by Sandra McCulloch
When I turn forty-five, my doctor runs a series of mid-life blood tests. Everything comes back fine, except for the levels of glucose in the blood. I’m shocked to learn I’m diabetic. He says I have type 2 diabetes, where insulin resistance keeps blood glucose from getting from blood and into tissues.
I’m extremely upset. I have no symptoms. My belief that I’m healthy is a lie. Over a year or two, I progress from oral medications to injecting two types of insulin. Despite the medical interventions, I still have difficulty managing glucose levels. I’m told to exercise, but it only seems to make my glucose spike. Exercise forces me take more insulin. And insulin, by its very nature, promotes weight gain. It takes glucose out of the blood and stores it in fat. I feel depressed. I feel like I’m failing miserably at controlling diabetes.
Later, I get a continuous glucose monitor (CGM), and suddenly, through five-minute intervals, I see every blip and dip of my body’s glucose. It’s like a window into my body, detailing not only the effects of food on my glucose, but emotions as well. At about the same time, I find a way to lose weight — intermittent and extended fasting. My weight drops to a healthy level while my glucose remains stubbornly high.
Seventeen years after that first diagnosis, a specialist tells me I’ve actually got type 1 diabetes — my body doesn’t make enough insulin. I’m too healthy to have type 2, he says. Type 2 occurs mostly in sedentary, overweight individuals. My heart, chlorestrol, weight and activity levels don’t align with Type 2, he says. It doesn’t really matter what I’ve got. The cure is the same — insulin injections.
There’s no explanation yet for why, in my case, exercise doesn’t burn glucose. Nor can anyone tell me why memories of my childhood can cause my glucose to spike. I begin to wonder if there are more kinds of diabetes than just the two types.
Am I an emotional diabetic?
I take a quiz based on the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, which links childhood abuse, including emotional and physical neglect, to disease later in life. I score four out of ten, high enough to explain autoimmune disease later in life.
At my father’s memorial service, my brother takes to the podium and tells those gathered that my birth was unexpected, that Mom and Dad wanted two children, and not three. The disclosure that I wasn’t wanted prompts me to flee the chapel and burst into tears.
Later, I see this as an important piece of information. Knowing my parents, Dad would have blamed Mom for getting pregnant. Mom would have buried her stress, which would emerge as migraine headaches, depression and anxiety. The “fight or flight” hormone, cortisol, would course through both her body and her fetus. By the time I take my first breath, I would be awash in stress. My mother’s lack of atunement, her inability to express love openly or make eye contact with an infant set me up for a life where I distrust others yet seek love. I withhold anger and sadness because my mother couldn’t handle the “bad” emotions.
I’m not close with my two older siblings. One doesn’t talk to me at all. The other talks, but steers clear of anything emotional in nature. I am the only one of us that married, and that union lasted a dozen years. None of us have children.
The thread of enduring stress carries into my choice of career. I become a journalist, where I encounter people going through the most stressful times of their lives, yet I’m comfortable documenting their experiences. One man weeps as he describes escaping the World Trade Centre collapse. A woman tells the court of being held hostage and raped in a stranger’s van. A young widow, eight months pregnant, talks to me two days after her husband is stabbed on a Victoria sidewalk.
I absorb people’s stress into my body, which has shown it has a great capacity to take on anguish, torture and pain. Eventually I learn how to let it go. Healing is possible, but first I need to face the truth of my upbringing, and for me, the best tool is writing. I begin this book in 2016, after my mother’s death. The dozen drafts shift from stories of a child playing happily on the beach to the underlying questions: Why was I always alone? Why did I seek emotional connection with the family pets? Why did nobody in the family ever speak of love?
I meditate about my mother cuddling me and gazing at me lovingly, in a way she never did in real life. Later, I’m shocked to see my glucose has dropped precipitously. Not even insulin makes my glucose drop that fast. It has to be insulin resistance letting go, just for a short time. I’ve healed myself, just for a few moments, by imagining a scene in my head. I’m blown away.
Research from Bangor University confirms a link between diabetes and early childhood neglect, as detected through the ACE quiz. The root cause of type 1 diabetes is unknown, the paper says, but “there is consensus that both genetic and environmental factors play a role.”
The paper, published in May 2020, is called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and Diabetes. It says, in part, that “While the potential pathways linking early life stress to the development of type 1 diabetes remain unclear, toxic stress can affect children’s neurological and physiological development in ways conducive to increased risk of type 1 diabetes.”
The body reacts to stress by releasing hormones like cortisol to assist in fleeing from danger. Excess production of cortisol contributes to insulin resistance, increased inflammation and vulnerability to disease.
“These types of biological mechanisms provide plausible pathways through which ACEs could trigger islet autoimmunity and diabetes type 1,” says the research.
Research from 2017 also explores the link between early childhood experiences and diabetes and confirms there’s a strong connection between the two and recommends the medical community assess patients for adverse childhood experiences to better understand potential contributors to [diabetes].
“Diabetes practitioners might also assess for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), specifically in individuals who endorsed ACEs, as presence of the disorder could worsen diabetes outcomes or complicate treatment.”
Despite the turgid prose, I am buoyed by a sense that the medical community is waking up to the link between a childhood like mine and disease. The other thing is I know there are many, many people out there just like me, whose upbringing put them at risk of a dysregulated nervous system and autoimmune disease. After that recognition comes a road to healing, and I’m here to shine a light on my own path in hopes others can find their own way to better health.
This is my story.
The sun angles through the window, slides across the dining table and spreads a thin light on the faded rug in the living room. This is where I lay out a post-breakfast tea party for Thumbelina, a pink lamb and myself.
“Would you like milk or sugar?” I ask the doll but she stares vacantly past me. I offer oatmeal cookies. My guests decline, but I take one in my hand and bite. Crumbs fall onto my teal corduroy pants. I sip airy tea from a small plastic teacup.
“Mmmm, that’s good,” I say. I glance toward the dining room. My mother is out of sight at her end of the table. I hear her turn the page of the newspaper. It’s rare for anyone in the family to sit anywhere but their usual places.
My brothers are at school and my dad’s at work. I sense a movement behind me, and feel the soft brush of a cat’s flank curling around my waist. Dinty squeezes his head between my arm and my side and purrs at the contact. I stroke his fur as he saunters silently toward the sunlit floor, his tail a question mark.
He mews. Mom responds with a groan. There’s a scrape of her chair on the grey linoleum and the sound of the sagging front door being wrenched open and then slammed shut, the impact rattling the adjacent window. Dinty has gone outside. The other cat, Piya, is on the couch, curled in a tight tortoiseshell ball. I place my fingers on the four dark stripes on his head and follow their path down his neck. A deep rumble of gratitude arises as he stretches out in a long line, showing me his white, warm belly. It’s so easy to love Dinty, Peeyaw and our springer spaniel, Jiggs. Their affection is pure and given freely.
A sound draws my attention, the sudden deceleration of a car in the driveway. There’s a scrunch of tires on gravel outside. Mom also hears it: “Who’s that?”
I scramble to my feet and follow her through the kitchen to the back door. I see through the window our car, a yellow Ford. Dad left ten minutes ago for work, but he’s back.
He blasts through the back door. I jump backward when I see his expression, a cross between panic and ferocity. His eyes are wide, his mouth agape. This is not the man who wraps me in warm hugs and says I’m special. Something terrible must have happened.
“I forgot my glasses,” Dad barks, and Mom scurries off to get them from the bedside table. Dad leans on the door frame, scowling. I peer around the corner. He yells, “Hurry up, Ev, I’m already late. You know what Neil is like. Jesus Christ!”
I take another step back. It’s not Mom’s fault. Why is Dad mad at her? Mom rushes past me and uses her sweater to wipe smudges off the lenses. Dad snatches them from her grasp. The door slams. The car roars to life and its tires spray gravel as Dad guns it into the parking area to turn around. I watch through the window for Dad to drive back up the driveway. But he doesn’t. Instead, I see him run back to the door, the expression on his face sends chills down my spine. I retreat into the kitchen. What now?
“Evelyn!” Dad yells from the doorway. “That goddamned cat got in the way.”
Cat? I wonder what he means. Mom moans and goes out the door, closing it behind her. After a few minutes, Dad drives away. Mom returns to her place at the table, averting her eyes from my inquisitive gaze.
“Why is Dad mad?”
“He’s not mad,” she snaps. “He’s in a hurry. He forgot his glasses and is late for work.”
“What did he mean about the cat getting in the way?”
“He ran over Dinty.”
I don’t know what this means. I stare at her. Mom glances at me, then looks away. “Look, the cat is dead. Dad hit the cat with the car. But Dinty was sick anyway, otherwise he would have gotten out of the way.”
I fell off the swing once when I went really high and when I hit the ground all my thoughts disappeared. Now it feels like the same thing is happening. I try to remember what Mom just said, something about Dinty being dead. I still don’t know what this means. “Dinty isn’t dead. He was just here. He went outside.”
Mom returns her attention to the newspaper. She mutters something I can’t hear.
Mom looks up, “Don’t way ‘What?’ Say ‘I beg your pardon?’”
Mom’s lesson on politeness is lost in my moment of loss. My chin trembles. “But Dinty…Dinty wasn’t sick. He was…good.”
I want to find Dinty. The door handle is too high. I can’t reach the knob. Mom’s hand appears in front of me, flat against the door.
“Sandra, stop. I told you, Dinty is dead. You can’t do anything to change that. He’s at peace now.”
Tears stream down my cheeks. I can’t stop them. I need to find Dinty, and comfort him. He was just here, so I know he’s around. I want to hold him close and make him purr. Mom spins me around by my shoulders and propels me away from the door.
“There’s no reason for tears. Crying won’t bring Dinty back. It was an accident. These things happen. Go to your room if you are going to cry, or you can stay and we’ll read the comics together.”
I go out to the hallway, climb the stairs to my room. I have to protect Mom from my tears because they always make her angry. I curl up under the covers for awhile and think about Dinty. The tears have stopped. I don’t want to be alone.
I shift under the covers and rub my chest. It feels like somebody put a stack of books there, and I little breaths instead of normal ones.
I loved Dinty, even when he scratched my thumb and gave me an infection. He didn’t mean to hurt me — he just got scared. Was he scared when he saw the tires of the yellow Ford coming down on him? Did he cry out in pain? I shudder at the image.
Mom didn’t look sad when she told me about Dinty, she looked annoyed. I slip out of bed. A stair halfway down creaks as I step on it. I shuffle through the kitchen and sidle up to Mom as she reads the paper at the table.
“Bring your chair up beside me,” It’s more an order than suggestion.
I kneel on the chair so I can see the funnies. Mom reads them to me and prompts me to laugh but I don’t feel like laughing. Later, when Mom waters plants on the patio, I slip out the glass door to the parking area. I scan the hard-packed ground and see a red smudge. I crouch down. It looks like a wound on the Earth. I pick up a tuft of white fur. I pull away the red, sticky hairs and am left with the white ones, which I bring to my lips for a moment. There is a smell of Dinty, a last remnant of his existence. I tuck the tuft in my pocket.
Later, when I awake from my afternoon nap, I hear Mom talking with someone downstairs. I rub my eyes. It’s warm under the heavy wool blanket and Pinky, my pink plaid bedspread. I go to the top of the stairs where sound carries like a voice through a paper-towel tube.
“These things happen,” says the visitor, matter of factly.
My mom groans. Her voice is so low I can hardly hear it. “But it was awful. Lorne was so upset and of course he makes it my fault. I’d just let the cat out…”
“Men are stupid,” comes the quick response. I recognize the voice as Aunty Lucy’s, a lady about my grandmother’s age who lives nearby. She’s short, stout with a face like a dried apple. Mom says Lucy doesn’t tolerate fools, which I guess means she doesn’t like most people. I don’t know what happened to her first husband, but she’s married to Uncle Merv, a nice man who usually does what she tells him. When he ignores her, she slams pots in her kitchen and mutters in Italian.
I creep down the stairs to the half-way point, just short of the squeaky step.
“He waits until the last minute to leave and doesn’t give himself enough time to make sure he’s got everything,” Mom says. “And he keeps forgetting his glasses.”
“Stupid,” echoes Aunty Lucy.
“Well, he’s probably angry about being late for work. I keep telling him not to wait til the last minute.”
I take another couple steps, and hit the one that squeaks. I hear Mom’s sharp intake of breath.
I grimace. I descend the rest of the stairs. Mom and Aunty Lucy sit at the dining table, Aunty Lucy in my chair and Mom in hers. I’m unsure where to sit. Mom’s face softens as though she sees my dilemma, and she gestures me to come to her. She pushes her chair back and lifts me onto her lap. It feels strange, being cuddled in front of Aunty Lucy, but I lay my head against her shoulder. I sigh and relax.
The conversation moves on neighbourhood news. Somebody has cancer. The doctor and his wife are divorcing. The house on the corner has sold. I press my ear to Mom’s chest and hear her voice vibrate through her bones. I smell the Pond’s cream she puts on her dry skin. I feel safe — her grip holds me firmly on her lap. I let my arm drop to touch her hand. I try to imagine that this contact is enough to soothe my broken heart, but I know it’s not.
Mom is teaching me how to corral my emotions and keep them inside where they’re safe. It’s not just about sadness — if I get too excited and laugh loudly, Mom warns me, “Keep that up and you’ll end up crying!” I picked a bouquet of wallflowers a while ago, I was very happy with how I started with the dark flowers in the middle, then the medium colours in the middle and bright ones along the outside. “You can break your arm patting yourself on the back,” Mom said. And when I get mad about something, like when a puzzle isn’t going together right, I stay quiet. Bad feelings are best ignored.
Later that day, Dad comes home from work to find the house quiet. My brothers, John and Kevin, are home from school. John reads a book in the living room. Kevin is in his room. I’m at my place at the table with a colouring book and crayons. Dad gives me a hug and asks, “Where’s Mom?”
“In bed,” I say. I try to stay within the lines.
Dad looks confused, and glances at his watch and down the hallway toward his and Mom’s bedroom. “It’s only five o’clock.”
“She has a migraine.”
He harrumphs and shakes his head. I thought he might want to go check on Mom — I know she’s laying under the covers with a hand on top of her head like the pressure inside is going to make it explode. But instead he goes to the cupboard where he keeps adult drinks. Dad pours liquid the colour of pee into a glass. He settles into his chair where the newspaper is placed, ready for his attention.
He sees I’ve stopped colouring and am watching him. He looks at me with kind eyes, the eyes of the nice Dad, not the one I saw this morning. He softly asks, “So how was your day?”
My vision blurs. I blink quickly but a tear spills over and runs down my cheek. Dad’s face slackens, and looks angry. I think at first he’s angry at my tears, but maybe he’s regretting that he ran over Dinty. I wish Dad would hug me, take me onto his lap. He just glares into the distance, then coughs and takes a big drink. “Well, I better go see what Mom’s got planned for dinner.”
Dad’s confusion over everyday things prompts Mom to call for help. A community nurse comes to the house administer a dementia test. Mom and I are there to offer moral support. As the nurse prepares her papers, Dad glances at me.The brown eyes are kind, but today there’s an uneasiness. I’m nervous for him, but I fear he’s about to be humiliated by his addled brain. There’s nothing Mom or I can do to help him. It’s excruciating.
The nurse begins, “Lorne, I’m going to give you five words and I want you to remember them, because I’ll ask you to repeat them back to me later, okay?”
Dad’s smiles. He doesn’t really get what she’s talking about, but he’s going with it. I see fear in his eyes — this might be a trap.
Dad nods. His shoulders drop a bit. He’s relaxing. Mom, however, is stressed. She sits with her elbows on the table and her fists pressed to her forehead as though she’s praying fiercely.
Dad taps his hand on the Times Colonist he was in the midst of reading Another easy one, right? He glances at me. I work at the TC, and he’s proud of that.
Dad smiles vaguely. I frown. Sometimes the simple things are hard to remember. I visualize a MacIntosh apple, like the ones on the tree up by the pump house. Partly red, partly green. Crunchy and sweet.
I glance over my shoulder at the bird feeder hanging from the Garry oak. Mom feeds songbirds and sometimes squirrels. Small brown birds are at the feeder now, pecking in the empty tray. Mom follows my gaze and moans. Her songbirds are going hungry.
The Subaru is in the garage. Dad struggles to retain his role as primary driver. When I was visiting last weekend, Dad stopped the car on the road, having suddenly lost his bearings on a local road. Mom was flustered. “You’re on the right road, Lorne. Just drive straight ahead then make the second right.”
I was scared whether Dad could remember where home was, but he got us home and we never spoke of the incident again.
“Okay, Lorne, what season is it?” the nurse asks.
Dad glances at Mom for a hint. Her head is bowed. Through the window, I see crocuses pushing through the ground. The lawn is getting green.
“Uh…fall?” he guesses. He knows it’s wrong.
“It’s spring,” she corrects him. A tick on her sheet.
“What is year is it?”
Dad’s eyes flick to the newspaper, but the nurse slides a hand over the date in the masthead. Stymied, his mouth grimaces and his gaze flicks outside as if there will be a clue out in the harbour. God, he really doesn’t know, I realize. I slide down in the chair.
“It’s 2006,” the nurse says. Another tick.
Now she wants to know today’s date.
Mom blurts, “No, it’s not your birthday!”
The nurse asks Dad to tell her what the five words are. He looks at Mom to rescue him. She diverts her gaze to a split-leaf philodendron. Dad looks at me. I glance at the newspaper and back at his eyes. I intensify my gaze and look back at the newspaper.
“Uh….” He falters and drums his sausage fingers on the table. He coughs and says, “Orange?”
The nurse shakes her head. Her expression shows no surprise. “The words are tree, apple, newspaper, bird and car.”
Dad’s eyes open wide, as though it’s the first time he’s heard them, and he scowls. The nurse is trying to humiliate him. The nurse says she’ll be in touch and leaves.
I leave too. I pull over at the school bus stop and check my blood sugar. I’m surprised at how high it is, since I didn’t eat cookies Mom had on the table. It has to be stress from Dad’s dementia test.
One night, Dad falls on his way to the bathroom. Mom calls the paramedics to pick him up and put him back to bed. They assess Dad and say he has to go to hospital. It’s clear that this is the end of Dad’s living at home. He’s needs more support, the kind he can get in extended care.
The transition doesn’t sit well with Dad, who believes Mom is plotting against him. Mom doesn’t take it well, saying: “He blames me for everything. I tell him the doctor is the one who says he has to be in hospital but he doesn’t remember what I say. Every day, it’s the same accusation.”
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“I have to keep telling him I can’t take him home because his legs don’t work. He gets angry and abusive, so I leave.”
I don’t get the same abuse from Dad. In fact, my weekend visits with him are quiet. Sometimes I tell him what’s going on at the farm or work. Other times he’s shares whatever is on his mind. But one day I arrive not long after Mom leaves, and Dad is still in a rage.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“Ev put me here. She wants me out of the way. She’s having an affair.”
“No, she’s not,” I say, taking a seat on the edge of his bed. “Dad, your mind is playing tricks on you. Can I get you some tea?”
He’s not listening. “And she stole my car. I have to buy another so I can go home. I haven’t seen her for weeks.”
“Dad, Mom is here every day to see you. Every single day. You just forget these things. What more do you want her to do?”
He is belligerent. “I want her to take me home, but she won’t. So you can drive me home.”
I think for a minute. “Okay Dad, if you can walk to the car I’ll take you home.”
I throw back the covers. “Okay, get up. Let’s go.”
He bites his lip and grunts for a bit. He’s trying, but his legs don’t move. I remember Dad pushing the lawnmower up hills on the property, and heaving rounds of wood into the back of the truck. He’d wrestle with the rototiller and lead us through the woods, looking for the perfect Christmas tree.
He gives up trying to move. I pull the blankets back up. “Dad, it’s the doctor who won’t let you go home. If you can work with the physiotherapists on your strength, then maybe you can get out of here.”
“Mom’s going to be worried,” he looks at me, suddenly afraid. “I’ve been here a long time. She wants me home.”
I’m confused. I ask, “Dad, where is home to you?”
He looks at me like I’m being silly. “923 Agnes Street.”
I take a breath. “Dad, that’s your childhood home in Esquimalt. You haven’t been there for seventy years!”
“Oh.” He is quiet for a while, and I can see him trying to put disjointed thoughts together. But the thoughts, like random jigsaw pieces, won’t fit together. He drifts off to sleep. I read for a while, and then slip away. It feels like I’m losing my dad by inches.
Over time, Dad settles into life at the extended care ward. He loves hospital food, but then he always enjoyed his meals. I bring him milkshakes. John and Kevin come over from Vancouver to visit every few weeks, their presence reminding Dad that he’s got to set an example for his sons. He uses his deep voice when he talks to them, but conversation soon peters out.
I stay one day after the others leave. Dad has kicked the covers off his feet, exposing jagged toenails. I pulls clippers from my purse and get to work on the rough edges. He watches with heavy eyelids. “Is that better?”
He nods. “Thanks dear.”
I cover him up and turn out the light, realizing how the parent-child role is reversed. I can show him I love him in a hundred different ways. Showing is easy; words are hard. One day Mom calls and says a nurse called to say Dad’s heart rate is irregular.
“That’s not good,” I say. “He slept while I was there yesterday. Did he wake up for you today?”
My heart flip-flops. I can feel in my gut something is wrong. The next day is Monday, and I call in and take the day off. My Dad needs me, I say. Jim understands what I’m saying, without me having to say it. Mom and I arrive at the hospital at the same time and sit quietly by Dad’s bed as he sleeps. As the day wears on, we accept he’s dying. We mention it to a nurse who at first scoffs, but then runs the button end of her pen up Dad’s foot.
“Hmm. You could be right,” she says.
She fails to cover up his feet again. I take his toes in my hand. They’re cold to the touch, so I fold my hand over them as though I can, through sheer willpower, infuse them with life. I resist the urge to clip his toenails. By dinnertime, Mom and I head to our respective homes. We need a break and some food. I need to feed my pets. We plan to return in a couple hours.
As I get home to the farm, Mom calls. Dad dies shortly after we leave.
“We should have stayed,” I say with regret.
Mom says the nurse says patients often die alone, by choice. “She thinks he waited until we left – he didn’t want us to see him go.”
With a heavy heart, I drive to Mom’s house. When I arrive, she says John and Kevin are on their way. “They’re going to visit Dad in the morgue. Then they’ll come here.”
“Don’t you want to cry?” I ask her.
“No, I’m fine,” she says. “I’m not a cryer.”
I don’t feel like crying either. It’s hard for me to believe Dad is actually gone. He was eighty-seven years old. Mom gets busy while I sit at the table, doing nothing. Kevin arrives first. Mom hugs him and he gives me a brief embrace. I can’t touching him before. I sit at Mom’s place at the table, and Kevin takes Dad’s chair. Mom takes my chair. The seating arrangement, like our emotions, is mixed up.
“Do we know if he wants a service?” I ask.
Mom says, “Yes. I think it will have to be at the Anglican Church. The United Church is so small.”
John arrives a short while later. He hugs Mom and sits at his usual place. “Tomorrow, we’ll go to the funeral home and make arrangements. And we should phone close family and friends so they find out before the obituary is published.”
I hear my cue. “I’ll write the obituary for the paper.”
There are no tears, no eye contact, no expression of family grief. No group hug. We talk briefly and then head off to separate rooms. It’s a very McCulloch response to a crisis.
The Anglican Church is full of people which is impressive for an elderly man. There was extended family, friends and neighbours. John, Kevin and I all have our own eulogies, of course. I talk about Dad’s childhood in Victoria, his time in the air force, his work at Trans Canada Airlines and later the phone company. I talk about his devotion to family, his courage in taking on repair jobs of all sizes. I talk about his final days, and how peacefully he passed away. Kevin gets up to the podium and drops a bombshell.
“Dad never wanted a third child. Mom had to convince him it was a good idea.”
I stare at Kevin. What did he say? What? What? Dad didn’t want me? Did Kevin actually say Dad didn’t want me? I can’t breathe. I manage to hold my seat until the service is over. Tears erupt as I escape the chapel. Mom and my brothers walk past me as I lose my shit. Friends and cousins surround me in a massive hug. Nobody has to say anything. They heard it too.
I ask Mom later about what Kevin said. She sighs. “I can’t remember the eulogies, dear. I was in such a daze. I know you were upset at something. I’ve never seen tears come out horizontally before.”
I spend the rest of my bereavement leave trying to get my blood sugar levels back to normal but it’s hopeless. I’m sad and angry. I forget whether I fed the dog seconds after I’ve done so and Libby is no help — she loves it when I feed her twice. I get stuck at the grocery checkout because I can’t remember my debit pass code.
On the morning I’m due to return to work, Mom calls.
“I’m just about ready to leave,” I say. “How are you?”
“Oooh, I’m all right. I’m getting a lot of visitors.”
“Did you ever cry about Dad? Did you grieve?”
“You know I’m not a cryer,” she says, annoyed. “No, I just keep moving on. Tears won’t change anything, anyway.”
The phone rings seconds after I hang up. It’s Jim this time, my boss at city desk. “Hi Sandra, I need you to go to an assignment out your way.”
I glance outside. The sun’s shining and Molly is flat out in the field, sleeping. Nice day to stay in the Cowichan Valley. “Sure, what is it?”
“The government wants to close the long-term facility, Cowichan Lodge and the staff are outside picketing. I need you to go talk to the staff, the administration and residents and get some colour and reaction.” He adds that I can write from home and file my story by email.
This is great. I’ve spent a lot of time visiting Dad at a similar facility in Nanaimo. It should be an easy day. During the drive, I remember Dad in those last weeks, the soft look in his eyes. I remember how the staff looked after Dad, and us. Damn tears, where did they come from?
I park at Cowichan Lodge, and grab a fast-food napkin from the glove box to dab my eyes and blow my nose. Outside the entrance, staff are gathered with protest signs. I approach a union rep who introduces herself as Wanda. She’s happy to see media arriving. “They’re building a new care home in town and want to move these people there. But some residents have been here years and don’t want to leave — it’s home.”
I nod and note her comments. She steers me toward the entrance. I see a reflection of the protesters behind me as the doors slide open. Ahead is the dining area, with round tables and cards propped up with names: Albert, Jack, Bill, Lorne. Lorne? I catch my breath. Is Dad here? Then I remember he’s dead. The pain that’s been held in abeyance floods back, and I’m flooded in tears
“Are you all right?” Wanda asks, alarmed.
I shake my head. Grief suddenly overwhelms me. It’s embarrassing but I can’t stop crying.
Wanda puts an arm around me. “Come sit down.”
I sit and watch an elderly woman steer a walker between empty tables. Another old woman in a nightgown sits beside her husband, who’s in street clothes. Their heads rest against each other, and they hold hands as they sleep.
My gaze shifts to a hallway leading to the residential rooms, the rooms like those where Dad stayed for two years. I know in my head that Dad isn’t here, but heart is convinced he is. I get to my feet and stagger outside. The tears won’t stop. I need to leave. Wanda rushes after me.
“I’m sorry, I can’t do this right now,” I say. “My dad died last week at Dufferin Lodge. For a minute it looked…I thought…”
The concern on her face gives way to understanding. “You shouldn’t be at work right now — you take care of yourself.”
Down the road, I pull over to call the newsroom. I explain in jagged breaths that I am unable to complete the assignment, and that I will file my notes when I get home. I don’t test my blood sugar. My stress is bad, and I hope the grief will subside eventually.
The next morning when I get to the newsroom, Jim says, “I want to apologize for sending you to Cowichan Lodge. I messed up. I forgot you just lost your dad.”
“Thanks, there’s no need to apologize,” I say. “I thought I could do it, but I got overwhelmed.”
I pick up a copy of the day’s edition and return to my desk. I unfold the paper. On the bottom of the front page is a story headlined “Government bid to close Cowichan Lodge raises concerns.” The story includes my interviews with staff and additional comments from the union and government. The story has my name at the top and at the end, in small print, it reads “with files by Brad Woods.”
Brad glances up as I approach his desk. “Hey, welcome back. Sorry about your dad.”
“Thanks,” I say. “Did you finish this story for me?”
“Yeah. Hope you’re okay with it. Just made some calls to fill it out.”
“It’s great, but you should have got a byline. I really didn’t do much for a sole byline.”
Brad shrugs and leans back in his chair. “Hey, no problem. When I lost Dad I was a wreck for months. Buy me a coffee?”