My Grandma Ray was born in 1918. While she’s still pretty sharp, in the last decade things have gotten more challenging. Though she hates to admit it, Grandma needs our help with many day-to-day activities. More than that she needs our company. But with the pandemic, that help has been hard to give.
My grandfather died 17 years ago, shortly before my grandparents would have celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary. For a few years after his loss, Grandma stuck it out on her own at their farmhouse. She rented the land for cattle and drove into town once a week for groceries. When that became untenable the decision was made to move Grandma Ray from the Ottawa Valley to somewhere closer to our family. While the relocation meant we could offer her some much needed support, it also meant leaving behind her church, a community of friends, and an area Grandma had lived in since she was a little girl. The choice wasn't made lightly but at 91 there weren't a lot of other options. We packed her abode—a carefully decorated place full of hand-knitted treasures, intricate knick-knacks, and a much beloved piano—and drove my grandmother and her oversized tabby cat 10 hours south to their new home in the Niagara region.
While Grandma made the best of the situation, the new accommodations left a lot to be desired. Though grateful for more time with her family, she missed her old life. She longed for her friends and the familiarity of the old neighbourhood but, honestly, much of what she missed had already disappeared. It is an inevitable byproduct of getting older. Friends and family pass away. Institutions change. You make compromises. It all keeps going on until of course it doesn’t.
Nowadays the only people Grandma really knows—the only people left really—are my brother, my mom, and me. It’s something I think about a lot. There is a certain responsibility to it. I make an effort to be a good grandson, keeping in touch, and visiting when I can. But with the onset of COVID-19 that’s been next to impossible.
Grandma Ray lives in a nursing home. The nursing home has been cut off from visitors since before the pandemic even started. Somebody had a bad case of the flu and in an effort to stop things from spreading, non-staff were barred from entering her floor. At the time it didn’t really register. No big deal, really. I figured I’d wait a few weeks for the flu to blow over and visit when I could. That was nearly five months ago.
Late last year Grandma took a spill. She was trying to move from her bed and fell over, hitting her head. For a little while we worried that would be the end of things. When you’ve been alive for over a century, a concussion can prove fatal, but Grandma has always been stubborn. Unfortunately after the head injury she’s prone to confusion. Her hearing seems worse. While we used to chat on the phone a few times a week, now the practice sort of escapes her. It made the in-person visits feel crucial. Without them I worry what she must think. Though people have explained the current situation to my grandmother…does she understand why we haven't been able to see her? Is she lonely? Isn't there something else we could do?
In an attempt to alleviate some of that loneliness, the people at the nursing home have suggested that we try Zoom calls. But that’s left us with another conundrum. How do you explain Zoom to a 101-year-old person? If the phone has been a challenge what hope is there for communicating that the face and the voice coming out of the shiny square box is her daughter or grandson? Ray grew up in rural Quebec in a farming community. At her farm they didn’t even get electricity into her late 30s. Zoom might as well be witchcraft.
That said: we've still tried it. Because trying is better than doing nothing. On Thursdays at the nursing home they prop Grandma's chair up in front of the computer. Mom calls into the video chat. Her voice comes through a bluetooth speaker somewhere else in the room.
Grandma looks at the screen. She half recognizes that the video looks like my Ma, but has never quite pieced together that…well… it is Mom. To Grandma Ray, she’s just watching a weird video of her daughter making strange faces and offering barely audible platitudes. It never registers that she’s supposed to interact with the face on the screen. Or that the face on the screen is the best we can do for a meeting at the moment. After a minute or two of cajoling Grandma gets bored or frustrated. Things wrap up. Each week her caregivers promise to try again. Maybe it will be different next time.
The situation has made clear many shortfalls of digital communications. I’ve enjoyed online trivia nights with my co-workers. I’ve been grateful for some face time with friends across the country. But the screens are still a sad substitute for being in the same room as somebody else.
In my darker moments I start to do the math. Grandma is 101. That’s almost 20 years older than the average person is expected to live in Canada. The past few years, the past few decades really, have felt like borrowed time. I wanted my relationship with my Grandma to go beyond childhood memories of hikes through the cow fields and the mounds of butter on freshly baked bread. That has meant making a concentrated effort to know her more. And now I worry that our last conversation might be through a digital box that she doesn’t even understand. The last few weeks people’s attitudes have seemed to have eased a bit surrounding the coronavirus. People have been returning to parks. Some stores have started to open up again. But even with the perceived breathing room, it’s not as though the pandemic is just over. Far from it. Cases in Ontario continue to spike. Vulnerable populations are still at huge risk, which makes me wonder when I might get to see Grandma again. The thought of her being alone is very hard.
I don’t want her to die by herself. I don’t want to feel like our last moments are taken away because of something beyond our control. I worry about how well she understands the situation. I wonder if she feels abandoned and I feel helpless. While I wait for things to change I’ve been trying to think of productive things to do. Two years ago around Christmas Grandma decided to write down what she could remember from her life. She wanted something to share with the family. My mom, my brother, and I sat with tea and listened as Grandma explained how she went from working on a farm, to supporting her husband as he worked in a lumber yard and then a mine, to working on a farm again. Aside from brief interludes of dancing and recipes for pie, it seemed like a hard life. But Grandma never spoke about her time with any sense of resentment or regret. She was happy to share what went down and pleased it had brought her there with us that evening. Lately I’ve been re-reading her notes. I’ve been trying my best to adopt some of her attitude, taking things in stride as best I can, and being happy for the time we get to spend around the ones we love. For now, it’s the best we seem to have.
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