The Current

Separated by lockdown, this man wrote nearly 300 letters to his wife in a care home

When the pandemic struck last March and stopped Brian Barnes from visiting his wife Joanne in her locked-down care home, he turned to paper and pen to stay in touch.

Uninspired by store-bought cards, Barrie, Ont., man penned love letters

Lockdown measures separated Brian Barnes from his wife Joanne, who had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and was living in a care home in Barrie, Ont. (Submitted by Brian Barnes)

Story Transcript

When the pandemic struck last March and stopped Brian Barnes from visiting his wife Joanne in her locked-down care home, he turned to paper and pen to stay in touch.

As lockdown extended into weeks and months, Barnes kept writing, penning almost 300 letters, all finding their way from his hands to hers.

"[Staff] said on occasion Joanne would want the letter when she went to bed and she would hold it on her chest," Barnes told CBC's The Current.

"And I heard from the morning PSWs that Joanne would still be clutching that letter in the morning."

Joanne died in January. While Barnes is still grieving, he says he has taken comfort in the letters he wrote — he kept in a bundle at his home — and is thinking about writing her one last letter.

WATCH | Man delivers daily love letters:

Man delivers daily love letter to wife in nursing home during pandemic

Toronto

7 months ago
5:01
Brian Barnes has written a love letter to his wife and delivered it daily to her nursing home since the COVID-19 lockdown in March. He shared some of the 172 letters he’s written so far. 5:01

Joanne had moved to the facility near their Barrie, Ont., home after she was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2019. 

During the initial lockdown, Barnes went to buy a card and some flowers to let her know he was thinking of her, but was underwhelmed with what greeted him on the shelf. 

"I looked at, I'll say, a dozen cards. I said, I can do better myself. I can write something that is more important," he said.

Barnes dropped the first love letter at the care home, where staff read it aloud to Joanne. It read:

Dearest Joanne, I will need to keep this letter short.

I hope the PSW has given you the flowers to enjoy. Needless to say that I miss you and love you as much as ever. If you only remember one thing, remember that I have loved you very much for over 48 years now.

This virus outbreak, COVID-19, is terrible, and has been the most disruptive thing in my entire lifetime. I have no idea as to when we will be able to return to a normal life. Please try to stay positive and be strong. I am trying my best to do likewise.

Your husband, Brian.

The letters are in contrast to the video calls that have kept many people connected through the pandemic. 

But while it may seem like an old-fashioned way to stay in touch, California-based writer Lauren Markham thinks there's something "stunning" about sending letters in a world that is ever more instantaneous and automated.

"There is something completely magical about doing something physical, writing something physical in my own home, folding it up, putting it in another piece of paper, [and] walking to some box near my house," said Markham.

LISTEN | Barnes' first letter to his wife:

"Then magically a couple of days, or depending on where I'm sending it a couple of weeks later, it appears in the hands, and at the house of someone I care about."

Canada Post published letter-writing tips last fall, something Markham also has advice about.

Even though she's written about the joys of letter-writing in the pandemic, she says she's sometimes intimidated sitting down to a blank page, and has used postcards to overcome it. 

"You know that feeling when you're like, 'Oh, I just thought of this person, I'm going to send them a text,' or like, 'I saw this beautiful thing, I'm going to take a picture and send it to them,'" she said.

"When you have that instinct, instead of sending the text, send a postcard."

Lauren Markham has been writing letters, and writing about writing letters, in the pandemic. (Submitted by Lauren Markham)

Barnes says he didn't always know what he would write. Some days it was a specific memory, like Joanne going into labour with their son on Christmas Eve in 1986. Other times, it was just an update about their grandchildren. 

Even when lockdowns eased and he could visit again, he kept writing. 

Barnes remembers that before Joanne died, one of her personal support workers told him about reading the letters to her when he couldn't be there. 

"'I'll tell you one thing Brian', she said, 'when Joanne passes, I will cry because these letters have made me get to know Joanne, not as a resident ... as a person.'" 


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Amanda Grant.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this article stated Brian and Joanne Barnes had a son on Christmas Eve. Joanne went into labour on Christmas Eve, but their son was not born until early the next day.
    Feb 24, 2021 10:14 AM ET

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