It Could Always Be Worse

The Year of the Virus has been a decidedly rough tumble for my dad. After teetering at the threshold of uncertainty and doomsday scenarios in the early days, when little was known and much was speculated, he nevertheless laboured on, towards his 88th birthday – on the first of May. There was a distinct gloominess and improvised quality to (what we hoped would be) a short-lived experiment in online party-making. Little did we realize that we were slipping into a strange reality not of our making; one that we would inhabit reluctantly and for an indefinite future, through the omnipotent lens of Zoom.

Having scaled the heights of octogenarianism, my dad had fortunately sailed through his life on annual checkups alone – and without so much as a single hospital stay. But when the pandemic emerged, his one, mild, decade-old (but easily-controlled) health challenge suddenly spiraled out of control, dredging up dormant anxiety and other psychosomatic ills, pulling them along for the ride. And then, bit by bit, he crumbled under the weight.

Up until the Not-So-Great Pause, he still loved to drive (car rides rank as his favourite form of travel), still loved to explore overseas, loved to visit the grandchildren. Then, the uncontainable contagion, in one fell swoop, control-alt-deleted all scheduled travel plans; dinners, movies and outings with friends; theatre and concert sorties; lunches with a buddy; daily errands and taking care of minor business matters. His life (and my mother’s along with his) was chiseled down, almost overnight, into absolute confinement. Lockdown translated into a shutdown of life – at least from his perspective.

That one minor, but manageable, medical issue became unplugged, dissolving into a cascade of maladies, sending all of us (nuclear family members) into a tailspin. With no other relatives living in my hometown, and with F***IN’ COVID preventing immediate in-person assistance, we flailed about, trying to get our parents’ unwished-for, abnormal existence organized from afar.

We quickly learned of nocturnal ER visits, doctors appointments, tests and procedures to rule out one medical possibility after another, with anxiety (and nausea) a constant, overriding presence. The troops were called in: social worker, therapist, pharmacists and specialists of all stripes and colours (spread out at different hospitals and clinics), whose names became part of our daily conversations. We set and juggled appointment dates, referrals, medications, frequent email exchanges, requests for reports, test results and more referrals.

A crew of concerned citizens (friends and former neighbors), along with my two sisters (and I, to the limited extent that I could),  formed an ad hoc army of angels: Online ordering and delivery of food, supplies and medications. Mailed packages, puzzles, cards, books, clothes and gifts. Physically-distanced picnics were organized. Zoom calls, family reunions, meetings, and attending a wedding became the norm. Safe outings, drives through town, a breath and breeze of fresh air offered blessed relief from the monotony of building ventilation, four walls and screentime.

Once lockdowns and quarantines became a part of our everyday language, and we learned the necessary procedures, more in-person help because possible (though logistically nightmarish). One sister showed up twice, for a few days each, after a drive of many hours; then the other sister, masked to the hilt, held down the fort for two months, passing the point of exhaustion nearly every day. I, in a different time zone, could only offer online research and help, phone calls, an ear for empathy – and a hope scale graded by colour and weather. Thank goodness for WA and Zoom.

In an attempt to recharge dad’s dwindling spirits and alleviate escalating pains and fears, we got him ‘hooked’ to weed (thank you, Canada!). First came hemp. In the form of a woven bracelet. Then, cannabis. Medically-approved and dosed CBD oil. His more severe symptoms seemingly, tentatively, mitigated. Still, plant-medicine is a work in progress – and hopeful light through the darkness.

Eight months in, and sometimes under great, long-distance duress, somehow we’ve managed –notwithstanding two time zones, 4 cities and the disturbances and fatigue that have turned our respective lives upside down – to carry out this mission.

But of course, as in all situations of crisis, accompanied by a litany of pains, what often gets us through these roughest times are the moments of connection, of humour, of levity. I’ve had a few of those with my dad; sparingly, but still.

Two recent instances: As his eyes and cheeks began, recently, to redden and swell, our concerns ran into new territory. Call the GP. Request referral for an allergist. Book a visit to the dermatologist. Feeling aggrieved by even more ailments, my dad fell into a mutter – but with a twist that displayed his particular species of humour: Ohhh, first I was on antibiotics. Then, don’t forget the probiotics. Now, maybe face-biotics. Eye biotics. Skin biotics. What’s next-biotics? He had me in stitches.

And, just the other morning (well, his NIGHT), when the swelling still could not be tamed, he told me – with fatigue dripping from his voice – of a new symptom. A new locus of discomfort. When would it ever end? How much more did he have to contend with?

As he recounted this new development, the biblical figure of Job sprang to mind; an endless barrage of hurt and misery afflicting his righteous life. Then, a spark of inspiration. I’d read him a story, to distract his COVID-addled mind.

Once my dad was lying back, looking restful, with eyes closed (thank you WhatsApp!), I put my phone down and googled the name of the book. As it popped up, I checked to make sure he was still awake – “Yes, yes, I’m up!” – before reading him a popular Yiddish fairy tale, as if  it were prophetically penned for this very weary year: It Could Always Be Worse.

Who knew that a bedtime story would, momentarily at least, soothe my dad’s yearning, aching soul?

5 Comments

  1. I’m so so sorry to read this, Amit. I know all too well how difficult it is to be on the wrong side of the globe from your family at this stressful time. But an ailing parent so far away is almost too much to bear. Reading a bedtime story over Whatsapp was a brilliant idea. Thank you for sharing.

    1. I know you can empathize with the distance-from-family factor, even more so now for you with grandchildren you want so much to swoon over and cuddle with! Hope you’re getting closer to knowing where to next..

  2. Oh Amit, I’m so sorry that your family is going through this – a difficult situation under “normal” circumstances. It must be incredibly daunting under Covid. Your love and compassion shine through. Your choice of a book to read your Dad made me smile. Margot Zemach was an amazing talent and a powerful illustrator. I can imagine that the combination of your reading and Margot’s artwork was very soothing to your Father. He’s lucky to have daughters like you and your sisters. Here’s hoping for a brighter 2021 for you and your family. Big Hug, Terri

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