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I have a standing date on Thursday afternoon these days, rain or shine. My spouse is not invited. It involves my dad and me.

He is in his mid-70s and lives in a long-term care facility in another province. Several strokes made it difficult for him to live at home. My family jokes about him having nine lives, like a cat. Given all that he has been through and survived, some might say that he is on borrowed time. Living a day’s drive away, I don’t see my dad as often as I would like.

When his long-term care team contacted me in late spring to suggest setting up weekly virtual visits with my dad, I must admit that I was a bit taken back. I wanted to ask the staffer if she was sure that my dad was agreeable but it felt strange to ask. I mean, it’s my dad, right?

There are two reasons why I felt uncertain about his response. First, my dad is not a big talker and this is particularly the case when a device is involved. Small talk is not his forte and he is the king of the abrupt sign-off. It would not be uncommon for my dad to announce a few minutes into a call something along the lines of “Well, I’m going to hang up now.” I think these were the exact words he said to me when I called to tell him that my spouse and I were expecting a baby. He wasn’t upset; he had heard the news and he was done talking.

Second, my relationship with my dad is complicated. There is love – and there is also some disconnect. We don’t see eye-to-eye on everything and there are topics that are off-limits. I suspect that every father-daughter relationship involves an element of this. In addition, since his health challenges began a decade ago, my dad and I had fallen into a pattern of communicating through his wife, whom we both adore. Having a “middle man” seemed easier for both of us.

Six months into our standing date arrangement, things began to feel different between my dad and me. Aspects of our visit routine might seem odd to others but they work for us. In particular, most visits play out without any face time. My dad prefers not to prop the tablet up and so I usually spend the time talking to the ceiling in his room. I don’t mind. It feels like we are sitting together but without the risk of our eyes (the same shade of blue on either side) possibly meeting. We effectively avoid the additional intensity that eye contact might bring.

Occasionally, my dad will make an effort to see the screen. For example, he seemed happy to hold the tablet closer for a better look when we were having a new driveway poured – he wanted to make sure that the crew had done an acceptable job. I guess home improvements are not an off-limits topic for us. Other safe topics for discussion include vehicles (motorcycles, cars, anything that moves is up for grabs), the weather and his beloved cats. We can easily fill a visit talking about pet personalities.

We talk about other, less safe things, too. Things that I thought were off-limits, like our feelings and how hard the current situation is. We talk about my grandma, my dad’s mom, who died last year. We express our gratitude to each other for our visits. I am not sure if it is the new set-up that makes this deeper sharing possible – this sense of sitting together without the intensity of being face-to-face. Or perhaps our greater inclination to share is a sign of the times. The pandemic has brought a number of things into focus for both of us. It is impossible to forget how vulnerable my dad is in the current living situation but happily, he’s recently received the COVID-19 vaccine.

Remarkably, my dad can have a lot to say during our visits. Sometimes this happens when his facility is in lockdown mode (with my dad being confined to his room), but not always. There are times when it is hard to get a word in. On a few occasions our visit has run over the half-hour time slot and the staff has had to cut us off. It isn’t always this way, of course, but the regularity of our conversations means that we know a bit about what is going on in each other’s daily life. This makes for a more natural feeling across the board. For the first time in a very long time, I find myself making mental notes during the week about topics that I want to share with my dad.

I no longer question whether my dad wants to have regular virtual visits. Our relationship is complicated but I understand that it is many other things as well. It is not one-dimensional and I am grateful to be reminded of this.

If anyone is looking for me on a Thursday afternoon they will find that my availability is limited. I have a standing date, rain or shine.

Nicole Rhodes lives in Nelson, B.C.

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