“Alexa, drop in on Maxine.”

“Maxine MacLeod’s Echo Plus, right?”

I wait for Echo’s signal at mom’s bedside, room 128, Birchview Home, Birch Hills, Saskatchewan.

“Hello mom,” my voice loud even though I’ve upped the volume on her Echo beyond 80%. “How are you?”

“Not. too. bad.” (Pause) “What. day. is. it?”

And so begins “Maxine’s Newscast,” a daily ritual since COVID-19.

The country is in isolation. Mom, like 400,000 other Canadians, in long-term care. Disconnected. But for her, it’s total blackout.

After years of glaucoma, macular degeneration, scarring and prolonged eye infections, mom became totally blind in September 2018. Her hearing isn’t great, she’s lost her sense of smell and she’s immobile, unable to hold a telephone to her ear. Hence Echo, her 90th birthday present.

Losing her vision began the domino effect, toppling her interest in the world, overturning her sociability. On her report card a year ago, she scored 0/6 on curiosity. “We can’t let Maxine live out the rest of her days like this,” Renée told her staff at Birchview. Last August, almost immediately after they put mom on Tetrazone, her curiosity vaulted to a personal best.

Clearly, Birchview is no ordinary care home. A government facility (where mom volunteered in her eighties), it has thirty beds—all private rooms, five RNs, caring staff like Khristina who says, “I love your mom’s story about Bessie the cow,” and mom’s favourite thing about the place—delicious, home-cooked meals. My sister Margie describes Valentine’s Day breakfast. “Mardell dipped strawberries in chocolate, cut watermelon and poured pancake batter into heart shapes and grilled bacon strips and sausage links.” Magellan and I want to reserve a place, starting in 2040!

As Mom grew up on the land and married a farmer, Maxine’s Newscast often kicks off with the local weather. I know she’s going to ask, “How.is.that.disease?” and be especially interested in Saskatchewan’s COVID numbers, which comparatively, are excellent. “Who.is.the.health.minister.in.Saskatchewan?” she wonders. “What.country.is.the.worst?” She talks about testing positive for tuberculosis when she was young and how scared her mother was. “Good.one,” she laughs at Norm and Kathy’s April Fool’s Day prank. “Who.is.Em.again?” she asks when I give her the play-by-play of a video of her two-year-old great-granddaughter banging away in her play kitchen. I tell her that Aaron, her seventeen-year-old grandson, quit his restaurant-delivery job after one shift because he was only paid $3.30 per trip, got few tips and had to use his own car. “That’s.taking.advantage.of.the.situation,” she scoffed. “Shows.what.you.can.do,” she said when I told her Bauer retooled its factory to make protective visors for healthcare workers instead of for hockey helmets. Her mantra, repeated every time we discuss COVID in depth is, “I.hear.you.can.get.it.again.after.you’ve.had.it.”

BC (Before COVID) my sisters Margie and Judy who live nearby used to visit frequently, bringing her mokas and flowers and donuts for the staff. Summoning her lost world, I ask if she has any questions for her kids. Ask.Joyce.what.made.Arnold.quit.smoking. How.is.Evan.doing.in.his.new.marriage? Is.Joan.over.her.sickness? How.is.Joan’s.friend.doing? Has.Clare.started.her.thesis? She always has the last word and it is always the same. “Thanks.for.calling. Send.my.love.to.all.the.family.”

It was Magellan, ever the solutions-oriented engineer thinking ahead, who initiated the idea of getting mom an Amazon Alexa when she first moved to Birchview, before the light in her eyes dimmed to darkness. He installed it, programmed music to come on three times a day from radio station VOWR in Newfoundland and set up the phone numbers for Maxine’s family and friends.

Then came the hard part.

Teaching mom how to use Alexa.

“Alex,” she’d start off, confusing the device’s name with that of one of her favourite granddaughters.

“Alextha.will.you.please…” mom haltingly attempted in her soft, slow voice and paused. “Who.was.I.supposed.to.call?”

“Don’t be polite mom,” I said. “Alexa is not a person. You have to be direct. Like when you called us kids in for dinner or told your students to behave. Just say, ‘Alexa, call Joyce.’”

“Where is Alexa?” she asked.

“She’s like a small computer sitting on your night table. But her brain is in California,” Magellan said.

Ha, Ha. Not much value to mom who has never used a computer.

So I tried. “Mom, Alexa is less than a foot tall, black and cylindrical in shape—like two small cans of tomatoes stacked on top of each other.”

“Does Alexa can her own tomatoes?”

Margie’s husband Vern was laughing so hard he had to leave the room.

We changed Alexa’s name to Echo, shorter and easier for mom to say. Attempted Echo’s voice-recognition training. But because mom’s commands are too polite, too slow and too softly spoken, Echo doesn’t respond. Although my siblings are on our contact list and should be able to “Drop in on Maxine” from an Echo app, success has been limited.

Now with COVID, the Birchview staff, amazing women and men that they are, periodically ask mom which of her kids she’d like to talk to and have Echo make the call.“Every patient should have one of these,” exclaimed Barb, one of the caregivers when she saw how Echo worked. The staff often waltz in and say, “Echo, play ‘Dancing Queen,’” or some other tune and put on a song-and-dance show for mom.

Most of mom’s memories are folded away in the back cupboards of her mind but she brings out a few favourites for regular airing. A young woman in Halifax stopping at she and Glynn’s table to talk and then paying for their fish chowder. A recurring dream of teenagers hiding guns and stuff around her place when she lived alone on Bellamy Avenue. Dad bringing her wild roses from the field. “Seven.on.one.stem.I.think.about.it.a.lot.because.it.was.so.unlike.Ken.”

It’s strange what you remember, what will keep.
Wildflowers bowing under their own weight

Ever stoic, my mother seems unperturbed by COVID news. I tell her about the gross negligence at the long-term care facility in Herron, Quebec, that led to thirty-three deaths. “You’re lucky to be in a safe and well-run place like Birchview where there’s little likelihood of an outbreak,” I say, uneased but not unsurprised by her answer. “But.I.want.to.die.” The subject recurred on a call with my sister Joan last Sunday, surely the saddest day of the week when you are elderly, alone, in lockdown, stone-blind and there are fewer staff to lighten your day.

The next day I took a different approach to Maxine’s Newscast, reading aloud an illuminating essay from Sunday’s New York Times. “I’m.not.sure.I.got.all.that. Can.you.explain.it.in.your.own.words?” she asked when I finished.

A little girl and her mother are out walking. The little girl thinks her baby doll, Annabelle, may have the coronavirus, but she’s not sure. The mother understands that this is her daughter’s way of coping with the isolation we’re all forced to endure. The mother copes by thinking about an essay she’s read, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” and a story by Robert Louis Stevenson about young boys who have a secret club—under their heavy coats they hide lighted lanterns that they reveal to show their membership. I explain the little girl’s glimmer of hope as she talks to her mother about a birthday party she’s planning for another one of her dolls. Mom and I talk about the loneliness that comes with pandemics and wars. I read aloud, again, the passage where the mother remembers Levinas, a Holocaust survivor, thinking how difficult it was going to be to teach children born after the war to have the strength to survive in isolation: “It was something about the courage to be alone, about a fragile consciousness, and the importance of the inner life. Yes, that was it.”

“That’s why the author called the essay, ‘The Courage to Be Alone,’” I explain.

“What.a.good.title,” mom said. “Now.I.see.”

A few days later Joan emailed, “Talked to mom today. She had a pretty cool story that I never heard before.” (None of us had.) “When she was a young girl, one of her teachers had a contest every spring, letting the kids go out in small groups to see who found the first crocuses!” I hope mom remembers being the first to see them, the patch she lit upon thick with wild crocuses, their mauve petals soft and young, her eyes bright with joy as she picked them out of the dark prairie earth into the full light of spring.

Navigation

Craig, Megan. “The Courage to Be Alone.” The New York Times. Sunday, May 3, 2020.

Majka, Sara. Cities I’ve Never Lived In. Minneapolis: Greywolf Press, 2016. Dedicated to her mom, Sara’s debut collection of short stories that “upends our ideas of love and belonging” is the source of the quote in today’s post.

Thanks to Don Taylor for allowing us to use his photo of prairie crocuses.

37 replies
  1. Avatar
    Sam says:

    I had the privilege of helping your mom as a student during my clinical for just under 4 weeks last month. She’s a very sweet lady who always laughed at my really dumb jokes. One day we had a jam out to Adele’s top hits, she got a kick out of some very dramatic and bad singing haha. I enjoyed reading this. Hopefully soon we can all see our loved ones.

    Reply
    • Spice
      Spice says:

      Thanks Sam for letting us in on what mom is doing these days—and aren’t we all agreeing with Adele as she belts out the chorus:,”I wish nothing but the best for youuuu.”

      Reply
  2. Avatar
    Pat says:

    This was a beautiful read for a super special lady. Maxine is such a wonderful lady and I will be forever grateful to have had the pleasure of knowing her well we lived down the road from her, Ken and their beautiful family. Love seeing the pictures and always brings back memories of a great time living the pleasant country life. Keep smiling Maxine hugs 😘

    Reply
  3. Avatar
    Anna Khristina says:

    “Good Morning Maxine!” How are you today? With the sweetest smile, she almost always respond with “I am ok, i guess”…
    Then we ask echo, to play a song for us to start our morning care with Maxine❤️ After dinner, before supper or at any time of the day, we ask Maxine if she wants to talk to any of her “amazing 6″…and i can go on and on..Her family is very involved with her care, one of the best families we have❤️ almost everyday one of the “amazing 6” comes to the home and help her with her meals.. with donuts/ coffee in tow for the staff too!❤️ i love to hear all her stories from when she was still at home❤ Maxine has a grateful heart, full of love and wisdom to share, very kind, warm, family-oriented❤ she’s definitely one of my favorite “purple” lady❤

    Reply
    • Spice
      Spice says:

      Friends ask, especially now, if we’re worried about mom and honestly, I’m not. The care provided by Birchview is just part of it—as importantly, it’s the heartfelt attitude that staff brings to the task, as your email demonstrates so clearly. (From the one who buys mom purple, mauve, lavender and lilac-coloured clothing.)

      Reply
      • Avatar
        Khristina says:

        Hi “Spice”! And everything nice❤ as i read the first few lines about your heartfelt tribute to your Mom, i knew it was you❤ i have read your detailed and polished letters/essay to Maxine a few times..we could tell how wonderful she is as a Mother by the way you all care and dote for her❤ The apple sure fell not far from the tree❤ This is one of our daily conversation while working with her, “Maxine, would you like to be peaceful today or be a Gingham style? Or yet, sleep in lavender field”—we love her potion lotion❤

        Reply
        • Spice
          Spice says:

          TY for your caring Kristina.

          When we were kids thousands of sleeps ago on the farm walking to a one-room no-library country school, mom used to order books for us from the Regina Public Library, the start of a love of words for we three oldest for sure. In my teenage years I’m sure mom could hardly wait for one bad apple (me) to be picked and transported far away!

          Reply
          • Avatar
            Khristina says:

            😊 I wish one day, everything will be back to where everybody can come and visit❤ Thank you for the kind words G-lo aka Spice❤ Take care and Happy Mother’s Day to you❤

  4. Avatar
    Alyson says:

    What a great Mother’s day story. Thankyou for all the beautiful things you say about our Birchview home. It is so hard for us to see the people we care for and love being lonely for there families. Your mom has such great stories that make me smile,she is full of wisdom, and puts a smile on my face daily. She laughs at my silly jokes and always gives the best hugs. she loves family so much!

    Reply
  5. Avatar
    Diane says:

    Beautiful post! Thank goodness for Echo and Magellan’s persistence to make it user friendly for Maxine. I am sure it must be so reassuring to have that contact with her. I love the pictures and video. Love the picture of mom and Maxine having fun on their Maritime Bus Tour. Hope you had a great Mother’s Day!

    Reply
  6. Avatar
    Barry MacLeod says:

    Maxine is one very special lady, mother to more than just her own children, she is boundless in her care and Love for others.
    Your pictures are awesome and bring Maxine into everyones lives again and again even though she is currently untouchable, her wisdom and thoughts are within us all, I believe she instilled a level of caring and “Love” that only a “Mother” could provide.

    “Happy Mother’s Day” to Maxine and all the other mothers out there, may better days be ahead for all children of the world.

    Reply
  7. Avatar
    Colleen says:

    A lovely post for Mother’s Day! I’m sure your mom must really look forward to your Echo visits. Enjoyed the video of Birchview and your photos of Maxine -she always has such a beautiful smile!

    Reply
    • Magellan
      Magellan says:

      Saskatchewan has done perhaps the best in the world at protecting its seniors from covid in long term care facilities with those over 80 years old representing only 3% of the cases. Congratulations to your health providers and care home managers.

      But were mom still alive today, she would have been heart broken if she were denied daily contact with you and Diane.

      Reply
  8. Avatar
    Judy says:

    Thank you for this special post today. 🙏🏼 I’m hoping mom feels our love and appreciation today and always. A remarkable lady. ❤️

    Reply
  9. Avatar
    Marsha says:

    You two have made Maxine’s life much more interesting thanks to your gift of Alexa/Echo. Such difficult times and although I wish I could talk to my Mom (also Maxine) today, I am glad she has not experienced this pandemic. Happy Mother’s Day!💗

    Reply
  10. Avatar
    Joan says:

    A beautiful tribute to a beautiful Mother who has been such an inspiration and an amazing role model.
    Thanks very much Gloria and Kerry❤️Happy Mother’s Day!

    Reply
    • Spice
      Spice says:

      Yes, without Magellan’s clever idea to install Echo, a “dark” experience given the complications of SaskTel, talking to her would be almost impossible.

      Reply
  11. Avatar
    Heather MacLeod-Clark says:

    Such a great post today.. Brought a tear to my eye, so many great stories ..Your mom, as you know is so special to all of us that know her, evidently the staff at Birchview feel the same. Thank goodness for Echo, love it. Happy Mothers Day to each of you, be safe, and for the sake of all of us..Stay home and wash you hands…Love it, thanks

    Reply

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