A Dementor’s Kiss

The Prisoner of Azkaban is the third book in the Harry Potter series. When this book was released, many fans of the series reacted with mixed emotions. The reason for this was that the first two books had been rollicking adventures that served the purpose of introducing us all to the wizarding world in which Harry found himself. The third book, however, moved more slowly. It was darker, more sinister. The danger in this book was more inferred and less overt. Nothing symbolized the change in tone more than the introduction of a new character element called a Dementor. Dementors were dark, wispy creatures that would envelop their victims; giving them a “kiss” of sorts, rendering them joyless, with a profound sense of nothingness. Once a victim received a Dementor’s Kiss, they were never the same again. When Dementors first appeared in the storyline of The Prisoner of Azkaban, a chill swept through the Harry Potter franchise. Some fans disliked this, more serious tone. Some fans applauded the introduction of such a mature element to the storyline. When author J.K. Rowling was asked about the significance and symbolism of the Dementors, she replied that the after-effect of a “Dementor’s Kiss” was akin to a feeling in the real world of clinical depression.

Emptiness. Darkness. Loss. Despair.

In these Covid-times that we find ourselves in, it is easy to find someone who is struggling with their mental health. That someone can easily be yourself, too. Covid-19 is, at its essence, a deadly disease that can kill you or damage your body in such a way that it impacts your ability to ever live a normal life again. But, it is more than that. It is a bully. The lasting legacy of a bully is the fear that they instill in their victims and, as well, the changes they cause to their victim’s behaviour. Bullied victims stop doing the things they love because they fear the bully will be there, waiting for them, ready to pounce and inflict pain. Bullied victims self-censor themselves, which is the biggest coup a bully can score. Bullied victims lose the power to author their own story. The fear they feel permeates every fibre of who they are and, as a result, they change who they are. The person they were ceases to be. They become shell-like, empty.

Covid-19 has delivered its Dementor-like kiss all across our planet. Approximately, a million people have been killed by this disease and hundreds of thousands more have had their health impacted. But, more than anything, Covid-19 has changed the way we live our lives. It has bullied entire civilizations of people into living lives marked by restraint. Being less than who we can be is now who we all are. It is difficult to strive for greatness when we move in ways that make us small. I have read many stories shared by those who managed to survive being in the concentration camps of the Holocaust in WWII and, to a person, they all said that what helped them to survive was a feeling of Hope. Well, dreams and hopefulness are in very short supply these days. But, ask for a show of hands of those who are sad or who are at a loss with what to do to give meaning to their days and, I am confident, a forest of arms will shoot into the air.

It may seem like a lifetime ago but, do you remember what was, arguably, the biggest news story on the planet prior to the arrival of Covid-19? It was the Climate marches. 2019 was the year that experts raised the alarm that our planet was reaching an environmental tipping point and that immediate changes to the way we were living was required. So, people all over the world marched in the tens of thousands. As ordinary citizens, we began changing how we lived by eliminating plastic from our lives. Governments began contemplating new “green energy” initiatives. Automakers began making the transition away from gas-powered cars and toward e-vehicles. Young Greta Thunberg became the face of the climate movement and was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. In 2019, whole populations began to change they way they lived; their actions fuelled by a sense of Hopefulness that they had the power to help create a better world.

In 2020, whole populations have changed they way they lived; their actions were fuelled by fear. The biggest symptom of that fear is fear of each other. We have gone from marching in the streets to huddling in family bubbles. We cross the street to avoid getting too close to each other. We no longer shake hands nor hug in a warm greeting. Children no longer are allowed to sing at school. Whenever we see a photo of someone brave enough to hold a public wedding, we don’t look for the Love and Happiness on their faces, we immediately, look for the masks on their faces…and the social distancing of their friends and family members. Slowly but, surely, we are giving in to the bully that is Covid-19 and we are self-censoring ourselves. We are excising the Joy from our lives by our daily acts of withdrawal from human contact. Having fun has become taboo. We seldom dream about a better future anymore. We are all just trying to survive.

So, what can we do to save ourselves? Well, perhaps the most important thing we can remember is the notion of Kindness. Even with the spectre of Covid-19 lurking around every corner, some aspects of life still go on. Yesterday was my wife’s birthday. My wife is the epitome of who a kind person is. She is always helpful and has a ready smile on her face. She is a positive presence to those around her. She remembers all of the birthdays and anniversaries that pop up throughout the year and always manages to find time for a card or a phone call or, better yet, a visit. She considers the act of friendship to be one of Life’s higher callings. Not surprisingly, she is held in high regard by others. So, it was not that much of a surprise when one of Keri’s dear friends reached out to contact me with a desire to do something….anything….for my dear wife, who had done so much for others, on the occasion of her birthday. That phone call culminated in the organization of a Covid-style drive-by birthday parade in her honour. People decorated their cars, honked their horns and came together to sing “Happy Birthday” to the woman I love. She was completely surprised, which is hard to pull off. Her parents got to watch their daughter being feted and honoured in a very joyous and heartfelt manner. Keri was thrilled with the personal touch. For a short while after the singing had stopped, Keri got the chance to stand in a circle and talk with everyone. It was human contact. It was a happy, fun time for all concerned. It almost felt like the normal, hopeful, good old days of 2019.

And, therein lay the path forward.

It will not be a vaccine that restores the spring in our step and the song to our hearts. It will be simple acts of human kindness. There is beauty in our hearts that, when shared and given freely to others, adds colour and warmth to our world. I am so thankful to those friends and family members who did so much on my wife’s behalf yesterday. Such a simple gesture helps to reaffirm the notion that goodness will triumph over fear in the end. Our lives are meant to lived in the full and warm embrace of all that our dreams may conspire. While the need to stay safe still exists as we move about in our daily routines, it is so very important that, in doing so, we keep each other close and not drive each other away. Isolation plays into the hands of the bully. Well, to heck with that bully! I don’t want a Dementor’s Kiss any longer. I am tired of the chill of avoidance. I want a real kiss from warm lips. As my wife smiled while we sang to her in front of our house, she smiled with her whole heart. I want to see more of those kind of smiles, too. Life is meant to be lived. Let’s all conspire to do so with boldness and vigor. Stay safe, all but, as I recently heard in a song, don’t be afraid to “sit under the light that suits you.” Be brave. Be kind. Be you. And soon these terrible times will end.

From all of us, to all of you, thanks for being such a treasured part of our lives. We love you all.

The Last Day I Was Alone

I am alone in the living room. It is evening. It is Friday but, it could just as easily be Tuesday. I don’t know what time it is but, then again, it doesn’t really matter because I have stopped looking at clocks. I know that it is evening because it is getting dark outside.

I am alone in my own home for the first time since March 12th. That was the last day my daughters went to school and the last day my wife taught at her school. March 13th was to be the start of Spring Break for Keri and for the girls. In past years, we had spent the weeks prior to Spring Break compiling lists of places to go, jobs needing to be done and people we wanted to visit. In 2020, we compiled a list that was 15-items long. Everyone was excited about having the week off from the normal routine. All we needed was for Keri to come home and then, Spring Break could officially start.

At 4:00pm, the announcement came. Corona Virus wasn’t just a problem for China or Italy anymore. It was now starting to wash up on Canada’s shores, too. Leah, who was on-line, got the breaking bulletin first: she and Sophie and all of their friends were not going back to school after Spring Break. With that announcement, new words entered our vocabulary: social-distancing, quarantine, self-isolation, lockdown. New words that signalled the start of a new way of having to live our lives.

March 12th at 3:45pm was the last time Keri was truly alone, too. She left her school with sunny thoughts in her mind. Like most teachers, she was tired from all that goes into being a teacher and was looking forward to some time off for fun and relaxation with her family and her friends. As she drove home, she did so with the radio blaring. Her protective bubble of innocence lasted until she arrived home. As she climbed out of her car, she was met by Sophie, our version of the town crier, informing her that schools were closed for three weeks. Keri had no idea at that moment what Sophie was talking about.

Spring Break 2020 ended for us before it even began. As the enormous scale of the pandemic started becoming apparent to everyone, our Spring Break to-do list fell to pieces. One by one, Leah’s speaking engagements were cancelled, as Long Term Care facilities sealed off their residents from the outside world. Leah lost all ten speaking engagements and, with it, $400.00 that she would have made. That’s a lot of money for a thirteen year old girl to lose. But, that was just the beginning.

Much to her delight, Sophie’s dental appointment was cancelled. Much to her chagrin, Keri’s hair appointment was cancelled. The Royal Ontario Museum closed its doors thus, cancelling our outing to see the Winnie the Pooh exhibit. All of the libraries in our area shut down before Leah could get there to stock up on books. My hair appointment was cancelled before I could get in. Several medical appointments I had all fell by the wayside, one by one by one. The biggest blow came when we had to postpone the trip to the battlefields of Europe, scheduled for the first week of June, for Leah, my father-in-law and me. One ironic thing that did actually happen was that Leah found a dress to wear for her Grade 8 Graduation ceremony, slated for the end of June.

During that last week of school, I had a sense that something may be heading Canada’s way, based on the news coming out of China and out of Italy. The talk of lockdowns was widespread on social media. Consequently, I spent my last week alone, trying to be pro-active while I could. I bought extra pasta and sauce. I bought two packages of toilet paper. I bought chicken noodle soup for Sophie. I bought a lot of things that, as it turned out, were not what I should have been buying. That is one of the real lessons of this pandemic: life is very different now and much of what we valued before has next to no value during a lockdown. For instance, I made a point to fill the gas tank on my car and then, to withdraw several hundred dollars from the bank so I would have cash on hand in case of an emergency. I never thought that I would hardly be driving my car because there was nowhere to really go. I never thought that stores would ban cash. But, they did. The cash I withdrew is just so much Monopoly money right now. Btw, for what it is worth, the price of gas has dropped almost 40% in a month. Too bad most of us can’t really take advantage.

If I could live that last week before Spring Break over again, knowing what I know now, I would have stocked up on those latex gloves I saw at Home Depot…..24 gloves for $12.00 at the time. We have one(!) latex glove to our name, as I type these words. I ordered some from Walmart.ca for $50.00 the other day. The same can be said for facial masks. I never knew the abbreviation “PPE” before but, now we all do. Personal Protective Equipment is the difference between life and death for our front-line medical workers and, with each passing day, it is becoming the same for us, as regular citizens, trying to go about our business in the new reality of our lives. A dear friend recently offered to sew masks for anyone who wanted them. I asked for one for each of my family members. I pick them up this Monday. We will join the growing chorus of public mask wearers when we go for our daily family walks or I go to the grocery store for our milk and fruit.

On March the 12th, our lives were filled with possibilities and the world was at our beck and call. Now, our world has been limited to the physical boundaries of our property. We cannot do what we want. We cannot go where we want. We are now living lives of small measures and careful movements. There are no hugs, except those we give to each other. People cross the street to avoid being near us. We have to line up for food at the grocery store…all of us, six feet apart…in lines that stretch down the block. Each day, there are new restrictions on our movement. Public places, like parks and beaches, have been closed. Very soon, there will be no place to go except your own home. Our world shrinks as the pandemic grows.

I was not surprised when the announcement came on the 12th that schools were to be closed. But, I am surprised to my core, at how quickly the humanity has been wrenched from our lives. My girls can no longer hold their beloved Gramma’s hand when they see her. In fact, our visits are now conducted at arm’s length, from two ends of a phone line or from the top of the steps to the bottom. Sophie created this message in her bedroom after we told her that she could no longer cuddle with Gramma.

As for my mother, like all of seniors in retirement residences, she is confined to her room almost every minute of every day. As small as my world has become, hers is infinitely smaller. Aside from what she sees on TV, she has no contact with the outside world. She relies completely on the hard-working staff where she lives. As I write these words, she is healthy. If that changes, I am not sure if I could even make it down to Nova Scotia because all flights into Sydney, where she lives, are cancelled. Even if I made it down, I would probably not be able to see her. Depending on how long this pandemic-inspired lockdown lasts, there is a reasonable chance that I will never see my mother alive again.

So, like everyone else in the world, our social contact has been reduced to what we can manage via technology. In Ma’s case, technology takes the form of a telephone. Because neither of us are doing grand things, our calls basically amount to me telling her that the four of us are all healthy and doing well. She tells me, in reply, that she is fine and that I shouldn’t worry. We always end our calls by saying “I love you” to each other.

My wife, who is not a fan of technology, has been learning to video-conference with her staff at her school. She is working harder than I have ever seen her, trying to help her colleagues prepare to begin distance-learning and helping families of kids on her Special Education caseload, prepare as well. Leah has gone old-school and has decided to write letters and send them in the mail (which is still up and running). She has been thoughtful about this and has started writing, first, to people who find themselves alone so that they might have a little socializing to brighten their day. Sophie has Face-timed with a few of her classmates but, other than that, she just pines for the physical comfort that used to be brought into her life by Gramma. None of us want to live in a world without hugs.

Almost a month has passed since that momentous announcement at 4:00pm on March the 12th that changed all of our lives. In that time, we have sought to bring as much normalcy to our days as we can. The girls asked to have school at home. So, “Mr. MacInnes” has come out of retirement. I had the girls go through the Ontario curriculum for their grades and highlight some skills/topics they had not covered yet. From there, I have started teaching two of the best students I have ever had! Sophie started by learning about the organ systems of the human body. Leah has started with History of Canada and, specifically, with First Contact scenarios as seen from the differing perspectives of those involved. Both girls have been contacted by their classroom teachers and are getting set to begin Distance-Learning next week. Both are curious to see how that goes and both are hopeful that they will be able to re-connect with their classmates, even if it is limited to thumbnails on a computer screen. Both have, also, asked me to be on stand-by should Distance-Learning prove too easy.

Breakfast. School. Lunch. A family walk. House/yard work that may or may not get done. Supper. Phone call to Gramma and Poppa. Social media/reading/TV time. Bedtime. Wake up in the morning and repeat. That is the extent of our lives now, one month removed from the lives we used to live.

The girls have gone to bed now. Keri is downstairs watching a comedy on TV. I hear her laughing. Her laughter has always been one of my favourite sounds. She says she sleeps better having laughed before retiring for the night.

And so, I find myself alone.

I don’t really like the life I am living now but, I do recognize how fortunate I am, as well as, so many of my family and friends are, too. As small as life has become, our lives continue to be rich simply because we remain healthy. An unlabored breath has replaced cash as the currency of value in our world. Although I tremble inside with every small cough I have or every throat tickle I experience, the truth is, I am fine. Those I love are fine. We are lucky to be able to say that in a world where so many can no longer pause their coughing fits nor draw a deep breath.

As March stretched out to an eternity, surprising people emerged as our leaders and heroes. I bow down in gratitude to those medical workers who are working to the point of exhaustion and, even death, to help those in the grip of the Corona Virus. I am so incredibly grateful to every grocery store cashier, stock person, trucker and cleaner who helps to keep food available for my family. I love my girl’s teachers. Sophie’s school staff drove by our house in their cars the other day to remind everyone of the personal relationships that so strongly existed mere weeks ago. Leah’s staff just posted a montage-style video of each of them saying hello to their students, including my daughter who, even though she is in Grade 8, smiled when she saw her teacher appear on screen. I would love to shake the hand of our postal carrier and our garbage guys. Thanks, as well, to all of the independent business owners who have completely re-oriented their stores and made online shopping possible. Whenever we can, we have sought to order from local stores and restaurants as a way of expressing our thanks to them for continuing to be there for us.

Beyond our town, I have watched housebound Italians serenading each other from their balconies. I have watched movie stars, authors and poets reading aloud from children’s books and from Shakespeare. Singers have put on live concerts. Some landlords have begun forgiving the rent of their out-of-work tenants. In Canada, our Prime Minster, Justin Trudeau, has spoken to the country every day, even while his own wife was stricken with the Corona Virus and he was forced into self-isolation in his home. Canada has been lucky in that we have had steady leadership when it has mattered most and that, for much of the time, that leadership has crossed partisan lines.

Keri just laughed at something she has seen on television. It made me smile.

In her bedroom, Sophie remains awake. She is working on a special project for her Gramma that involves the crafting of miniature hats made out of toilet paper tubes and coloured yarn. Each hat will end up forming the letters in a sign she is making that will say, “Happy Birthday, Gramma”. She has made over 100 little, tiny hats so far. Each hat is filled with Sophie’s love for her Gramma. Gramma’s birthday is at the end of June.

In the morning, we will awaken to the sounds of birds singing. The sun will be shining. The day will begin anew.

But, for now, I am alone.

I will luxuriate in these precious moments because since March 12th, I, like all of you, have become a citizen of the world. Prior to that, my world was comprised of my hopes and dreams and opinions. Now, as this pandemic is making so abundantly clear, my dreams never really existed in a realm of their own. No, what Covid-19 has shown in such a powerful way is how borders don’t matter and wealth doesn’t really matter because this virus will find you anywhere, no matter how simple a life you have lead or how powerful you may believe yourself to be. In every nation where the Corona Virus has hit, doctors and nurses have given their lives fighting it. In every country in the world, elderly family members have died alone. In every country, people have sang and danced and engaged in an endless parade of acts of selflessness and kindness toward those they love and strangers they have encountered. The hashtags are all true…..#weareinthistogether.

I may be alone in my home but, I now know that I have never really been alone. I am part of something far grander. And, so are you. We are in this fight together. And, when this is all over, I can guarantee you that there will be hugs.