I Don’t Know If My Kids Will Ever See Their Grandparents Again
By Jennifer Power Scott
Photo © vinnikava/Twenty20
Jul 7, 2020
On a sticky New Brunswick afternoon — the kind of Sunday perfect for beach balls, bare legs and backyard barbecues — I’m bawling like a baby in front of a computer screen in an upstairs bedroom.
Booking my annual summer trip home to Newfoundland had never before involved navigating airline websites and COVID-19 updates through a waterfall of tears.
But this is 2020.
And for me and thousands of other Canadians living far away from their aged, ailing parents in the pandemic, an undercurrent of angst has become part of life.
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The thought of boarding a packed Dash 8 airplane with my two teenaged daughters spikes my anxiety. Some people say I shouldn’t do it. They say it’s too risky this year.
Still, I have to find a way to get to Newfoundland. I have to see Mom and Dad.
“Nobody is healthy at 92,” my father told me on the phone two days ago. “I feel weak all the time, and my appetite is affected.”
Dad used to be the dapper fellow tipping his felt fedora to everyone he passed on the sidewalks of Grand Falls-Windsor, a placid town planted in a vast valley of evergreens. He was Grand Knight of the Knights of Columbus, president of the local chapter of the Canadian Red Cross, and a campaign manager in provincial elections. In the early 1970s, he dined with Joey Smallwood at the Confederation Building in St. John’s.
My parents are still in the white two-storey house they bought in 1967. But Dad lives in darkness, robbed of his eyesight because of glaucoma. A painful prostate condition forces him to use a catheter. Taking a shower has become an exhausting ordeal. He has dropped 30 pounds since last year.
“That’s a lot of weight,” he says. “That’s my illness.”
"She never complains, never feels sorry for herself and never gives up."
And then there’s my saintly, sweeter-than-an-angel, superlatively steady mother. She survived a heart attack in 1999, the drowning in St. John’s Harbour of a beloved son in 2011 and the deaths of her two sisters in 2017 and 2018. Because of Dad’s condition, she is a full-time caregiver at the age of 87.
Is she bitter? Not one bit.
“Just kind of be optimistic, that’s all,” she says. “And enjoy the moment.”
Every time I call home, Mom laughs and talks about happy things — like her impassioned decluttering, the spring leaves or last evening’s delicious roast. Unlike her writerly daughter, she doesn’t spend time exploring the gloomiest, grittiest recesses of her psyche. She never complains, never feels sorry for herself and never gives up.
But there are excruciating moments. Dad had to go to the hospital in an ambulance last year. A week ago, he fell to the kitchen floor.
“It’s very difficult,” Mom says. “But we’re married, and I’m the one to look after him. I wouldn’t want anyone else to look after him. Only me, as long as I can.”
My parents have three living children, eight grandchildren and one little great-grandson, but not one of us lives in Newfoundland. We are scattered across Canada — from a picturesque peninsula in Nova Scotia to the pea soup fog of the Bay of Fundy, from a red brick duplex in Toronto to a shiny skyscraper in downtown Calgary.
Yes, we sound like a Stompin’ Tom song.
"I had to trust Mom and Dad to take care of themselves. I had to make peace with my own powerlessness."
After all my parents did to raise us and give us unlimited educational opportunity, they deserve to have at least one of their offspring nearby — especially during the pandemic.
Dad doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t think you have to be together in this day and age,” he says. “I love the grandchildren. I keep in touch with them. That’s enough.”
Still, I practically have a PhD in guilt over the situation — and the pandemic multiplied the effect. Before COVID-19, I knew that if my parents needed me, I could be in Newfoundland within a few hours. There was comfort in that.
Suddenly, the Rock was closed. There was a gigantic, invisible, impenetrable wall separating me from Mom and Dad. Like everyone, I was stuck.
The “what ifs” plagued me in the early days of isolation. What if my parents get COVID-19? What if I can’t go to Newfoundland until 2021? What if Dad needs to move into a nursing home? What if my kids never see their grandparents again? What if the worst happens?
Determined to help my parents, I kept offering to order their groceries online. When they turned me down for the tenth time, I finally accepted they weren’t interested in my new-fangled foolishness.
Still, I implored Mom to stay out of stores. And like a stuffy schoolmarm, I reminded her to wash her hands.
"'I don’t expect them to just wither away in a couple of seconds.'"
“Muh dear, I’m washing my hands all the time,” she said, possibly slightly annoyed. “I got my hands rubbed raw from all the washing.”
So, I had to stop trying to parent my parents. I had to trust Mom and Dad to take care of themselves. I had to make peace with my own powerlessness.
It helps to have amazing relatives. On Easter Sunday, my cousin Regina showed up at my parents’ door to drop off a sumptuous Newfoundland supper of salt meat, cabbage and turkey. Leo, my father’s 80-year-old little brother, takes Dad out for snacks and a walk three times a week.
Regina and Uncle Leo are COVID heroes.
The Atlantic travel bubble started on July 3. Still, I haven’t figured out when, how or if my daughters will see their grandparents again. My car is probably too old for a 14-hour road trip. I booked flights, but I cancelled them when the airline changed my itinerary to include a plane change in Toronto.
As I search for a solution, my 13-year-old daughter, Rose, doesn’t doubt she will go to the Rock and visit Nan and Pop Power.
Loss is a very real and difficult thing to navigate for kids and parents. Here's how one mother keeps the memory of lost grandparents alive.
“I know I will see them again because I’m optimistic,” she told me. “I don’t expect them to just wither away in a couple of seconds.”
So, I dream of a warm afternoon in August. And in this dream, I’m packing a picnic basket and driving my beautifully optimistic mother and equally optimistic daughters to Gorge Park in Grand Falls-Windsor.
We’re sitting in the big gazebo, watching the fluffy clouds and blue sky reflecting on the ripples of the Exploits River, and savouring a safe, serene Newfoundland moment in a year of infamy.
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