Letters from the Pandemic 27: Sacred Cows
ESSAY: Sacred Cows
by Sheila O’Donoghue
At The Ormsby Review we are pleased to host Letters from the Pandemic: A 30th Anniversary Commemorative Public Writing Project of the Graduate Liberal Studies Program of Simon Fraser University. Since December 2020, we have uploaded 27 letters and essays described by program director Sasha Colby as “moving portraits of life and ideas in a time of contagion and containment.”
This latest letter is an account by Vancouver biobanker Sheila O’Donoghue of her trip back to the family farm in Ontario in June 2020 to care for her ailing mother, Moira. — Ed.
June 2, 2020: Despair had left a foul dryness in my mouth and there would be no relief: the water fountains were hooded and sealed. I listened attentively to an inner voice, which, at a frequency just below that of fear, said, move slowly, talk slowly. I paid the usual twenty dollar fare and walked through the newly taped off entrance. The hammering of footsteps on the tile of the concourse reverberated inside my head. The sulphurous whiff of the few fellow travellers signalled that I was likely starting the trip home uninfected. As I boarded the plane at Vancouver International Airport, two thoughts registered: First: I need to trust that the air filters, masks, and the distance between passengers are enough. Second: I am grateful that no one can reach me for the next five hours.
Eleven excruciatingly long days before the flight, Moira, my mother, was taken by lights and sirens to Wingham General hospital in the heart of southern Ontario. Doctors and nurses issued daily, sometimes twice daily, reports of undiagnosed and rapid deterioration. The thought of Mom, beloved eighty-three-year-old, mother of eight, immobile and incoherent, alone and potentially dying that way, was unbearable.
Decades working at the intersection of medicine and research had informed a deep faith and equally healthy scepticism in medicine and the scientific process. I understood that uncertainty was the engine of science. The continuous cycle of research — that involved asking questions, analyzing results, adjusting the question or methodology and repeating the process over and over, again and again — meant that as new evidence becomes available, today’s wisdom would become tomorrow’s folly. As a result of this longstanding bias, I trusted that government and health officials and aviation experts would implement and continuously update humane and effective policies.
In my decade working as an emergency department nurse, I had seen death too many times to count. And I had seen it up close a few times in our family too. Adrift and unsteady again, with no body of science or magisterial guide, I pulled out the well-worn tools that had served me in the past: values, principles, and instincts. The contrast between my deeply rattled state and Dr. Bonnie Henry’s informed composure could not have been starker.
She stood beside the B.C. Premier and Minister of Health. Eschewing the shouty, “look-at-me I’m-so-clever” style of communication currently favoured by politicians, she, in her low and slow and calm voice, declared a public health emergency to support the province-wide response to the novel pandemic. Dr. Henry was everything the performance politicians, Donald and Boris, were not. She had trench experience as a public health physician. She was a researcher familiar with the strategies used to address the SARS and Ebola outbreaks. She came armed with deep knowledge of influenza policy and pandemic preparedness.
In the days after Henry soberly presented her situation report, the government-issued swaddling tightened. Multilingual public communications describing plans to secure public safety, critical supply chains, and hospital readiness were released. Taking a page right from the Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s playbook, British Columbians were reminded of their individual responsibility and civic duty to look out for each other by complying with the emergency orders of “solidarity through separation.” Despite having only faint memories of tales of shared sacrifice, most felt assured and took the leap of faith; the streets were vacated and the doors of places of work, play, entertainment, and worship suddenly slammed shut.
Arriving agitated at the eerily empty airport in Toronto, I picked up the rental car and waited in the parkade for my sister, Maureen, to arrive from San Diego. She was easy to spot: very tall, tanned, and extremely fit. She wore her dark hair as she always had, in a high and tight ponytail. The uncharacteristic furrow in her forehead gave away the concerns we shared.
We headed directly to the Wingham Hospital, not at all sure what would happen when we got there. Zak, the warm smiley charge nurse, met us outside the front door of the hospital. He said “Moira was too ill to be transported by wheelchair to see us outside,” and, as expected, the ‘No visitors’ policy meant we could not go inside. He informed us that the cardiac and neurological test results were inconclusive. She was unable to care for herself appropriately, unable to walk more than twenty meters with a walker, and a geriatric assessment indicated moderate dementia. The dementia diagnosis was new and alarming.
While there was no reason to doubt the results of the standardized cognitive assessment tests with fancy names and published validation methods, it was impossible to get a grip on what was actually happening without speaking directly to Mom. She espoused a preference for silence and used her hearing aids to manage social interactions — preference we ascribed to her ultra-marathon of child rearing and her “loquacious” past husband. This was one feature of the wild eccentricity that, along with her legendary self-reliance, clouded the clinical picture. Another confounding factor was her life-long habit of not engaging with what she called “nonsense instructions from so-called experts.”
It is known that trust in government health agencies is a strong predictor of health behaviours and outcomes. Dr. Henry knew from past pandemics that people who expressed low trust in government were much less likely to take precautions or to abide by government-mandated mechanisms designed to contain the spread of viruses. Contrary to stereotypes, there was no lack of knowledge of the virus or mechanisms of transmission in the people who distrusted the government. They simply did not trust that the government had the wherewithal to recommend precautions and implement appropriate policies. Establishing the public’s trust would be a challenge in the current social soup of Google-educated experts, individualism and a growing fatigue with pointy-headed elites who seemed out of touch with the daily lives of the average person.
The day before I flew, the nothing-more-can-be-done call had come. The recommendation was to move her short term to a long-term care facility. Unthinkable. Our instincts told us she needed not just care, but both love and care. She had not disclosed her end of life choices when she was ‘mistress of her mind’ and the window to have that discussion seemed to have closed. An immediate plan was needed to honour her only expressed wish: to stay on her beloved farm in Teeswater for as long as possible.
Located in Alice Munro country in southwestern Ontario, Teeswater is a farm village two hours north-west of, and half a century in the past, from Toronto. The village takes its name from the river that runs through it named for the Tees River in England. The buildings on the main street are a mix of the faded two storey yellow brick houses of the formerly well-to-do, Victory style wooden-sided bungalows and the workplaces of people who provide services essential to every small farm town. The lawyer Lynn’s office is three doors down from the small white wood framed house she grew up in. The Canada Post depot, where the postmaster, Joyce, had worked since the day she graduated from Sacred Heart High School. MacDonald’s Garage run by Hughie, who had inherited it from his father, also named Hughie. And the Farm Co-operative, which provided everything from seeds and fertilizer to buckets and insect repellent, and was managed by Keith, the long-time coach of the local bantam boys’ hockey team.
We lived in the city of Guelph before my parents decided to move to Teeswater. Myles O’Donoghue, my Irish father, bright and confident of his ability to create his own future, was enthralled with the rural lifestyle he experienced first-hand as a youth working weekends at his cousin’s farm in County Kerry, Ireland. He dreamed of becoming a Canadian farmer.
The transition from city to rural life was gradual, starting first with a move to a small rural village – Formosa — in 1970. For the years we lived in the village, Mom led the daily forced marches up the long steep Formosa Hill to the early morning mass at the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church where we, by turn, played the roles of altar attendants, scripture readers, choir singers, penitents and delinquents. As children, we were encouraged to respectfully question the expectation of absolute subjugation to authority; we were imbued with the Catholic ethos of service to others and we developed an abiding appreciation of the value of belonging to a close-knit community.
While living in Formosa, Mom got her Class C bus licence so she could transport a herd of stray kids, along with her own eight, to swimming lessons in the outdoor swimming pool in the nearby town of Mildmay. She didn’t charge the other parents to recover the bus fees, as she “was going anyway.” The only cost to the children was compulsory participation in the recitation of the Rosary on the ride to the pool. This led to endless amusements for us and the absolute astonishment of the pool rats who just wanted to learn to swim!
Mom, also known as Mickey for her baseball prowess, was also the longstanding head coach of the Formosa Peewee Girls baseball team. She was infamous for the matching miniskirts and nylons she wore with the black and gold team shirt whilst on the baseball field. And the annual two day tournament where teams of girls would compete fiercely on the diamond during the day and become pals during the BBQs for parents and players hosted afterwards at our home.
Mom’s debates with the sixteen-year-old cocky assistant coach, Dean, who was “obsessed with the trivial rules of the game,” were brusque and brief. She repeated her mantras at the beginning of every game, “Have fun. Do your best. It’s all about the team.” In her approach, every player, of every range of talent, played every game, no matter what the score or importance of the outcome of the game in the league or tournament standings.
In 1976, family friends and helpful villagers moved the furniture and the family from Formosa to the farm of Dad’s dreams. It was located at 280 Bruce Road 6, Culross County, three miles east of Teeswater. From the road one turned down a grey ribbon of asphalt, lined with precisely spaced maples topped with red leafy globes. The lane ran past the front fields, over the creek, past the white fenced cattle paddocks and the black steel clad barn, between the old walnut tree and thirty foot tall blue spruce and ended at the porch of the immaculate two storey yellow brick Mennonite-style house.
The interior of the farmhouse was (and is) simple and functional and classic 1970s décor. The heart of the house was the wood stove in the large wooden panelled, carpeted living room with globe wall mounted lighting. The soul of the house was the huge pine kitchen table surrounded by ten solid wood Windsor backed chairs. The mood of the house was set by Mom’s choice of layers of warm autumnal tones and comfortable padded wooden furniture.
She was delegated the “inside work” and “the kids.” She organized new sports teams and music lessons and schools. Dad assumed all the responsibility for the “outside work.” My parents purchased tractors, trucks, grain wagons, a plow, a cultivator, and a hay elevator. Cash crops, corn and barley and beans, were planted. Our new life as farmers began.
The chickens, pigs and cows raised on the farm were to supply the meat and the huge garden all the vegetables for the meals. Mom’s cooking was in the all-natural, no-fuss, no-variety, military category of the culinary arts. Ultra healthy vittles were served faithfully three times a day for more than thirty years. She started each meal with “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” followed with heaping dollops of gossip, love and humour and finally, palatable, but not too sweet, feedback on the family goings on. She spent her evenings reading stories to children and calculating age-appropriate handicaps for the endless farm and domestic duties, turning them all into amusing and competitive games. As children, she was the sun that started and ended our every day. She was the general whose fair and consistent rules left room for the experimentation and risk required for growth. She was the shield that slowly lowered when we were ready to be launched.
She was the one who quietly and competently took the helm when the world stopped making sense to our family in the late eighties. She was the reluctant stoic who picked out the plain pine caskets which held the cold bodies of her eldest daughter and her eldest son. Both dead at age twenty-five. Her blazing light dimmed when Martha’s diabetic heart could not be restarted after the third heart attack in 1986. She faded to black in 1988 when the wooden box held the tiny identifiable bits retrieved from the field where Sean’s Hawker Siddeley jet had crashed into the earth.
The public face of the government’s pandemic response, Bonnie Henry, became the compass needed to navigate the uncharted waters. After early stumbles, she assured us that the government would share what they knew, say what they didn’t know, say what research was being done, what people could do in the meantime and that advice would change as more was learned. She reminded us that we all do better when we consider each other equal. She asked us to look each other in the eye and to be kind.
She was trustworthy, not just because she delivered on her promised transparency and frankness. Squarely in the Amy Goodman camp of television presenters, the depth of her scientific and public health knowledge converted her early doubters. The formulaic and deceptive political messaging endorsed by media trainers was dropped in the trash bin as she walked toward the presenter’s podium in her styling pink Fluevogs. She gave press conferences, with no restrictions on attendees, where reporter’s questions, and follow-up questions, were answered respectfully after the numbers and strategies were presented. Her expertise was worn lightly and her responsibilities to translate COVID-ese into lay language taken seriously. She botched her own haircut during the initial shutdown and laughed with us about it. She fought back tears and tried to carry on when overcome by the tragedy of unnecessary suffering.
The planning for Mom’s care by the unnerved siblings began with enthusiasm and urgency and excessive focus on the soon-to-be caregivers. Several of us considered other siblings our best friends. Everyone prioritized the annual family cycling holiday in Hood River, Oregon. We were acutely aware of, and determined to avoid, the fractures that commonly arose in families navigating parental care. We started our conversations defining the principles that would frame our decision-making: fairness, democracy and openness. We also articulated baseline realities: All but one lived more than a five-hour flight away. All had full-time work schedules that would need to be adjusted significantly. All had personal lives that would be deranged by wedging in a new caring role.
The debate about “doing the right thing” for Mom was brief because she was so loved and (as Baldwin said) “allegiance, after all, had to work two ways.” The wrangling about how to implement our obligation was interminable. We had to decide if we would provide direct care ourselves or purchase the required services. Votes were cast on a turbulent family Zoom call. Four to two. The “yays” for “hands-on care” carried the day. Just before my screen went dark, one dissenter’s forearm covered the arc of an axe chopping wood: Up as the long drink went down in one gulp. Down as “Leave” was hit with too much force. The other “Nay” swatted away the gently placed hands of his spouse.
We needed advice from Bonnie Henry on how we could convince everyone to work together.
And then, after too many days and too much negotiating, the day to assume Mom’s care finally arrived. I parked the rental car in the designated spot, immediately outside the Wingham Hospital emergency department’s main entrance. The reports from her hospital caregivers had been so incredibly dire, I anticipated she would be wheeled to the entrance in a stretcher.
It seemed like a very long time before the familiar figure, behind a walker, shuffled toward me. Her short white hair was matted and her muscled athletic figure withered dramatically. She looked shattered: stooped and bearded and flakey. She was wearing a worn pale blue hospital gown, hanging loose at her neck, and what appeared to be men’s long underwear. Wearing a mask and standing outside the automated sliding doors of the entrance, I was warned against getting too close by the hyper-attentive emergency clerk. I said a silent “fuck you” to the clerk as Mom stepped through the doors. As I leaned in for the “I-didn’t-think-I-would-see-you-alive-again” hug, she quietly pleaded, “get me out of here,” as she folded her shrunken frame into my arms.
The honeymoon lasted about four weeks. Relief resolved into routine. In spite of her obvious needs, Mom grasped to establish control. When the public health nurse called to set up a time for a home visit, she yelled “How did you get my telephone number?” When Dizzy, the sweet little neighbour hired to help with cleaning, knocked on the door, she barked, “No, you can’t come into my house,” as she slammed it closed. The day after we returned the rental car to the airport, two hours away, she dictated that we “couldn’t use any of the vehicles to make superfluous trips” that she didn’t authorize. The appeal that “I was almost a senior citizen and would not accept being treated like a teenager” fell on her deaf ears.
Struggling to deal with the absence of regularity and rituals that normalized our daily lives, Maureen and I blundered ahead with independent versions of “what was best for Mom.” Maureen re-organized the kitchen cupboards to put essentials within arm’s reach. I helped repatriate the dishes and glasses and cups so Mom could find them. Maureen led Mom through a twice-daily exercise routine, complete with over the head-arm exercises that left her exhausted. I sharply vetoed the exercise program, based on advice from a friendly cardiologist, who recommended rest as the most important activity in the early days of recovery. Maureen rewired the ceiling kitchen fan so it started at low speed when the light switch was flipped on. When an unexpectedly strong tug left Mom holding the fan’s pull string, I shielded Mom while Maureen flipped out.
It was a combination of the low-level agitation caused by the incessant buzzing of houseflies, the constant work interruptions, and a burst pipe that led to the predicted eruption between my sister and me. I was on a work Zoom call to my colleagues in Sydney, Australia when I heard what I thought was the sound of running water from the floor below. I put myself on mute, confirmed my suspicion and called Dave, the plumber, to request advice on what to do until he could fix the gusher in the basement. I turned off the main water valve as instructed and was coming up the stairs when Maureen passed me, descending, with Dad’s black tool box. “I have called the plumber,” I said, in what I hoped would pass as a friendly tone.
“What the hell?” she growled, “Why not try to fix it yourself before calling an expensive tradesperson?” The silent response was, embarrassingly, “the thought of fixing it myself had not entered my mind,” the out loud answer was “great that you think there may be a DIY fix for the 100 year old broken pipe that is pouring water into the basement with the force of a fire-hydrant. With luck, we should be able to have a nice dip down there before dinner.” I didn’t spend any time reflecting on this unnecessarily harsh provocation. Unbeknownst to me, Maureen spent the next several hours working up a significant head of steam. I reassured Mom that the plumber was on his way and went back to my oh-so-important Zoom meeting.
A few minutes after 11 pm, another interminable family Zoom call ended. The conversation had been dominated by well-intentioned advice, delivered from the comfort of their homes, on how we should deal with multiple issues related to Mom’s state. I can’t remember exactly how the argument started but shortly after it did, loud and unfiltered and unforgivable words between Maureen and I, aimed with familial precision, roused Mom from sleep. I knew something had snapped in my sister when she suddenly approached me with her arm cocked holding a fly swatter, but I was still shocked by the loud smack and instant stinging on my cheek. My instinct to return the insult fired immediately. Seconds later, as my brain registered the full-blown lunacy of the situation, I heard my sister say to the 911 dispatcher, “I’d like to report an assault. Yes, I hit her first. No. No. I don’t think Sheila has a gun, but she may have a knife or a bat!”
Twenty minutes later, when dark was at its deepest, when all of the rural neighbours were surely wide awake and curious, a baby-faced white male police officer, with his right hand hanging casually near his service weapon, knocked loudly on the front door. The framed pictures of “The Angelus” and “The Gleaners” on the kitchen wall pulsed with the red of his rotating lights as he cautiously entered the crime scene. The long, long pause, followed by the sudden widening of his eyes and rising of his eyebrows gave away his absolute lack of power. His hand relaxed. He seemed to be buying thinking time as he slowly printed our names and addresses and birth dates into his small black flip notebook … 1937, 1962, 1969…. Though slumped and shaking badly, for the first time since hospital discharge, insight flashed in Mom’s eyes, and she seemed to register the incredible strain we had been under.
“Dear Bonnie, I know you have been a bit busy but I was wondering if you have time for a family consult?”
When the linear increase in cases converted to exponential growth in early November, Bonnie Henry made the decision to avoid a total provincial lockdown, opting instead for two weeks of regional restrictions in the lower Mainland. The harshest restrictions to date made mask-wearing mandatory and recommended no socializing, inside or outside, with anyone except household members or a small social bubble. Funerals and wedding were to be limited to ten immediate family only. Sports teams, including minor hockey teams, were asked to not travel for games outside their regions.
As the restrictions were imposed, British Columbians were asked by the Minister of Health to “be better influencers, better teachers, better leaders, in our households and communities.” Bonnie Henry acknowledged the immense challenge, “I know this is hard. I know we don’t want to have to be doing this. And we need to support each other right now to make this break.” We were asked again, in a multilingual communications, to “hold the fort.”
We were very far from the calm, composed care team we aspired to be. We struggled to put the internecine fireworks behind us and re-committed, in writing, to sensitively traversing the land-mined terrain that was Mom’s care plan. We acknowledged the challenge of the dealing with a committee of six. We accepted, and tried not to judge, the brother who wasn’t able or willing to contribute, just yet.
Our inbred conflict avoidance was fully utilized to conserve what remained of the family cohesion. The Tee-Swatter twins, as Maureen and I became known, were the frequent objects of mirth in the email exchanges in which doctors’ appointments and blackout travel periods and the benefits of raised toilet seats were discussed. We didn’t flourish but we managed, using the tools of patience, love and humility, to keep Mom’s needs as the central focus of our personal COVID project.
Aside from a few small anti-mask protests and a few committed partiers and deviants, British Columbians have largely trusted and followed the government and public health directives. The direct communication from our “Lockdown Leader,” who was neither trying to get our votes nor sell us something, worked to keep us aligned with best current knowledge about the virus. The fact that newspapers, radio and television stations spoke the same “truth” about the pandemic helped. The coordination between components of the public infrastructure and public health care systems worked to maintain the stability of our communities.
The crisis had highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of our public systems, and highlighted the commitment and importance of the essential workers who have kept the wheels of society spinning. Constant examination, improvement and investment in these systems and personnel will be required in order to maintain the vitality of these assets. The lack of trust in the governments to the south, fed by toxic static on social media, politically influenced news networks, extreme partisanship and monetization of all aspects of the public domain should serve as a red flag, warning us what could happen if complacency sets in and we fail to refine our imperfect and sacred public treasures.
I held Mom tightly after I had given a detailed handover to my brother, Daniel, who stood on the front porch beside her. The porch, where, teacup in hand, Mom used to start the day staring at the sky and smelling the air. The porch, which had become the COVID living room, with the white plastic chairs moved just beyond the distance of comfortable conversation. The porch where we would all gather to say our goodbyes before we left to go back to our urban homes.
I felt confident the essentials needed for Mom to stay minimally oriented were in place: Henry and Anya, the young Dutch-Canadian farmers who rented the land and checked on her regularly when they were working on the farm. The pharmacy assistant, Quon, who delivered her medications every week along with the local gossip. The grizzled handyman, Clare, who cut the lawn in the summer and blew the snow in the winter, and had a socially distanced cup of black coffee afterwards on the back porch. The plumber, Dave, who unfailingly showed up with his face and shoe coverings, tools and smiles, within twenty minutes of her frequent calls. The black garbed and kapped Mennonite ladies, Dorothee and Helga, who carried her veggies and fruit and eggs to her truck. And the Formosa church ladies who still dropped off baked goods even though Mom now “communicated directly with the Big Guy instead of attending the services of that imperious Father Mike.”
Sobbing but steady, I released Mom and prayed I would see the twinkle in those faded blue eyes again. I opened the green leather wallet my sister Kak had given me to make sure I had my credit card and driver’s licence. The photos of my two daughters looked back at me from behind the plastic window. I wondered if they would look after me when my inevitable decrepitude arrived. I shrugged and smiled to myself and then blew Mom and Dano a kiss. Then got into my friend Debbie’s truck and drove back to Pearson airport.
Sheila O’Donoghue is in the 2019 cohort of the Graduate Liberal Studies program at Simon Fraser University. During the Pandemic she divided her time between Tuwanek on the Sunshine Coast and Teeswater, Ontario. She is a professional biobanker and an enthusiastic amateur singer, drummer, and painter. She is on her bike, cross-country skis, or in hiking boots as often as possible. And she is severely allergic to jargon, faiths, and certainties.
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