My dad wasn’t buried the day he died because the ground was too hard. His burial didn’t take place until two months later, on May 30, 2015.
It’s not always easy to forget your family and travel the world; sometimes things happen in life where you find yourself making a tough choice, continuing a trip or returning home when your family needs you. I chose to return to Canada and move back in with my parents to help care for my dad.
Sometime in 2010, I had started noticing changes in my dad, not physically, but mentally. The changes were small, and to most they were unrecognizable. In the beginning, he would get confused over little things, like the difference between a red light or green light, sometimes starting to drive when a light was still red. He became forgetful, and his obsession with notebooks grew. He was always writing things down, when his favourite TV show would be on, product numbers for work (In his early 70s, he was working as a part-time furniture salesman), the birthdays of family members, my travel schedule. To some, it seemed like the normal forgetfulness that comes with age.
I knew differently.
I’m not sure if it was due to my time as a health care aide working with Alzheimer’s patients, or something else, but I was hyper-aware of the changes that were happening. When my parents decided to move from Alberta back to Ontario to be closer to my brother and his family, my mother and I knew there was no way my dad would be able to make it through the three-day journey. It wasn’t that he was unwell; it was the fact that we were too scared to let him drive, and we knew he would be incredibly moody and hard to deal with. So we chose to put him on a plane and fly him back to Toronto. My mom and I then spent the next three days driving my parents’ car to Ontario.
I then left for Africa and a short stay in Southeast Asia.
Over the next couple years, I continued to travel to Asia and Europe, attempting the Mongol Rally. Dad’s memory began to slip even more, and he would refuse to talk to me on the phone. During this time we learned Dad would need hearing aids in both ears, and cataract surgery as well. While I was home for a visit I drove him around town looking for a hearing centre that wouldn’t overcharge him. It was during this visit that he had his cataract surgery as well, a day I will never forget.
When I was visiting my parent’s, dad wanted me to go everywhere with him, especially the doctor’s office. When it came time for his cataract surgery someone needed to stay home to look after one of my nieces, I decided to hang out at the house, allowing my mom to have that time with my dad. It was a mistake I will always regret.
When asked to sit down my dad became confused and the doctor and nurse needed to assist him to sit back. Without announcing what they were going to do, they grabbed my dad’s arms to move him back, and he got frightened and angry. The doctor began yelling, my dad was upset, and minutes later my mom was calling me on the phone, crying. I was livid, and I had no way of driving down to the hospital, instead I left the doctor a scathing voicemail at his office, and then continued to berate his behaviour when he called to explain himself.
That night Dad was still agitated, and I decided to sleep on the sofa – he had taken to sleeping in his recliner in the living room. At 5:00 a.m. he wanted to call the police and report a man who had abused him at the hospital. He was scared and angry. It took me over an hour to calm him down and get him to go back to sleep.
A month or so later I decided to move to Québec City, reasoning that I was only a 10-hour drive away should my family need me. I wasn’t travelling full time, but I was going to carve out a life for myself in Québec. I sublet an apartment in Old Québec, and a few weeks later I changed my mind and went to Mexico as a friend of mine was having a baby and needed some help with her toddler. I stayed with them for a month, then travelled through interior Mexico from Puerto Vallarta to Cancun. Once I reached Cancun the plan was to continue south to Belize, but by the time I reached Cancun it became clear that I needed to come back to Canada.
I said goodbye to Mexico, and searched for an apartment in Old Québec, establishing myself in the city and working remotely. As I was relatively close to home, I made regular trips to see my family. By this time my dad was no longer allowed to drive – something that upset him for weeks – and had forgotten words like ‘shrimp’ and ‘Mr Big’, two of his favourite snacks. His moods were beginning to worsen, and by August 2014 my mom was starting to feel a little worn out (she will never admit this).
I called my landlord, sold everything I owned, and moved back home.
In August I travelled to Scotland for a week, and in October I went to Poland for a week. When I wasn’t travelling, I was at home caring for my dad, and trying to help my mom.
By this time he was no longer the man who raised me. There were days when I’d take him shopping, only to find myself locked inside a handicap washroom with him, trying to clean up as he hadn’t made it to the toilet on time. I was on autopilot. He would apologise, and I would tell him it was okay and clean whatever I could. Sometimes putting his underwear in a plastic bag helping him get his pants back on, abandoning a shopping cart, and driving him straight home so he could have a shower. It happened at the house as well. He’d go to the bathroom and a short time later sticks his head out the door and motion for me to come. I would then help change his underwear, clean up the floor, and tell him it was okay because accidents happen.
Not every moment was filled with stress; there were the comical moments, the moments when his newfound innocence would make me laugh. I’ll never forget the first time he tried a slider. He thought tiny burgers were genius, and the next day a smile crept across his aged face and his eyes twinkled as he asked me if we could go eat some “slippers” – he couldn’t remember the word “sliders”.
Despite the disease, he still had the ability to embarrass me. He had a red blinking Rudolph nose that he loved to wear when we went out. I would try to take it out of his pocket, but he would always manage to get it back in without my noticing, and put it on in the grocery store. He would then spend his time making goofy smiles at women and children.
When he wasn’t wearing his nose, he’d be buying a rose for his pharmacist, and telling a cashier how beautiful she looked. One day I asked him why he did that, and his answer was simple, “Did you see how happy it made her?”, and that alone would make his day.
Aside from short trips to Scotland and Poland, I had given up my travel life. I had stopped writing, stopped blogging. I stopped doing anything social. I didn’t feel I had the mental capacity, and there were a few times when I wanted to delete everything.
At the end of October 2014, everything changed. While at church my dad had an accident and we decided to take him home to wash him, so we could bring him back. He seemed a little more confused than normal, and it took longer to get him into the car, but I thought it was just a rough patch, and let it go. When we got to the house he couldn’t get up the stairs or walk down the hallway, so I grabbed a kitchen chair for him to sit on and dragged him into the living room. Sitting in front of him, I called my brother and asked him to come over; it was clear we would need two people to hold my dad up, while my mom washed him. A couple minutes after I hung up my dad slumped forward in his chair and became unresponsive. We called 911 and he was rushed to the hospital.
At first, the doctors thought he had a stroke, but it turns out that his Alzheimer’s dementia had taken a sudden turn for the worse; he was now in the late stages of the disease.
I was scheduled to go to Haiti for a week and struggled with whether I should still go. For the first few nights, my mom and I sat by his bed, taking turns sleeping at the hospital. We talked about whether I should cancel my plans, and when we received the news that it wasn’t a stroke, and he seemed okay, my mom encouraged me to still go.
I had an amazing time in Haiti, but my parents are always on my mind.
When I returned to Ontario we were faced with the harsh reality that my dad would never be able to come home. Mom and I had vowed to never put him in long-term care; we would take care of him at home for as long as possible. The thought of having to place him in long-term care was utterly heart-wrenching. We cried and cried. And cried. We wanted him home, but he had forgotten how to stand on his own, and how to walk. He had moments of triumph when he’d stand with assistance, but those moments didn’t last.
We toured long-term care facilities, trying to decide which ones we wanted to request. Some of the facilities had a waitlist that was four years long. We knew he wasn’t going to be around in four years.
A few weeks later he was moved into a facility about 30 minutes from my mom’s house.
The cost of long-term care in Ontario is $1,700 a month, and that was for basic care in a shared room with three to five other people. That’s equivalent of a second mortgage. The financial strain was too much for my mom, so I decided to go back to work and got a full-time job as a travel consultant with Flight Centre. It was my perfect solution as I was surrounded by travel all day, and still home, close to my dad, and trying to help my mom.
Things were tough, but life progressed, and in the beginning of March 2015 I had asked my mom if I could borrow her car for a couple days and go to Québec City for the weekend. I was desperate to go back, even for a short visit. I left after work on Friday and arrived in Québec City around 10:00 p.m. The next day I stopped for lunch on my way to the Ice Hotel, lazily answering a call from my mom.
“Pam, I think you need to come home. Your dad is sick and they are taking him to the hospital”, said my mom, “How sick? Is it just a cold or something more?”, I asked, knowing that many seniors are taken to the hospital for respiratory problems, and then returned to their facility a few hours later.
During our conversation my mom’s cell phone rang; it was the doctor in the ER. He wanted her to come to the hospital; Dad was sick and it didn’t look good. She began to cry, I told her I was on my way and started crying as I tried to explain to the waiter that I had an emergency and had to leave before my food arrived. I drove back to the hotel, shoved everything into my bag, and started the 10-hour drive back to Ontario.
In the meantime, my brother had taken my Mom to Fergus to be with my Dad. I drove 130 to 140 km/hr on the highway, passing several police cars that didn’t even notice me. I called for updates. I cried. I asked my mom to tell my dad to wait for me, to tell him I was coming and I would be there as soon as possible.
He was still awake and gripped my hand, unable to speak. My brother was on one side of his bed, my mom was on the other. It was Saturday night.
Shortly after I arrived he fell asleep. The nurses would come in to give him morphine, and we all slept in his room. During Sunday Mom, my brother Greg, and I talked about memories growing up. We laughed, we cried and assured my dad that all would be okay, that we would be okay. We told him that my youngest brother was thinking of him and that he loved him, as he was unable to fly out.
Sunday night his colour started changing, and sometime during the night, his breathing started to change as well. We woke up around 6:00 a.m., and Greg went to call his boss to say he wouldn’t be at work. I stood up, took my Dad’s hand, and stroked his head with my left hand and saying “Dad, it’s okay, if you need to go, you should go”. A few moments later he took a deep breath and passed away.
It was March 16, 2015.
I gave his eulogy. Greg spoke of his strength as a father and read a beautiful poem he had written. When the time came to escort his casket from the church to the hearse my cousin played “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes and led the procession.
I continued to work full time, but feeling like a shell of the person I was before my dad passed away. I cried more easily, and my sensitivities were extreme. I began to lose myself, to doubt that I was capable of moving on and being happy without him.
I never cried at home, not in front of my mom or my brother. If I cried it was at night, in bed, when I was alone.
I wanted to be at home with my mom, to help her cope, to be there when she needed me, but at the same time, I was having difficulty being in the house, looking at his photo every day.
I travelled to Vancouver for a weekend and found a slice of happiness in being on the road again. I went on a work trip to Jamaica. I slowly started to do some of the things I loved before I returned home to care for my dad.
I made a decision to move, to try and find out who I am now that I have lost a parent. I told work that I wanted to move to Vancouver, but I wanted to travel first. I gave them two months’ notice, and then sat down and had several conversations with my mom.
Would she be okay? Yes, but I wanted her to know that things would be different once she was on her own. I wanted to make sure she went out with her friends and didn’t stay inside. I asked a friend of mine to check in on her, to try and make sure my mom remained social.
A year after I packed up my life in Québec City to return home, I was done working and getting ready to return to Asia. I had slowly begun writing again, and I was finding my way on social media – although it still feels awkward at times. At the beginning of September, I rode the train from Toronto to Vancouver with VIA Rail, I then flew to Hong Kong for a couple days, and then hopped on a flight to Bangkok.
I love being back on the road, interacting with locals, spending my days sweating to death. It’s not always cupcakes and rainbows, there are days when I have a five-minute crying session because I suddenly ache for my dad, but that’s to be expected. That’s normal.
Finding a balance among travel, life, and family is different for everyone. The most important thing one can do is follow their heart. When it became evident that I had to return home, I was forced to cancel a campaign I was doing with Ford Canada, which ultimately damaged my relationship with them, but the truth is, it was worth it. I had seven months of one-on-one time with my dad that I wouldn’t have had if I remained in Québec, or was on the road. I had tough days, but there were many days when his snide comments and weird demands would make me laugh. I was able to take him driving every day during the fall months to see the leaves change colour, starting in a small cemetery he loved (which is where he is now buried) and into the countryside. I like to think I was there when he needed me the most, and because of that, I have no regrets.
Life is uncertain, but I am finding my way. During the last three months of 2015, I travelled to Thailand and Myanmar and made time for myself and my grief. While I had originally said I wasn’t going to come home for Christmas, I decided to return to Canada at the beginning of December so I’d be home for what would have been his 80th birthday and for the first Christmas our family will have without him sitting in his recliner, chewing on his favourite candy, Toffee. I cancelled my return to Mexico and changed my mind about moving to Vancouver. I restarted a project that I had put aside when I left Québec in 2014. And for the first time in 18 months, I feel like I am once again living my life for me.