“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.
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.