By Dr. Yona Lunsky
I am a stickler for routine. My sister loves routines as well and to be honest, I have found that the balance of planning visits to see her while managing my work and my own household is more than enough – the routine works for me too.
Over the last year, as COVID’s impact has eased, we have settled into a comfortable routine with “Walking Wednesdays” and “Sister Saturdays.” My sister uses Wheel-Trans to visit me, which means she can enjoy her independence and I don’t have to worry about arranging transportation. Our visits include lunch, which we often make together, going for a walk with my dog, Juno, and watching a rom-com on the big screen TV with our feet up. Sometimes we even tackle household chores like emptying the dishwasher. And more often than not, there is an ice cream bar for dessert. Though the visits may not sound super exciting, the weekly routine provides a sense of stability and is grounding for both of us.
The thought of disrupting our routine makes me apprehensive and every so often, I have visceral reminders of our earlier COVID routines. When I drive to her group home to pick her up or drop her off, seeing her apartment balcony and the table and chairs on her front lawn, I am reminded of a time during the pandemic when we could only connect from a distance. My sister would go out on her balcony and I would visit from below, playing her favourite songs, trying to dance or do yoga, or come up with some other health promotion activity. I remember our distanced air hugs and kisses. When the rules first loosened, we could both sit at that table. Supervised. Masked. No touching.
When we were finally allowed to walk together again, at first supervised and then unsupervised, we wore masks and for a long time, I wore a shield as well (I built up quite a collection). We could not yet touch each other, but we could both touch my dog Juno and take turns holding her leash. When it was really hot or really cold or when I had to get back to work, we kept our walks shorter and explored the streets not far from her house. If it was not too icy or too rainy, we would walk through the nearby park to a big open tree-covered trail. It gave us shade in the summer, colourful leaves in the fall, and a snowy wonderland in winter. We discovered places to sit when we were tired, like rocks, benches, and playgrounds; and when the weather was right, places to lie down to watch the clouds go by and just be together. I suppose you could say that our COVID routine allowed us to connect and discover each other in ways we had not before.
These are bittersweet memories. They are filled with lots of love and laughter, but they also carry heartbreak and pain. The emotions run deep and I feel them throughout my body. After having so little control and feeling so afraid and vigilant for so long, it is honestly too hard to put into words. Even now, as I attempt to write about those times, the tears well up and overwhelm me. I think many of us as caregivers carry these memories. Carry this trauma. Does it feel lighter now than it did six months ago? Maybe a little, but because I have been carrying this trauma for such a long time, my arms and my heart feel more weary than they once did.
As I think about my own experiences, I can’t help but wonder - what does my sister remember from those times? What does she feel and where does she feel it? What are the long-term impacts of the changes she was forced to endure without fully understanding them - our prolonged separation and the confusion of being together, yet apart? And how do we help each other to gently move forward and get healthier and stronger?
I don’t have all the answers. But I think it is important to see the trauma that is still with us, to give it a name, and recognize that it is part of who we are now. Being patient and kind is essential, and understanding that shifting our behaviours as rules change, even when the shift is in a “positive direction”, is not so simple. There are days where I feel uncomfortable without a mask, even though the current rules in my workplace or my sister’s home tell me it is okay not to wear one. I have a hard time being very close to people indoors after spending so much time isolated and apart. I have developed my own set of rules that make sense to me but may not make sense to other people, and they can change depending on how I am feeling that day. Rather than think of me as odd, I want others to understand that I am still figuring things out and that frankly, I am still struggling. We need to be aware that there is a lot we don’t see when we interact with one another, and that what’s needed is empathy and understanding, rather than judgement.
I believe that, despite these challenges, we can take advantage of where we are today and dive in as fully as we are each able to, to create new memories and celebrate small victories. Earlier this month, my sister and I took a short road trip to the countryside. We sat together in the front seats, unmasked, and enjoyed this routine pleasure denied to us for so long. We blasted the music and car-karaoked like there was no tomorrow. Did I cry? Yes! But we kept on singing.