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Illustration by Drew Shannon

In your family, her name might be Lina. Or Shanti. Or Kim. In our family, her name is Joyce.

She is the woman staring at the floor. A year ago, when she first came to live in this complex-care home, she could walk. Slowly, with a kind of shuffling, hesitant, stub-toed tread. The kind of tread that almost guarantees a fall – every crack in the sidewalk, dent in the linoleum, seam in the newly installed fake hardwood is enough to trip you when you never lift your feet. But she could do it, with her walker. She could then.

Two years ago, she even could challenge her visiting grandson to a race. She’d grab her walker handles, laughing, “Come on, Nick. Come on. Gonna beat you,” and would speed up her shuffle to something approaching movement. She looked like a fierce little Scottish terrier, dancing in place. She was determined that way. She always was determined.

And strong for someone so tiny. Amazingly strong, the care aides say. She bats them away, now, when they approach her. She folds her arms and goes rigid, refusing to let them dress her. At age 90, after a lifetime of being, for the most part, sweetly compliant, she has developed oppositional-defiant disorder. She has had endless swabs, endless inexplicable and painful swabs. She has had it with swabs. With everyone. They’re not getting anywhere near her.

Who could blame her? Just over a year ago, she lived with her husband Al in assisted living in White Rock, B.C., in their own tiny apartment in the trees. The trees were giants. She was captivated by them, by their heavy movement in the wind. She wanted you to look at them. “Look at the trees. Look at the trees,” in an endless loop. From one end of their balcony, if you stretched a wee bit and ignored a few buildings here and there, you could see the Pacific Ocean. In her whole long life, she’d never dreamt she’d live in a place where she could see the ocean. They’d won the lottery, she and Al, when they were assigned that apartment. And they knew it.

But then Al died. It was a surprise to everyone, yet not a surprise. For years, doctors, even relatives, had been saying, “How is he still alive?” When Al found out that one carotid artery was 100 per cent blocked, and the second so blocked that surgery wasn’t possible, his response was, “Cured myself.” To a doctor who told him the infection in his bones would require amputating his leg, but ruled it out because of his age? “Well, that was good news.” When, at the end, a doctor told Al there was nothing more medicine could do, that he was tethered to oxygen and would never leave the hospital? “Well, he was a bit negative, wasn’t he?”

Al was determined to live because he had to take care of Joyce. They’d been married almost 68 years. Not always easy years, true. But he loved her. This was the redhead he’d danced with at Friday night church dances back in Calgary. This was the wife who carried his love poem folded in her wallet, a poem discovered by their three daughters only after he was gone. For the long years he had to take care of Joyce, he never once complained. Because of her dementia, he was the only reason they could stay in their tiny apartment. One daughter did live nearby who, with her husband, did everything they could for him and Joyce. But as long as he was with Joyce, they would never have to leave.

Then, despite all his best efforts, Al died. It was Valentine’s Day, 2020.

Joyce’s daughters worked to make the one room in long-term care she would now live in pretty. Lots of pink. Pictures on the wall. A photo of her and Al in the display case outside her door, so she would know the room was hers. It was close to the nursing station, so that if she wandered out looking for her mother, asking for her brother, both long dead, the care aides could redirect her back to bed.

The day her daughters delivered her to her new room, Joyce was furious. She jabbed her hand at the recreation room outside her door where the residents were lined up in wheelchairs in front of the TV. “Look at those people. They’re all asleep!” Those people scared her. She didn’t want to be anywhere near them. She didn’t want to be anything like them.

But most of all, she was terrified of being left alone. Even before her husband’s death, Joyce would see a daughter’s backpack and say, “Are you going? Where are you going? Don’t leave me.” She would worry when another daughter got up off the couch. “Where are you going? Are you going somewhere?” “Just to the washroom, Mom.” And to Al, in the hospice when she knew he was gone, her hands cradling his face, “Don’t leave me, Al. Please. You can’t leave me.”

From March, 2020, on, she was stuck in the care home. She didn’t see the outside world, not a car, not a child, not a dog. Her only outing was an ambulance ride to the hospital after she fell and broke her wrist. Her daughter who lived 10 minutes away came as often as she could. Did everything she could. But there were so many restrictions. More all the time. For long stretches, Joyce only could see her family on FaceTime. After a while, she stopped reaching out to the screen.

And then, in November, COVID-19 killed resident after resident on her unit. She was confined to her room. Overwhelmed staff did the best they could, but even FaceTime stopped. Everything stopped. The thing Joyce feared most had happened: everyone had left her. And she didn’t understand why.

Blessedly, it’s almost spring and the outbreak in the care home seems to be over. Joyce was spared. She, like the other residents, has been vaccinated. Her one daughter can visit again. Once a week, for an hour, wearing a mask.

Joyce is in a wheelchair now, tied so that she won’t try to get up and fall and break another bone. She barely speaks.

Once, almost a year ago to the day she moved into long-term care, Joyce pushed her walker down the looping hallways and said to one of her daughters: “You go here and there and all these places, but you know where your heart is. And that’s hard.”

In your family her name might be Ruth. Or Brooke. Or Maria. She is your mother, and the past year has broken her. No one’s fault. Everyone’s fault. And that is hard. Unbearably hard.

In our family, her name is Joyce.

Lynda Shorten lives in Toronto, she is one of Joyce Shorten’s daughters.