September 28, 2020

Amplify: Not your average pandemic love story

Laura Stone

Queen's Park Reporter
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Bob and Bubby on Bob’s 98th birthday
Bob and Bubby are pictured here on Bob’s 98th birthday Handout
At 98, my grandmother never expected to be sneaking around like a teenager.
When COVID-19 cases began to rise in Ontario last spring, her retirement home went into lockdown. Family members were no longer allowed inside. Activities were cancelled. There was nothing going on.
Residents ate every meal in their rooms and were told to stay on their floors. But my 98-year-old Bubby – the Jewish name for grandmother – wanted to see her 99-year-old boyfriend, Bob, who lives one floor up.
“I used to sneak up to his room and visit him,” she said. “I felt like a teenager. I think we were the only two that did that. We weren’t as lonely as most of the people here.”
Bob puts it more bluntly. “Mildred," he said, using my Bubby’s first name, “was very naughty.”
I first wrote about Bubby and Bob’s late-in-life romance back in November, when life was simpler and mercifully COVID-19-free. Since then, as a Queen’s Park reporter for The Globe and Mail, my professional world has been consumed by the pandemic. And like pretty much everyone else on the planet, it has also taken over my personal life. I worry about my parents and grandparents. Especially my Bubby, my only grandparent left.
Like most Ontarians, I watched in horror as COVID-19 swept through long-term care homes, depriving seniors of their final few months and years and their right to a dignified end. I thought of my Bubby often, and of Bob, nearly choking up when I asked Premier Doug Ford about the findings of a military report that outlined in raw detail the horrific scenes at five of the hardest-hit nursing homes.
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Stories of heartbreaking hardship are aplenty, like this first-hand account by F.W. David Stewart, an 85-year-old resident at Altamont Care Community in Scarborough, Ont., which poignantly illustrates how chaotic and frightening life in long-term care was for residents.
I recognize that Bubby and Bob’s situation is much different. Their Thornhill, Ont. retirement home hasn’t had any cases of COVID-19 among residents (knock wood), although this summer, two staff members tested positive. Bubby and Bob, who both rave about their treatment at the home, know they are among the lucky ones. Retirement homes are independently run and paid for, and residents live in their own rooms or apartments, as opposed to communal spaces. They are less susceptible to widespread outbreaks than nursing homes, but not immune: there have been 215 COVID-19-related deaths in retirement homes in Ontario. To date, 1,831 people have died in long-term care in the province, with more outbreaks being reported as cases are on the rise again.
Crushing loneliness has been a hallmark of this pandemic. And seniors – whether they live on their own, in long-term care or retirement homes – bore the brunt of that.
When the pandemic first began, Bubby and Bob thought it would only be temporary. “It took some getting used to. We thought, this won’t last long,” Bubby said.
“We couldn’t really see anybody. We were isolated."
Even though they couldn’t receive visitors, dine with their friends or, in Bubby’s case, use the gym for aerobics, they tried to keep up their regular life as much as possible. “We had one night a week that we call date night. And date night to us is we have a glass of wine," Bubby said.
They’d discuss books – Bob being a huge Robertson Davies fan – and watch sports, particularly Bob’s favourite, the Toronto Blue Jays. (Asked how his team is doing, he says, “Up and down. Pretty pitiful for a few games.”)
Bob adds: “Being alone here is no joke. We’re good companions.”
The home has loosened up in recent weeks, although with cases growing in Ontario, it’s unclear how long it will last. They can watch movies in small groups and receive visitors again, and are able to leave the home for short stints.
Bubby and Bob recently took their first trip together in about six months to Longo’s, the grocery store, because Bob loves the fruit. While they were there, Bob told Bubby to pick out some flowers for herself. But she forgot, and Bob was exhausted, so they didn’t go back.
“I think you should put that in the story because he did say pick any flowers you want, and I think that was very nice of him. And it should go in the story. Because not every 99-year-old would think about that,” she said over the phone the other day.
“Don’t tell her what to do!” Bob beams from the background.
She laughs. “I’m not telling you what to do," she says to me. (See, Bubby, I listened.)
They also went to the liquor store, to pick out some not-too-dry Riesling for date night, while Bubby marveled at the way rules are being followed.
“When I go out and see all the Canadians wearing masks - and at the liquor store everybody’s all apart and wearing a mask - I was so proud of being a Canadian. Because I’m very interested in American politics and I think they’re insane there.”
My Bubby said she and Bob – who turns 100 in November – are not worried about contracting COVID-19.
“We’re old and we’ve had a long life, and we look back on our life and feel that we’ve done the right things. He’s very proud of his children and I’m proud of mine,” she said.
“We know that we have no future, so we try to make every day a pleasant day. We don’t have time for small things to bother us.”

What else we’re thinking about:

Speaking of love stories, I can’t stop thinking about this 2002 New Yorker piece about the tragic end to one on 9/11. I first read it this month when CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins posted it to Twitter on Sept. 11, saying she reads it every year. It is beautifully written, stunning and inevitable, and I kept hoping it would turn out differently. It’s not exactly a reprieve from COVID-19 – I guess my mind turns to tragedies these days – but it is a narrative you will not be able to put down. And if the current coronavirus situation doesn’t make you want to hug your loved ones (the ones in your bubble, that is), this piece certainly will. It is worth being reminded how fragile it all is.
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