Fulfilling my mom’s last wishes during the pandemic

A world adventurer who happened to be a mom and wife

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My mother was an adventurer like none I have read about. She organized the most incredible journeys to the most exotic places on planet Earth. She had her hands full with four children, the family dog and a husband whose work beckoned them to Malawi, Nigeria, Philippines and Australia from the comfort of Toronto. My father was a professor whose expertise was on international education and workforce development.

1973 – Living in Port Harcourt, Nigeria following the Biafra War – our father worked with UNESCO improving the community colleges

The phrase  “there and back” has a very distinct meaning in our family. It means the journey we took going to our “year away” destination and the journey coming home. It was full of planned and spontaneous adventures like in 1986 hiking near Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe along the same trail Stanley searched for Dr. Livingstone 150 years ago.

1974 – Our trip “back” from Nigeria with a stop in Paris for my dad’s debrief at United Nations Headquarters

My three siblings and I have since moved to the U.S. and when our father passed away in 2006, mom stayed in Toronto, CA, an easy “there and back” direct flight from Atlanta, Baltimore and Denver for us kids.  In the last few years, my mother’s mobility and mental health began to decline and in the year before the pandemic, we would take turns to fly to Toronto each month to visit our mother (she refused to relocate to the U.S.). That stopped in March 2020 when the US-Canadian border shutdown and like so many people, the pandemic separated us from our loved ones.

If it were not for one incredible woman, Raquel, who befriended my mother years ago, she would have been 100% alone minus healthcare support. Needless to say, her decline progressed yet we could not get access to cross the border. June 2020, she was sent to the hospital where she was convinced the doctors were doing experiments on the patients. Her dementia had crossed over to the Holocaust and the Nazis (her parents escaped Germany in 1939, arrived in Boston on a Holland America ship, one of the last to be accepted to the U.S.. The Holocaust was a major theme throughout her life). Doctors refused to provide a letter for essential travel, so we remotely coordinated her hospital stay; her decision to stop taking medicine and go into palliative care; move her from her current residence to a long-term care facility.

Several years ago my mother said her biggest fear is that she would be bedridden and die alone looking at the ceiling. This fear was beginning to come true for her. The mother we knew was fading and we knew she was giving up, when she wouldn’t respond in her typical way about food, the more exotic the better.

Typical documents one would find in my parents’ boxes of belongings – oh what a childhood of adventures they gave us.

On Friday, July 31, 2020, the doctor called and said my mother was refusing food and drink and he said she had entered VSED (Voluntarily Stop Eating and Drinking). The doctor finally agree to give me a letter which would allow me to cross the border, but the facility wouldn’t guarantee me access before the 14 day mandatory quarantine. I rented an apartment a mile from the facility for two weeks (Canadian customs required proof of quarantine stay) and started to formulate a plan B.

I landed in Toronto on Sunday, August 2, received a drive through COVID test with a rush confirmation testing negative on Monday. Emailed it to the long-term care facility, but the woman overseeing family coordination told me because I came from the US, I would still need to quarantine for the mandatory 14 days per the ministry rules. If you do the math – it takes one to two weeks to die from VSED and my mom was several days into it. This gave me zero hope if I followed the rules. A nurse called to say my mom had taken a turn for the worse and it wouldn’t be long. I called our family attorney and asked what the worst ramification could be if I snuck in to see her – up to $100k in fines and one year in jail. I decided to proceed and accept the consequences. 

Tuesday morning at 8am, wearing my mask, I went to the facility pretending to be Raquel who was on the list as an essential caregiver (the only pre-requisites is being a family member or friend and proof of a negative COVID test – both of which I was). Made it to my mother’s room, where she lay so small and barely responsive. As soon as I started to speak to her and held her hand, she responded slightly. 

Two nurses came in, looked at me with my mask and asked “Are you Raquel?” and I said “Yes, yes I am.” They looked at each other and left the room and I knew the gig was up. Knowing time was short, I told my mom that I loved her and I think I am going to get kicked out but promised I would be back. I was escorted to the lobby, shamed by the employee who manages the families and told that I needed to start my 14 day quarantine starting today and Raquel would be banned from the facility. Arguing, I was COVID negative and my mother wouldn’t last that long, she began to dial the police. Defeated, I left.

Then general manager just back from vacation, called and asked why I had snuck in. I told her, because I was given zero hope although I was COVID negative, I decided to break the rules to be with my mother while she passed. She agreed to let me back if I would agree to wear full PPE gear and I said of course. I showed up the next morning, prepared to wear the PPE gear to protect the residents, but they had me put it on before I went into my mother’s room and take off when I left the room. I was confused because she was already dying, what about protecting the elderly residents I pass in the halls? The answer: these are the ministry’s rules.

My mother passed away on Sunday, August 9, 2020, but some beautiful things happened along the way. I was able connect each of my siblings and their children so they could said what they needed to her. I spent my 56th birthday with her. I told her we would all be fine now and it was time for her to embark on her next journey “there”. My brother arranged for the cremation that she wanted and we honored her wishes for no obituary or shiva (Jewish mourning). I carried her home in an urn and it dawned on me as we were upgraded to first class and were entering the Delta Club, this is exactly the way she loved to travel “there and back”.  In the fall, her ashes were spread on the family plot in Boston by my sister with my brothers and I on Facetime. She is now free and we all have closure and a library of incredible memories. 

1965 – Our first family adventure in Malawi, Africa

But, this story will not end here. After speaking with the woman who refused to grant me entry, she said she was assigned that role, given the ministry guidelines, told to follow them, never trained or empowered to use her situational awareness, empathy, critical thinking and problem solving skills to find work arounds for situations like this one. Our family attorney says he lost 42 clients this past year, over two-thirds of them died alone. I ask you, how many people do you know who died alone for this same reason?  I am convinced if this woman and others assigned to this difficult and emotional task were empowered to use their power skills, the number of lonely deaths would be significantly lower.

Mom, Happy Mother’s Day! I miss you dearly, but I thank you for teaching and empowering me to be resourceful, tenacious and an original thinker.

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