Every year when I write our Christmas letter, I’m aware of how much it seems like bragging: Oh yes, here are our photos from Venice or Florence or the Amalfi Coast, and here are pictures of our brilliant and beautiful children, and Becky and I looking happy and prosperous. Isn’t our life wonderful and idyllic? This year, of course, there wasn’t any of that. Not only was there no trip to Italy, but there were virtually no trips anywhere to speak of, apart from a journey to Florida in March, just as the terrible reality of COVID-19 was starting to hit (here’s a link to a blog post I’ve been updating periodically since the pandemic began). To be honest, even writing the words “there was no trip to Italy” sounds ridiculous, like I’m a prince of some nameless country whose citizens are all dying of the plague, and I’m complaining that I can’t go stag hunting because of the quarantine. Any lingering sadness about not being able to see Italy in the spring was quickly overtaken by gratitude that we were all healthy. Memories of all the lovely churches in Italy were replaced with images of them filling up with coffins because people were dying faster than they could be buried.
The trips that we did make this year, to see friends and family, or to move Becky’s mom out of her condo after the death of her husband Ron, were fraught with anxiety: Should we go inside? Will everyone be wearing masks, or do some not want to do that, and if so then what do we do? How long do we stay? Can we eat outside, and if not, then what? Should we wash all the food with hand soap, and all the door handles, and the boxes and bags everything came in? This year was like trying to navigate a ship through iceberg-infested waters, except all the icebergs were invisible and the throttle was stuck wide open, and everyone was blindfolded. Every day, there was a terrible new milestone: A record number of cases, a record number of deaths, a record shortage of ICU beds. Amid all this, we have been very lucky: we moved out of Toronto last year, and are sharing a large house (really two houses put together) just north of Peterborough. We have about a hundred acres of fields and forest to wander around in, and friends next door to have dinners with. We can go months without going anywhere, other than the odd trip to the grocery store (and the liquor store, of course).
I’ve been reading a series of newsletter entries over the past few months called “The Last Normal Day,” and it got me thinking about our last normal day, sometime in early March. Becky and I went to Florida with her brother Dave and his wife Jennifer, where we had rented a condo complex near Siesta Key. When we flew down, there were warnings about washing your hands so as not to get this new flu, etc., but it seemed like mostly a nuisance. With each passing day, however, it got more real, and more frightening. One day we were kayaking through the mangroves, and the next we were frantically trying to book new return flights for Becky’s mom and stepfather because Canada was closing the border. Our last meal there, we joked half-heartedly about taking a photo with empty tables beside us, so our daughter Caitlin and her husband Wade (both of whom are nurses), wouldn’t be mad at us for breaching COVID rules. And then not long after we came back, Meaghan had to take our cat Shadow to the vet, and we all got on a video call as she passed away in Meaghan’s arms (little did we know that most of 2020 would be spent on video calls).
Amid all the unrelenting doom, we had one really bright spot that lit up our year (other than Zoë graduating from Queen’s with her degree in psychology of course!), and that was our Lamb Rescue Project, which started in the early spring, just as the snow was starting to melt. A neighbour who borrowed one of the unused fields not far from the house built a pen there for some sheep he owns. Naturally, we gave all the sheep names: There was Star, the black sheep with the white star on her forehead, and Wilma, who gave birth to twins, who we named Pebbles and Bam Bam. The one with extravagant curls that framed her face we named Beyoncé, and so of course her lamb was Blue Ivy. The only one we didn’t name was Bella (who confusingly has the same name as our neighbours’ dog). She gave birth to three lambs, and we called the first-born Primo, and the second one Big Red — he was a lot larger than his brothers and his wool had a reddish tinge — and the third Dopey, because he seemed to spend a lot of his time wandering around, staring off into space.
Right off the bat, there seemed to be something not quite right about Primo. Apparently it’s rare for sheep to have three lambs, so one lamb often gets short-changed, and in this case Primo seemed to be the one who was left out. On top of that, it took quite awhile for Big Red to make an appearance because of his size, so Primo spent the first hour or so of his life stumbling around trying to nurse off everything in sight, including his uncles and cousins, some of whom responded by head-butting the poor thing into next week. In any case, he was small and weak and sort of hunched-over looking, and eventually his mom shunned him completely, and even started knocking him down, as if to see if he was strong enough to remain with the flock. So naturally, Becky and our youngest daughter Zoë (who moved in with us when the restaurant she worked at in Kingston closed) started bottle-feeding him, and then his owner built a little pen near the house for him, and he pretty much started living with us. And Bella the dog was very protective of him, and they basically became best friends.
Around Mothers’ Day, something strange happened. Primo had always been weak and wobbly, but one morning he couldn’t get up at all. It was like his legs had turned to rubber. We Googled things like “lamb whose legs don’t work,” and eventually we figured out that he might have a lack of selenium, which can cause a white-muscle disease similar to muscular dystrophy. So we gave him a selenium shot, and then Becky found an animal shelter with a similar lamb, where they cut holes in a shopping bag so they could carry him and his feet could touch the ground. That worked for awhile, but he outgrew the bag, so Becky and Zoë carried him around in a wheelbarrow, and propped him up with pool noodles. We even carried him up onto the deck at dinner time. Then a friend suggested putting him in the pond, as a kind of hydro-therapy, and soon after that he started to sit up, then he stood for a bit, then he tried to walk but fell down, then he started falling less and less, and soon he was running. We let him have sleepovers with his flock, and eventually he stayed for good, and now he’s just a regular old sheep who smells like a wool sweater you left out in the rain (if you need any more details and photos of this whole saga, check out this blog post I wrote).
Soon it was time to head up to the lake, something we put off until late June because we didn’t want to tax the resources of the small town near our cottage. The summer felt mostly normal, except that not a lot of people came to visit, and those who did spent a lot of time outside (luckily the weather was mostly warm) and wore masks inside. Becky and I had a very subdued celebration for her 60th birthday, with a lovely dinner on the porch of our favourite café not far from the cottage. We spent a week in Muskoka with Becky’s family, but structured it so that only a small number were there at one time, and spent a lot of time outside. Our visit seemed even more important than usual, because Becky’s mom had to have surgery for diverticulitis (it was successful and she recovered quickly, another bright spot in an otherwise dismal year). When we did our usual camping trip in September with our friends Marc and Kris and Sandra, it was harder than usual to find a campsite, perhaps in part because so many people were trying to escape the city. But we found a great site on Nunikani Lake and spent a few days hiking and canoeing, and we celebrated my birthday by wrapping Pillsbury cinnamon bun dough around a stick and cooking it over the fire — highly recommended!
The fall was filled with a lot of moving, for a variety of reasons. Our friend and neigbour Kris’s mother Ingrid, who used to live in the house we now live in, passed away rather suddenly in November and so we had to move all of her furniture and other belongings out of the retirement home she lived in, and then we had a lovely — if a little unusual — memorial service in the garden near the house, with a few friends and relatives in the flesh and many more on a Zoom call we set up on a TV set beside the garden (Kris also had to put her dog Tessa down not long after this, as though 2020 needed any more death in it). And then we had to move Becky’s mother out of her condo in Gravenhurst, because her husband Ron passed away rather suddenly after a brief illness, so we rented a trailer and moved her to Ottawa and into a retirement home. Once the trailer was empty, we filled it with Zoë and Meaghan’s furniture, because they moved out of their apartment in Kingston and into a new place (where they are now fostering a pair of feral kittens they have named Pork and Beans). And while we were doing all that, Caitlin and Wade were moving out of their house and into Wade’s brother’s basement while they renovate a new house they bought not far away in Ancaster!
Towards the end of the year, Zoë also got a nice surprise when Queen’s sent a package with a scarf that says Class of 2020, and a personal journal with a nice note in it about how they couldn’t do a regular convocation. It also included what the university called a rare “golden ticket” (actually a yellow bookmark) containing a personal note from a Queen’s alumnus, with an offer to meet up and/or mentor Zoë at some point in the future. And my brother-in-law Dave and his wife Jennifer got some great news of their own in October, when their son Michael and his wife Courtney announced the birth of their daughter Addelyn, a little sister for my great-niece Brooklynn.
As I started to write this, we were still trying to figure out what to do for Christmas. Toronto was in lockdown again because its numbers had risen sharply over the past couple of months (although deaths have not been rising as much, thankfully) and if my mother left her retirement home she would have to go back into two weeks of quarantine. Hamilton, where Caitlin and Wade live, was in an orange zone, and it looked like Kingston would go orange as well. So we wondered, should we see any of our family, or is that too dangerous? What if they got COVID tests first? And while we were thinking about all of that, the entire province of Ontario went into the grey zone, which means almost total lockdown, recommendations to restrict travel except for essential reasons, and so on.
So after talking with the girls and Wade, we all decided that even if we could get together relatively safely, we wouldn’t feel right about doing it while others were isolating themselves and not seeing their families (except for certain politicians, of course, who did whatever they felt like doing). So we decided to postpone Christmas gift-giving until a time when we could all get together safely — then Caitlin and Wade surprised us on Boxing Day, having driven all the way from Hamilton! We went for a long hike, then sat in the garage with the doors open and a propane heater on, drank mulled wine and hot chocolate and had a great visit.
As the end of the year approached, we got some more bad news: my mother was taken to the hospital with shortness of breath and dizziness, and was diagnosed with pneumonia, and then a few days later they told us she had tested positive for COVID. Needless to say, all the worst possible scenarios flashed through our minds. But as the days went by, her condition improved, and didn’t show any signs of coughing or fever or any of the other extreme symptoms that often come with the virus. She ultimately spent three weeks in the hospital as they tried to get her weaned off oxygen, and I went to visit several times — a process that involved making an appointment, putting on a disposable gown, gloves, a mask and a face shield, and then once the visit was over removing all of those and wiping everything (including my phone) down with alcohol wipes. Just to be safe, after each visit I washed all the clothes I was wearing and also had a shower, as Caitlin instructed me to do — a routine that she and Wade have been going through every time they come home from work.
Luckily, my mother’s case turned out to be relatively mild, and she was released from hospital just before the year ended, a rare bright note to end a terrible year. A number of other residents at her retirement home weren’t as lucky, however — at last count eight of them died, and almost 100 of the residents, staff and third-party workers had been infected, despite all the precautions the home took, reinforcing how difficult it is to protect against the virus. At this point, a number of different vaccines (several based on a fascinating technology called mRNA) have been approved and are being rolled out, but we likely won’t get them until well into next year. Maybe after that things can go back to something approaching normality. We can always hope!
Anyway, despite everything we are still very grateful that we are all healthy, and we hope that you and your families are too, and that you’ve managed to ride the stomach-churning, headache-inducing roller-coaster of this virus without too much damage. Let’s hope next year’s Christmas letter just goes back to me bragging about our fantastic vacations, and we can all forget 2020 even happened. Onward!