring people are giving to others simply because it’s the right thing to do. Our family benefitted from one of these acts of kindness and compassion when I got a call last week from a childhood friend who is now a Salvation Army Minister and very involved in supporting those on the front lines throughout this crisis. He knows my mother well and knows where she resides, so it wasn’t a particular surprise when he video called me. I assumed he was just checking in but that wasn’t the purpose of his call. He was on the line with another childhood friend of mine who I hadn’t spoken to in over 35 years, but who is also working for the Salvation Army and has been sent to my mother’s long-term care home to help out in the crisis. I learned that this long-lost friend spends his evenings taking meals to residents, donning full protective personal equipment in order to provide support to the front line workers in any way he can. Wednesday night he took dinner to my mother, and recognizing her name from decades gone by, he engaged her in conversation and decided to reach out to me. During our surprise FaceTime call he delivered the most incredible news. “Your mom is doing well,” he said. “She was sitting in her arm chair and happily watching television when I came in the room. She knew exactly who I was after I introduced myself and we spent a bit of time talking about the good old days.” And as if that wasn’t enough of a gift for my ears, he then said, “I’ll be going back to the home tomorrow night. Is there anything you’d like me to tell her?”

He took messages of love from our entire family back to my mother. But he also took one very important instruction: On Saturday, look out your window at 1 p.m. And so it was that my mother was waiting at her fourth-floor window on Saturday, a small but discernable figure, waving energetically and blowing kisses as she watched her family decorate the outside of her long-term care home with signs of love and support for her, for every resident and for every front line worker. She saw us wrap the trees with yellow ribbon and silk daffodils to send a message that no one is forgotten and better times are ahead. She watched us leave freshly baked cookies in the “drop off” area outside the home, knowing they would slowly make their way to her room. But most importantly, she got to see her beloved great-granddaughter, now six-months-old, held in her grandson’s arms, far away from anyone else – safe but still in sight. It was a precious moment, made possible because of another’s kindness.

We are living through an exceptional time in history. Never in our memory have so many of us been physically apart and yet together. Through acts of kindness, altruism, compassion and selflessness, we are able to experience moments of deep unity as Canadians, as friends and as families. At times, we feel unable to solve our own problems in the way we would like, but in focusing instead on helping others, blessings will find their way back to us. In helping others, we will be helped. So to everyone out there feeling the need to do more, please remember: We are united through our separation. We are helped by helping others. We are together apart.

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