Disability, In my rearview Mirror

In my Rear view Mirror – 2020

Not everybody has friends or family close by… this became very clear to me during the Covid-19 lock-downs.

Our town has a wonderful specialized bus service for seniors and people with a wide range of disabilities. I am one of the drivers and over the years I have gotten to know my passengers quite well through our conversations. (I just have to listen for the most part.) The passengers would also get to know each other. We form our own little community. Some of them live with family, in group homes or senior buildings, but the majority live alone.

Spring

During the Covid-19 lock-down in March my husband was able to work from home, my younger son still worked night shift stocking shelves at the grocery store and my older son lost his job. He became our shopper, cook and gardener.

Fortunately, I was able to keep working. There were now only three drivers out of the original eleven drivers still employed. I donned my N95 mask and gloves on March 23. Everything shut down: the church, the pool, the library, the senior centre, the senior daycare as well as the other programs meant for people with special needs. Only essential travel was allowed and the streets were deserted. Instead of driving four days a week, I was only needed for one and a half days. My only passengers were a few seniors that needed to go to the bank or do some grocery shopping. It became their outing – their escape from solitude… 

I started to wonder how the people that I wasn’t seeing were doing:

Fred* is about forty years old and became blind recently because of a motorcycle accident. He immigrated to Canada when he was sixteen and never married. He now lives in an apartment by himself. He used to go out for coffee at McDonald’s twice a week where he would meet and have conversations with other regulars.

Anne is about fifty years old and is really shy. She lives with her sister and liked to go to the food court for breakfast once a week. Afterwards she would stop by the library before going home again at about lunchtime.

Rick is in his late fifties and has MS. He lives in a long term care facility. He is confined to a wheelchair and needs help to move from his bed to his chair and vice versa. He loves going to church every Sunday. That used to be his only outing for the week.

It’s true that you only realize what is important in your life when it is taken away. The passengers used to talk to me on the way to their destination, but our masks as well as the Plexiglas that was installed between us make it impossible to understand each other. Now we must have our conversation outside the vehicle before I put the ramp back and close the door. It’s sad… At first I felt so sorry for my passengers, but eventually it started to dawn on me that I also benefited from all those conversations we used to have!

My first reaction to the lock-down was “Welcome to my world!” since I did not really notice much difference to how I live my life already…

I immigrated twice: The first time I was only four months old when my parents left The Netherlands and we immigrated to South Africa. The second time I made the choice in 1994 to move to Canada with my husband and our two children.

When I was growing up it was just us. There were no family get-together at Easter or Christmas, but I did not know any different. There were no weddings or funerals to attend and no cousins to play with. My grandparents would come and visit, but after six weeks they would go back home and we had to be content with letters, photographs and the occasional phone call.

We spoke Dutch at home, so I grew up with Dutch children’s stories and nursery rhymes. When I went to the local nursery school at four years old, the other children spoke Afrikaans and could not understand me. I remember an incident when I was really impressed with a sandcastle somebody built, but when I asked her how she did it I got a handful of sand thrown into my eyes! The teacher didn’t even realize it was because of the language barrier when she suggested my mom take me to a child psychologist…

We moved away to a different city and a wonderful Afrikaans lady went out of her way to befriend us. She had experienced being the outsider while living in Davis, California for about two years. Her second child was born there. Her children’s ages matched ours perfectly and before long I had a bosom buddy. I learned to speak Afrikaans, eat South African food and became acquainted with their habits. I went to the new nursery school six months later as a five year old and there were no issues at all!

When I went to grade school a boy from down the street insisted on taunting me almost every day by calling out “Cheese Head, Cheese Head!” while walking home from school. One day when he did this during break-time at school, I had enough: I brought down a full Tupperware tumbler onto his head – the lid popped off and milk was streaming down his hair and all over his clothes.

Needless to say I was thinking of myself as the Dutch girl by then. For years, when somebody would point out that I must be South African since I basically lived there all my life it would just not feel right.

We immigrated to Canada about twenty-seven years ago because of the high crime rate in South Africa, and we wanted to live in a peaceful country with our kids. Recently I did a course that would train me to help other people with basic reading and math skills. During one of the group discussions one lady kept explaining herself louder and slower towards me. She just assumed I must not know what I am talking about since I have an accent. I hope she treated her students better – especially the ones who are from other countries and want to improve their English!

A Dutch-Canadian asked me once in exasperation “What are you exactly?” I joked that I am “mixed up” since I just add aspects of Canadian culture into my life.

My parents still live in South Africa. They are both eighty-six years old and thankfully are still able to do their own cooking, cleaning, shopping and yard work. It takes up a lot of time obviously, but also helps to keep them in shape. They like to read books and the newspaper; the radio and television serve as entertainment. I was grateful to hear that my mom was able to see the optometrist as well as the dentist during their lock-down. When her doctor inquired about my mom’s well-being, he was quite surprised that she did not feel isolated. Even though she was terribly homesick for the first ten years after immigrating, she eventually became used to her new reality. So much so that her reaction to social distancing this year was almost identical to mine: we did not really notice a big difference in terms of family contact. Instead, she told him about the wonderful streaming service her pastor does every week and he actually asked her for the link! My dad still went for his usual morning walk in the neighbourhood.

During the lock-down I had time to finish a few long overdue projects, sign up for an online course and pick up some of my neglected hobbies again. Every day I did not have to go to work felt like Sunday to me. My mom and her parents used to write letters every Sunday. It took a week for those letters to be exchanged and you had to wait two weeks to get an answer to any question! By the time we immigrated, we continued this tradition. It still took a few years to convince my parents to get a computer and go online when the internet became available. Over time our e-mails became shorter and more infrequent. We used the telephone for birthdays. When Skype was introduced, we could talk much longer and even see each other. I used to Skype my parents very irregularly over the years, but this year I started to Skype them once a week for an hour. I am so grateful that my brother made it possible for us to have this type of contact available during 2020. He always makes sure that their computer system is upgraded and in working order so that he can access their computer remotely at any time. (During their lock-down he also helped organize deliveries from their pharmacy as well as having their bills send by e-mail.)

After two months, when the doctor’s office and the medical clinics opened back up, I started seeing more passengers again. Visiting hours were still severely restricted though…

Sandra’s husband has to stay in the hospital’s Critical Care Unit for a while and she can go visit him only twice a week for three hours. (It was such a happy day when I took him home after three months.)

Mr. Derrick can visit his wife twice a week outside in the courtyard of the long-term care home. He needs another negative Covid-19 test if he wants to go inside the building. (He had one a few weeks ago when he was desperate to see her face to face again, instead of through the window.)

Summer

When some of my passengers ventured out for their long awaited hairdresser appointment, they could smile confidently, knowing that they looked good again. Others were having their toes and aching bones looked after so they could move easier again. Some ladies who couldn’t attend their exercise classes during lock-down were having a hard time. They seemed to have developed balance and fitness issues…

I pull out the ramp for Mrs. Merle to board and she tells me that today is the first time that she has left the residence in four months. We are both masked up and wearing gloves. I make sure the buggy with her groceries is fastened and that she manages to put her seat belt on. She says that the past few months have been really awful. She was used to making her own decisions at her independent living residence until now. She calls it solitary confinement. She tells me that she doesn’t go down to the dining hall anymore, even though it is now allowed again. The tables are all surrounded by Plexiglas anyway… Her older sister lives in the same building, but you have to stay six feet away from everybody. “It’s safer that way.” She tells me that eleven people died from Covid-19 before they managed to get the spread under control.

 She seems to be in shock. The world has changed so drastically in such a short time. The Plexiglas between us muffles sound too much to continue our conversation. At least we can talk face to face to each other before I drive her home again.

My parents have their wedding anniversary as well as their birthdays in June and July. Since their post office was not delivering any mail, I found a lavender farm and a bookstore close to them that could deliver locally. That time of the year it’s winter there, so at least it could warm their hearts.

Fall

The day program for disabled adults opened up again in September. The group size is much smaller now and that means that some still cannot visit their friends. I find it heartbreaking what they have to endure. They are the people who already have a hard time adapting to society and they had to wait six months before being allowed to be integrated back…

Rick has not been able to go to church yet and Anne hasn’t gone back to the food court or the library either. Fred goes to McDonald’s for coffee again, but not as frequently, since his companions aren’t there anymore…

What was strange is that I started to feel isolated when people were venturing back out. They were so happy! Ten-people bubbles or even five-people bubbles don’t exist in my life. It made me aware of how we were all stripped of social interactions outside of our homes, but for me it did not hurt as much. Now I had to just think about how spending time together with the people in my own household made me appreciate the people I love more.

My son started working again. We are grateful and relieved.

Winter

Until now our first Christmas here in Canada has been our most memorable:

Seven years before we left South Africa, my husband and I both made a list of potential countries we would like to move to. Canada topped both our lists, even though neither of us had ever been there! We applied to three different countries and Australia almost accepted us – were it not for one more year’s work experience needed for the necessary amount of points. We decided to stay in South Africa, bought a house and had children. Many people were starting to leave the country or were thinking about it. One day, visiting a friend, she told me that they were considering going to Canada. We reconsidered and applied again. Six months later the Canadian Embassy accepted us as potential immigrants and a year later we sold our house and our car and used our pensions to move here. We had theoretically enough money left to last us three months. We had no other contact here in Canada than my father’s brother and they had not seen each other in 36 years.

We stayed at a motel while my husband started job hunting. He was able to use my cousin’s computer to set up a resumé and he knew somebody who had a printer and a fax machine. We bought an old Fiat that could take him to his interviews. The motel was becoming too expensive and we were fortunate enough to find a landlord who was willing to take a chance on us. My uncle’s family lend us their camping furniture, dishes and linen. Luckily my husband found a job within six weeks. In the mean-time, the car had needed some repairs and the first salary cheque came just in time to pay the next food bill. 

However, three months later and only six weeks before Christmas, my husband lost this job! We were totally unprepared for this situation since we had no income and no savings left. We were feeling pretty desperate.

The people from church were wonderful and we were very grateful for their help:

My husband could use somebody’s computer and somebody else came by to fix the car. Everybody was praying for us. (We were praying too: “…a job for daddy, please…”) The deacons brought us a washer and dryer since I was still going to the laundromat once a week and also replaced the old refrigerator (it was making the strangest sounds). Somebody even gave us a turkey. I had to ask for the recipe since we have never had turkey before. Somebody else lend us their Christmas decorations (they were going to visit family). The very next day the nursery school donated their tree to us – the schools were closing for the Christmas break and they knew it was our very first Christmas in Canada. They were unaware of our predicament! My youngest was very excited about the tall Christmas tree (it almost reached the ceiling and was the perfect size for all the ornaments we had received the day before) and said: “…and we didn’t even ask…!” We even received a huge parcel full of treats from a Dutch organization called “Nederlands Bazaar” as well as two baskets full of gifts from the local social services to go under the tree.

To top it all off, my husband found a new job two weeks before Christmas! We were definitely thankful and grateful to be living in a safe country where we felt welcome and supported. An unforgettable Christmas for sure!

Many families could not get together over the Christmas holidays due to social distancing rules, but that also meant that we did not feel like outsiders for a change. I could appreciate that both our sons still lived with us. We were able to enjoy and celebrate Christmas 2020 together, the way we always do:

We have assimilated our three cultures. We have real snow outside decorating the garden instead of the cotton balls we used for the Christmas tree when we lived in South Africa. We enjoy chocolate initials, taai-taai and speculaas from the local Dutch store and we get South African biltong and boerewors from a butcher in Oakville. Our sausage rolls and mince tarts come from Sweet Molly’s in town. My son loves making the turkey every year complete with filling and cranberry sauce. We start the festive season by giving gifts through-out December and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on Christmas Day. Poinsettias decorate the living room and the lights and the tree go up the day before Christmas and only come down twelve days after that!

In hindsight, I think if I had been raised as a Dutch person in the Netherlands I would not have had such a rich and varied life. I think I would have turned out to be a totally different person than I am today, since I am more aware of lonely and isolated people around me. My life didn’t change much since we moved to Canada; I was already used to having relatives living overseas. I will say I am multicultural and my opinion might not always perfectly align with yours. I accept that not everybody has the same background and you cannot judge a book by its cover. I will listen to what you have to say and get to know you for who you are. I see you as a unique person and I would love to receive the same acceptance from you. Since I have been at the receiving end of bullying based on my culture or my accent, it has made me more aware of people that are trying to overcome obstacles due to their circumstances. I empathize with the unfortunate and try to help where I can.

I am thankful that I still had the opportunity to connect with people during 2020 due to my job. I try to shine my own particular light and create a little brightness around me. I know that waving to someone on the sidewalk, saying “Hello” or smile makes a difference to somebody’s day. By listening I can give somebody time to talk. By being patient while waiting I can relieve a lot of tension. Holding the door can save somebody a real struggle. Just by acknowledging and caring I can bring some happiness into someone’s life. I have received so much joy in return.

At the end of 2020 and I asked my passengers whether they had a good Christmas this year and there were some mixed feelings. I wished them a happier 2021. Together we can chase the darkness away!

* People’s names and some descriptions have been changed to protect their privacy