Everything was planned. A trip to Las Vegas with 60 guests, a simple ceremony at a chapel with a tree growing inside. There would be photo shoots, a brunch and a pool party.
At first Scott and Judy Slade weren’t too concerned about the virus. It seemed so far away, something happening in other countries and on cruise ships.
But then things started to change.
Scott, 36, worked in the oil patch, and Judy, 32, was a nurse. They didn’t want to do anything that could endanger their family or guests. For a moment they planned to go to Vegas alone, but soon they decided against that, too.
Still, they wanted so badly to be married, to begin their lives together. They hastily planned a wedding in Edmonton, with proper distancing and hand-washing stations. Then they scaled it back further, but soon even that didn’t make sense. Everything was escalating so fast.
On March 16, they made the decision to call the wedding off altogether. Judy was crying in the bedroom when Scott came in. He hated to see her cry. “I can make this happen,” he told her. “Let’s do it today.” She thought about it for a few minutes, then said yes.
They had a box of decorations Judy had borrowed from a friend and Scott got paper lanterns to light the way. As Judy dressed upstairs, Scott decorated, draping white linens and setting out candles, trying to transform their basement into somewhere magical. He surprised her with a bouquet of white roses.
With an officiant they’d found online and two friends acting as witnesses from an appropriate distance, they said their vows. They celebrated with A&W Chubby Chicken and a Dairy Queen cake, then sang each other love songs.
“It was just perfect,” Judy said. “It was perfect.”
- Jana Pruden
After 32 years battling blazes, Doug Hunchak retired from the Lethbridge Fire Department with little fanfare on Wednesday.
The old tradition dictated that retiring firefighters be accompanied by a band of bagpipers and drummers on their last shift.
“They’d form a line and play the pipes as you walked out. And then you cried and cried a lot. Then they put you in the fire truck and drive you home and play the pipes again when you go into your house,” said Mr. Hunchak, who was a fire captain in his latter years. “I don’t know if I could have handled it.”
More recent retirements have seen firefighters head to a pub to drink beer. But as the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated and Alberta shut its pubs on St. Patrick’s Day, that plan was out, too.
At first, Mr. Hunchak, 61, didn’t mind.
“For a minute I thought, ‘This is perfect. I don’t have to give a speech. I don’t have to do this thing.’ But then as the day got closer, I realized I wanted to do this thing.”
In the end, the last shift was a quiet one.
The team went out on three calls: two medical assists and a false alarm. In between, 10 colleagues and Mr. Hunchak’s wife, Carmen, surprised him with lunch at the fire hall, where they all sat a little bit apart. “I just found it really emotional, saying goodbye to the guys,” he said. “We had this steak neptune. It was beautiful. It’s steak with crab on top and hollandaise sauce and asparagus.”
His daughter, Jillian, celebrated his retirement online, tweeting, “Some of my earliest memories are of him in uniform, heading off to save lives. Because of COVID19, he doesn’t get a retirement party.” She added a photograph of her father’s firefighter jacket, emblazoned with his name in neon yellow, hanging off a fire truck. ”I was doing pretty good for a while and then I read that and cried a little," Mr. Hunchak said.
The last day ended as quietly as it began. Mr. Hunchak left work and met his son, John, also a firefighter. “He just returned from Cuba so he’s on quarantine. I sat on his deck with him, six feet apart and we had a drink of scotch and a cigar and then I went home.”
After three decades fighting fires, Mr. Hunchak said he’ll miss the rush. He’s now self-isolating with his wife: “Like everyone else, we’ll be in our house puttering around.”
- Zosia Bielski
When she was stuck on a long commute or immersed in her studies, Almeera Khalid would sometimes let her mind drift to the flowing black gown she would wear at convocation. She had imagined the moment she would cross the stage at the University of Toronto’s picturesque Convocation Hall, clutching her diploma. “I just really wanted my family to be there and see, this is what I was working towards. Those times when I didn’t know I could do it, this is exactly what I was working for. I could walk down the stage and know that it was worth it,” she said.
The moment held extra poignancy because Ms. Khalid is the first in her family to graduate from a Canadian university. She works full-time to pay her way through school and commutes 90 minutes each way from her family’s home in Mississauga.
The University of Toronto, like many Canadian schools, has been forced to cancel spring convocation as part of efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. The event typically brings more than 50,000 people to campus over 32 ceremonies, so doesn’t comply with efforts to promote physical distancing.
Many students have asked the university to consider holding convocation at a later date and the university is considering what options may be available. Although they understand and support the measures taken to slow the spread of the virus, Ms. Khalid said it’s still difficult to hear that the moment they’ve worked towards may not happen.
Ms. Khalid, 21, who is graduating with a double major in criminology and ethics, said she plans to go to law school eventually.
“A lot of my friends and I, we still have our old high-school gowns, so we are going to do our own graduation if it’s not [held by the university],” she said.
- Joe Friesen
The birthday girl, Part I
Cindy Stewart had been expecting little more than a bag of Hawkins Cheezies for her birthday. For years, she and her husband, Charles, have opted to backpack the world during her big day, March 20. No matter their far-flung location, Charles would pull from his bag a beat-up card and that distinct red-and-white bag of Hawkins finest to celebrate. “It’s become our little ritual,” she says.
This year, they decided on Peru. If all went according to plan, the cheezies would appear somewhere around Lake Titicaca. On Mar. 13, they were hiking the Colca Valley in the Andes when the plans went awry. Due to COVID-19, Peru announced it would ban all flights within 24 hours.
They scrambled out of the mountains on Mar. 16 and into the city of Juliaca for a short regional flight to Lima’s airport, but there was no chance of booking a flight home. “The airport was a chaotic zoo,” Ms. Stewart said.
They found a bed and breakfast willing to stay open just for them and a few friends. Then they registered with the Canadian embassy, which was working on flights for stranded Canadians, and waited.
On Mar. 20, the cheezies appeared. But a sense of unease remained. At around 7 p.m., an e-mail from Ms. Stewart’s daughter, Megan, pinged. She knew her parents’ predicament and wanted to ease their anxiety. “Mom, check your Facebook page,Vernon the e-mail read. Ms. Stewart followed the directions. There, she found a three-minute video featuring various friends and family from all over the world wishing her a happy 63rd birthday and swift return. Everyone who watched was overcome with emotion. At a time of extreme separation, Ms. Stewart had rarely felt so connected. “It was honestly the best gift I could have imagined,” she said. Global Affairs Canada got them home on Mar. 25.
- Patrick White
The cancer survivor
Robyn Wilson walked out of the Cross Cancer Institute and into the crisp Edmonton air. It had been five months since she was diagnosed with breast cancer, four weeks since she began her radiation treatments.
Each treatment was only about 15 minutes, but it had been difficult.
Initially there was the spectre of the disease she was fighting, and then, increasingly, the stress of having to get to the hospital, forced outside to navigate her way through an increasingly unfamiliar and frightening world.
When she walked out of the hospital after her last treatment on Thursday, she felt happy and lucky. The cancer was gone and she’d done everything she could to make sure it wouldn’t come back.
She could still imagine the celebration that would have been.
There would have been a big dinner that night, maybe at Bündok or Jack’s Burger Shack. Then a series of smaller dinners with all those who had supported her over the months since her diagnosis, a chance for those who had helped in her pain to share in her joy, too. A chance for her to say thank you.
That wasn’t possible now. She knew she could still do something online – some kind of virtual gathering – but she didn’t think she would. She was tired and withdrawn, and she felt herself slipping back to how she had once been, more isolated, keeping to herself, not wanting to be a burden.
Duchess Bake Shop had started delivering and so she ordered a sour cherry pie for herself and a cake for her partner. He would pick up dinner and they would eat together at home. That would be the extent of the celebration. For now, it would have to be enough.
- Jana Pruden
The expecting mother
After Nazima Mogra’s first daughter was born in January, 2019, she enjoyed a few minutes of skin-to-skin contact before the newborn was snatched away by excited relatives. Her husband, parents, in-laws, siblings and others had all squeezed into her recovery room at Scarborough General Hospital in Toronto to meet the newest member of the family, passing the blanket-swaddled newborn between them for hours.
Ms. Mogra, 26, expected the same boisterous welcoming committee would greet her second-born, but when she arrived at the hospital’s labour and delivery ward after midnight on March 23, she was gutted to learn that visitors were not allowed – only her husband.
Her daughter was born just before 3 a.m. Ms. Mogra and her husband texted family members photos, but then they were alone with their newborn.
“It was really quiet. It was really eerie,” she said.
At one point, her husband left to get food. “It was just me and my daughter in the room by ourselves. And it just felt really lonely.”
In the morning, when everyone was awake, they settled on the next-best thing to an in-person introduction: video calls to family. But everyone’s excitement at seeing wee Aayat was tempered with their sadness at not being able to physically hold her tiny, six-pound frame – possibly not for many months.
“I know my mother-in-law was really upset,” Ms. Mogra said. “She was like, ‘I’m so sad that I won’t even be able to see her for a while.’ Even my sister, she’s like, ‘This seems so weird that I can’t be there. It doesn’t even feel like you just had a second child.’”
Mourning was important to Gordon Urbach.
From the time he retired as an anesthesiologist until he became too sick to manage, Dr. Urbach went twice a day, every day, to his north Toronto synagogue, to allow for the recitation of the Kaddish.
Observant Jews traditionally say the prayer of mourning for 11 or 12 months after the death of a parent. In Orthodox congregations, the quorum, or minyan, required for saying the prayer is 10 men. (In Conservative and Reform Judaism, it’s 10 men or women.) Dr. Urbach went to schul every day through much of his late seventies and early eighties, to make sure there were enough men present to say Kaddish for whoever needed to say it. “He was a very traditional man,” his daughter, Tammy Zaldin, said.
When he died, on March 11, the pandemic that would interrupt rituals of grief around the world was just starting to break over Canada. As Ms. Zaldin prepared to sit shiva for her father, she knew the COVID-19 outbreak would likely disrupt the week-long period of mourning in which friends and relatives visit and offer comfort to grieving families.
She wrote a message on Facebook: “My friends, if you are nervous to come to the funeral or shiva because of what is going on … don’t come,” it read. “I won’t take any absences personally.”
The shiva was indeed sparsely attended. Its span tracked closely with the city’s growing anxiety about the virus, along with a series of public-health warnings urging residents to stay home and maintain social distance.
“As the shiva progressed, people became more self-isolating, and by the end there was no one,” she said.
As a physician, Dr. Urbach would have understood the 20 or 30 texts a day Ms. Zaldin fielded, from people explaining why they wouldn’t be able to attend. “He wouldn’t have wanted anyone to risk their well-being.”
But there was still pain in her relative solitude – in having to grieve through the screen of a phone, in avoiding hugs with those who were able to come in person.
“I definitely think that I did not get an opportunity to grieve and share in stories about my Dad and his life,” she said, her voice choked with tears. “And I understand, but it was hard.”
It is one consolation that her synagogue has now organized a minyan through the video-calling platform Zoom. At least, in her way, Ms. Zaldin will be able to say Kaddish for her father, as he enabled so many others to do.
The birthday girl, Part II
Elsa Hodd had big plans for her seventh birthday on Mar. 25, but they were thwarted by a foe she knows only as The Big Germ.
Her mother, Jackie, had prepared weeks in advance.
She booked a gymnasium party at Wayne Gretzky Sports Centre in Brantford, Ont. All Elsa’s friends were invited. There were plans for an hour of obstacle courses and other games, followed by another hour devoted to the most important part: sugar and presents.
Her mom is a daycare worker and by mid-March, as schools and daycares closed, she knew she’d have to break some difficult news to her daughter.
“We talked about The Big Germ and how it can make people really sick,” Ms. Hodd said. “She understands.”
Instead of the community centre, they held the party at home.
And instead of an obstacle course, they arranged every mobile device in the house around Elsa, and had friends and family beam in via Facebook Messenger. They all cheered as Elsa blew out the candles on her cake.
Other friends sent birthday cards by snail mail. One even included a gift card for Dairy Queen.
As for big presents? “She’s getting a kitten,” her mom says. “It’s still coming. It’s kind of perfect timing to blow her mind.”
There will be a make-up party sometime in the future. Exactly when is anyone’s guess, but they’re hoping for summer.
“She’s never had a birthday in the summer before, so this could be the year,” Ms. Hodd says. “We’re just focusing on that right now, that this is the year she gets to have two birthdays.”
- Patrick White
Poet Canisia Lubrin’s second book, The Dyzgraphxst, was to be launched March 25 at Walker Court, the glass-ceilinged space at the Art Gallery of Ontario with Frank Gehry’s iconic curved Douglas-fir-clad staircase as the backdrop. It was planned as a glitzy affair with hundreds of anticipated guests, cocktails and readings by Ms. Lubrin and three others whose poetry books were also released this week by publisher McClelland & Stewart.
Though Ms. Lubrin, who lives in Whitby, Ont., says she prefers to stay out of the spotlight, learning that the event would be indefinitely postponed was dispiriting.
“I'm disappointed that it didn't culminate in the way that it was designed to and supposed to culminate in: that sort of social, communal, kind of broader context,” she said. “All the editors, all the proofreaders, the book designers, everybody would have had something to celebrate, you know what I mean?”
More than a dozen promotional events for the book scheduled over the coming months have since been cancelled or will be made virtual.
But on release day, Ms. Lubrin woke up to a pleasant surprise: She checked her phone to see people tweeting about The Dyzgraphxst, or sharing photos on Instagram of its cover.
“People actually got to the public-facing celebrations before I did,” she said with a chuckle.
That evening, after her family finished their dinner of ribs, shrimp, mashed potatoes and balsamic-roasted broccoli at home, they raised a glass in honour of the poet. Then Ms. Lubrin passed her book around the table, as she and members of her family read samples from it.
This wasn’t the Art Gallery of Ontario, there was no microphone, there were no canapes, but it was still, technically, a public reading.
- Dakshana Bascaramurty
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