Return to Sender

Today would have been Dad’s 89th birthday. Petrus Gerardus Cornelius Aloysius de Cock was born on this day, November 27, 1932 in Tilburg, the Netherlands. Return to Sender is a story about my writing to him up until his death at a long term care home in Wallaceburg, April 2, 2019.

The notes began when the phone calls ended.

Dad would telephone us every weekend as part of his Sunday ritual. The practice began when Olga and I moved from London to Toronto 37 years earlier. Mom initiated these conversations, checking in each week, asking about everything and nothing in particular. When she passed away, Dad continued the phone calls. Hearing our voices helped fill the silence and loneliness Dad felt after losing his partner of almost fifty years. Olga and I would schedule our breakfast in anticipation of the inevitable ringing; on occasion, when we were not going to be home, we would make the call ourselves. 

The number of phone calls increased when we were planning an international vacation, or I was headed abroad for a work-related trip. They began in the weeks leading to the eventual departure, culminating in a farewell send-off the morning of: “I wanted to wish you a safe trip. Call me when you come back.” When we travelled to Dad’s homeland, the Netherlands, we stayed with his brother, whom he would call every single day asking about our whereabouts, what had we seen, what site would be next.  When I travelled abroad, alone, for work, I wrote daily emails in hopes someone would relay the letters to Dad so he could enjoy adventures in countries he would never have the chance to visit himself.   

Selfie with Dad in February, 2019

After he moved into a retirement home in Wallaceburg several years ago, Dad was diagnosed with normal pressure hydrocephalus, commonly known as water on the brain. Easily mistaken for Alzheimer’s disease, the symptoms include loss of gait, falling over, cognitive impairment and dementia. A stint implantation in the back of his head showed promise for improved mobility but after six months he had reverted to his previous deteriorating condition. When Dad could no longer manage to remember our number, we would call him at approximately the same time each Sunday. It was now our turn to initiate the weekly connection. Dad had increasing difficulty balancing the phone to his ear especially after stumbling across the small apartment to pick up the receiver. The conversations became challenging as well; “I know I’m not all there” was a common refrain as we attempted to explain or elaborate or repeat a message. After only a couple years, when his physical needs exceeded the capacity of the staff, Dad was moved into a long-term care facility. By then he had lost his ability to speak.

The telephone went silent; our connection was lost.

A spontaneous purchase of a couple postcards during a work trip to Prince Edward Island was the beginning of my attempt to bridge the chasm. Shortly afterwards, I again mailed several postcards during a two-week stint at our cottage. At that point I took to writing a note to him on a card every week for the next eight months and sending a postcard from each destination of my personal and professional travels. The subject matter was not profound. It reflected the content of our weekly telephone exchanges, addressing questions he would have asked: how was the weather? How was work? What are the kids up to? Did you see the Leafs game last night?

Dear Dad,

Well, the hockey season has begun, and your beloved Maple Leafs have started their march to the Stanley Cup! I don’t know if that will happen, but it certainly will provide a season of excitement and ongoing conjecture.

Cannot recall if we mentioned that Olena and Daniel are in Colombia for two weeks vacation. She has sent along pictures and looks to be having a wonderful time. Colombia was not high on our list of places to visit but Olena is loving the place.

Nicholas is starting to interview for jobs next summer. The idea of selection eight months in advance appears unusual but clearly normal in the field of law. He is excited about the possibilities.

Love, Henry and Olga

I was never sure when or how the cards were received. Frank, husband of another resident, explained that Dad would sit at his table in the central activity area with several cards spread out in front of him. The local priest would stop by, engage in some questions about the day; then Dad would push a twisted hand in the direction of the card, slowly tilt his cowering head toward the priest, prompting him to begin reading.

On the other days Frank himself would meander over to Dad’s spot, the same set of cards still splayed out on the table. “Do you have a new card, Peter? Would you like me to read them?” Dad would tilt his head, open his eyes a little wider and listen to Frank’s Scottish drawl. Later in the afternoon my brother would pop in on his way home from work. The cards still there, Michael would read them as if for the first time, having gone through the same routine, with the same cards, two days earlier.

Dear Dad,

Today was the first full day of the conference and I presented at the second session. It went very well except technical glitches with the projector. Like a stand-up comedian I just kept talking while the hotel technical staff fixed the problem.

The afternoon speaker was a musical therapist who spoke of her work which had nothing to do with the conference. It was sheer delight. She spoke of essential songs or ones to which we identify.

On a walk in the sun, after the session, I thought of you and the The Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash. For Mom, I thought of Leaving on a Jet Plane by Peter, Paul and Mary. “Leaving on a jet plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again”. “One more time let me kiss you, then close your eyes and I’ll be on my way”.

Maybe someone can sing it for you.

Love, Henry

Olga connecting Dad with the one of the kids using the iphone.

The trip from our home in Toronto to Wallaceburg is a full three hours, 300 km. of mostly highway driving. The visits would be an hour, maybe an hour and a half, of comments and familial news, trying to solicit a nod, or a smile, or the raising of an eyebrow. The one-sided conversation evaporated quickly. If the weather was warm, we would push the wheelchair into the garden to luxuriate in the sunshine, where the topic would be about gardens, remembering the ones from his home. Dad would close his eyes, raise his head in the direction of the sun, letting the rays engulf his body, reminiscent of the afternoons in his own backyard watching the grass grow. Olga would rub Dad’s curling and stiffening hands, dexterity long lost, their only use reduced to chin scratching.

Dear Dad,

It was another glorious day here in Calgary. The temperature was a brisk 0 degrees in the morning, but it slowly warmed with the sun to become wonderful walking weather. The city has created a well maintained, carefully constructed trail around the river. I walked it at length.

Trips like these also give me the opportunity to read. And on this one I have been reading a book entitled, “All Things Consoled”, a daughter’s memoir about taking care of her aging parents. I thought of the book throughout my stroll today as I also heard an accordion playing “my beautiful Sunday, say that you love me, my my my it’s a beautiful day”.

It reminded me of a passage from the book when the daughter asked about why the mother wanted to continue. The mother said, “because it is so beautiful outside”.

Till next time.

Love, Henry

We were never quite sure how much Dad understood. If we arrived to find him sleeping, fifteen or more minutes would pass before his brain engaged. When his eyes opened wide and bright, we knew he recognized us and he began to be cognizant of our attempts at communication. I started to read to him as an alternative form of stimulation beyond the regular monologue. I began with a book about the occupation of the Netherlands in World War II, knowing he could relate to the content and maybe conjure up some memories. His shortened attention span prevented him from grasping the content; Dad eventually withdrew, closed his eyes and fell asleep.  

Dear Dad,

Today was the 100th anniversary of Remembrance Day. I hope you were able to watch the ceremonies on the television and observed the two minutes of silence. I remember the stories from you and Mom about life during the Second World War and many of the everyday necessities of your families in order to survive.

I worked in the garden today, wrapping up the yard for the winter, and listened to CBC radio broadcasting from Ottawa. I stood, cap off, for the moment of silence, hearing the bells of Parliament Hill sound the eleventh hour. Bag pipes ended it which was punctuated by fighter jets overhead; then, the remainder of the Last Post was played. Olga was at a workshop for yoga today and they also paused to remember. I can’t say the same for some neighbour who fouled the air blowing leaves the whole time. You used to talk of the whole country stopping everything for those two minutes. Wish we could do the same here.

We also understand the home is celebrating your birthday this week. We wish we were able to be there. Hope it was fun.

Lest we forget.

Love, Henry and Olga

One of the last photos of Dad, taken a month before his passing on April 2, 2019.

In my last visit, I was alone but facetimed-in Olga who spoke to Dad, asking questions, providing words of encouragement. This time his eyes were pleading. He was saying goodbye. Dad had stopped eating and began refusing the medication by pushing them out of his mouth every time a nurse snuck some past his lips. He did not want to live anymore, not in this manner. It was time to join Mom, to be together with her again. On that Sunday evening, when I returned home, I wrote another card knowing the end of his life was close.

Dear Dad,

Mother Nature played an early joke on us with a downfall of snow over the weekend just as the last of the icebergs around the house had disappeared. This morning the skies and the grounds are clear and once again, the weatherman is promising better temperatures this week.

The real promise, however, is the sound of birds in the trees, singing the music of warmer days. Signs of hope are popping through the garden soil, with spots of green sprouting where flowers will soon appear. On one hand, spring is the ugliest time with brown dirt and unkempt grasses and filth uncovered.

But it is the budding trees, the peeking perennial plants telling us not to worry, all will be better, and we will be with the beauty of summer soon.

Love, Henry and Olga

Dad died a few days later.  His room had been emptied by the time my card arrived. The long-term care staff stuck it back in the mail, bouncing to my home a week after the funeral. Someone had unceremoniously scratched through the address and printed neatly, “Return to Sender”. The post office list for potential reasons was checked off beside “moved/unknown”, the next best option to passed away, a euphemism for a euphemism.

The writing of notes and postcards stopped.

I managed to recover all of them; and in rereading, I realize how they form a memoir of sorts, a marking of the events of my world – some profound, some mundane, some needing to be read out loud, others to be savored privately. I miss both my parents. I miss sending the notes. Now, the emptiness is filled by memories resurrected through photographs of their life in Canada; and, through my writing.

5 thoughts on “Return to Sender

  1. This memory gives me goosebumps. Apart from missing my parents, what I miss very much are the weekly letters Mom and I used to write to each other. I find I have kept a surprising number of hers and have filed them chronologically to do … what with. They form an interesting frame of reference for I left home aged eighteen and have never actually lived within the ambit of my immediate family even though my brothers and I have always been very close. This part of your memoir is so touching.


  2. Deeply moving, Henry. Thank you so much for generously sharing this; it is as encouraging to me as Elizabeth Hay’s wonderful book, “All Things Consoled.”


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