As a writing teacher, I always told my students to write about what they know. Their experiences equal their stories. Yet, as a little girl with blonde ringlets, my story was not polite to talk about. My reality made people uncomfortable. However I realize this has been a construct manufactured by people wanting to create a more palatable, albeit false, reality for themselves. My story is what I know and not a secret to be swept into dark corners. My story is mine to explore and my truth to tell.
The COVID world is not a kind and gentle place. Distrust feeds uncertainty. Fear and anxiety have transitioned to anger. Domestic abuse is up. The mental health industry is booming. Unscrupulous spouses have started divorce proceedings to ensure the greatest financial advantage to themselves. The nasty are freed to be nasty with impunity. In order to proceed into the festive season with joy and good will, it is necessary to be quite deliberate in the pursuit of it. Memories need to be culled. A focus established. You either hold precious memories close to your heart and feel grateful or let the toxic memories and toxic people in your life allow bitterness to fester.
I have freedom and space to focus my attention to creating a season of joy and good will this year. On Sunday, I hosted my first Christmas Tea with people near and dear to my heart. I made my favourite Betty Crocker chocolate walnut fudge of my childhood, The Empress recipe for cranberry scones, thumbprint jam cookies that would have made Mrs. Patrick smile and platters of finger sandwiches worthy of Claridge’s in London. The Royal Doulton china was set with the polished silver. My guests of honour picked out china teacups to take home. There was a choice of five teas to choose from Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Kenya and England. There was only one disconnect.
Tea was a big part of my growing up. You walked in a door and put on the kettle and picked out the china tea cup you wanted to use. Special tea parties with party dresses were for engagements, wedding showers and baby showers. Finger sandwiches always included ham and cheese, egg, cucumber, as well as cheese whiz and canned asparagus. There is the disconnect. I dutifully went to the grocery store and despite the run-on groceries due to the floods and mudslides in British Columbia, cheese whiz and canned asparagus stock was plentiful. I picked up my special ordered horizontally cut bread. I cringed as I opened the canned asparagus. I marvelled at the intensity of the orange of the cheese whiz and questioned whether it should be considered a food product. I considered all of the happy tea time traditions I carry forward and decided that they would not be compromised by saying goodbye to this ritually prepared sandwich reminiscent of living on the poverty line. So those of us who dared, had one last sandwich to commemorate the moment. And said goodbye.
That has been somewhat of a theme for me this year. This year would also be the year I said goodbye to my father. The best times with my father were always those times when he had no need to grand-stand with outrageousness, prove his superiority or do my step-mothers bidding. It included hiking and fishing at the cabin, his trip to see me when I was attending York University, or his solo trips to the Ventura beach house when he was on the outs with my step-mother. It was also talking on the phone when my step-mother was at her secret beach house where my father, my older sister and I were not allowed entry. At these times, the facade was stripped away and conversations were filled with truth, honesty, and stories of what I like to consider was the real Peter Dyck.
Communication with my father has been extremely difficult since he was first diagnosed with frontal lobe dementia many years ago. One summer, we drove the 2,000 km trek and my step-mother allotted a two house visit before she directed us to the door so they could go out for dinner with her friends. My dad was was put in a home this Spring after he fell down the stairs. Carole was sleeping in her wing of the house and failed to notice. He has very few visitors in the home. A phone was not installed in his room so calls with his siblings and his daughters from his first marriage are almost non-existent. On occasion my younger sister would let me call her phone while she was there and let my dad talk to me. A few times the nurses at the Care Home let him use the phone from the nursing station. Of course, these were the best calls because everything he said was not scrutinized. Some postcards I sent were received. Others were returned to sender. So this fall I got in the car and used my American passport for the first time ever and drive across the border. My husband flew into Portland and I picked him up en route. We drove the 2,000 kilometers to go visit my father’s treasured cabin that was turned over to his daughters, and then to Los Angeles to visit my Dad for the first time since before COVID.
For my first visit, I asked my husband to stay in the car so I could visit with my Dad or perhaps just sit with him. It turned out that there was a recently hired care nurse, Martha, who stayed the whole visit. It also turned out that my dad wanted to talk. I was that little blonde girl with ringlets of days gone by again when he told Martha how proud he was of me and the stories that connect us. I stayed a little over an hour and gave him a hug and said I’d be back tomorrow. The floor supervisor gave me a very nervous look but scurried away when she saw me leaving the deck area after our visit. My husband and I went off to the Santa Monica Pier. I was relieved to see my dad doing well but a little sad that the mighty Peter Dyck was resigned to personal care, never returning to the house he loved, and the suggestion of Stockholm Syndrome.
When my husband and I arrived the next day to check in, the woman at the desk nervously reported my visiting privileges had been revoked. Clearly this was not something that happened very often. Again, the little girl with blonde ringlets was back and trembling uncontrollably. I requested to see the woman giving this directive. The women refused to talk to me in person. I understood that she had been given a directive. Even in her old age, my step-mother is scary woman powered by vitriole. I was handed a phone number and dismissed. I retreated into the response well learned from my mother in times of stress. I put on my sunglasses, held up my chin and focused on walking in a straight line. I left a message for the nurse to call me in my very controlled principal voice and texted my younger sister.
She texts back:
“He was upset by the visit yesterday and stated to the staff that he didn’t want to have anymore visits from you. It’s important that he have agency and that his voice/ choices are honoured. He is doing very well there and I’m glad you were able to see him.”
I texts back:
“I understand that is the story.”
She shoots back:
“It is the true story”.
End of communication.
Cruelty wrapped in false piety that I have come to expect on my journeys south to see my California family. I’ve just never mastered girding my loins.
The floor supervisor finally answered my calls. The kindness and wisdom that I have experienced from people who work with dementia patients and their families was absent. In this institution with the pretty decorations and the shrimp cocktails at lunch, that is a service reserved for paying customers.
My father’s response in dementia was turned against him and the rest of my visits blocked. Or perhaps I walked in looking like a spitting image of my mother, talking about life in Canada, and it did put him off balance. He certainly has cause for regret in his life. Or maybe his routine was put off balance because his Canadian daughter, the first Carole Dyck, had arrived for the first time in years. What can’t be taken away was that my father told me he was happy that I came and I felt loved and so did he. I’m glad it was a good visit because it was the last time I will consent to be treated with that degree of disrespect.
I got in the car with my husband and stalward supporter. And I sobbed. Then he indulged me in my quest to say goodbye. We drove to my favourite house with lots of happy memories on Green Oak Drive. We checked out the beginning of the path to where I would go hiking in the Hollywood Hills. We drove down the very steep hill that I hated to ride up on my bike. I loved those days before my stepmother had her own kids and would speed down the hill with the top of the convertible down, hand me a fist full of coins for the plastic horse outside the grocery store and leave me to ride with coins to ride while she got groceries. Good fun. We went to Griffith Park and I told Brad all about the zoo trips and the perverts. We got caught in narrow streets clogged with traffic with the access to the Griffith Observatory blocked. I took pictures of amazing, twisty trees and Art Deco houses.
The hotel graciously let us check out early without a penalty, smelling catastrophe. And then we headed north. We stopped to recalibrate with a dose of unconditional love from my adopted family in Santa Cruz. And then we headed home with me struggling to keep my happy memories in sight. That was bolstered by the stop at the Levis Store and the Nike Store in Oregon Outlet Mall. Rampant consumerism has always been part of my happy memories with my California family. The closer we came to the 49th parallel, the more the suffocating weigh lifted from my chest. We crossed the border and a wave of euphoria swept over me. Safety. I could breathe.