Grasping summer’s tail

Riding my bike along Marine Avenue in the mid-August heat, grateful for any breeze the ride can generate, I’m enchanted by the rich smell of ripening blackberries rising from the impenetrable thorns covering the steep slopes down to the beach. Crickets have begun chirping in the early evening and sunset is now around eight o’clock, the brilliant show shifting south as the month dwindles away.

This feeling of something racing to its finish is reflected in the garden, wilting even as the tomatoes ripen and the peppers turn colour. Deadheading nasturtiums becomes pointless – the ground is littered with their seed pods. It’s been so hot, the grass crunches under summer-toughened feet and even the fledgling crow jumps right into the bird bath. The occasional duck flies along the waterfront, returned from wherever it nested.

Contained within the sorrow of summer ending is the hopefulness the turn in the season traditionally brings. A sense of beginning again as children return to school in their new clothes on their new bodies, new backpacks full of fresh starts. Excitement, yes, and apprehension. For the teachers too.


After a couple of years of homeschooling, both our boys, Dan (L) and Mike, started elementary school together in 1987.



Septembers at what was then called Northwest Community College in Smithers saw me organizing activities to welcome new students, to make them feel comfortable and supported. Many were returning to school after years away. Many had lost work, lost partners, lost something that sent them to school, a strategy for overcoming that loss. And for some, their last school memory was of failure. So we worked hard to soothe that fear and, instead, celebrate their hope for a new beginning.

As we’ve all said a hundred times, this Covid 19 year is different. Uncertainty, fear and sometimes chaos. In late May, when wild roses bloomed along that same Marine Avenue bike ride, all the kids were at home with parents struggling to find a way to make both schooling and work continue. The older students Zoomed to develop creative graduation celebrations. It was also a time of hope and kindness.

Even if travel plans, weddings, and funerals were cancelled, we were flattening the curve. We had the summer to relax a little, to forget a little. A summer of building installations on the beach, of hiking shaded trails, of watching birds fledge. Of wearing masks to dish out ice cream to families desperate for an outing. Backyard gatherings, chairs suitably spaced. Those chairs moving closer together as the numbers continued to fall. All of us hoping that by fall, that season of new beginnings, we might have at least a semblance of a plan.

But it’s changed again. As the nastiness in the American presidential campaign heats up along with our own Covid 19 stats, our patience and kindness shrink. People rail against cars with out-of-province or American plates. We question the number of American boats sailing up the coast. We’re all tired of the daily decisions Covid 19 requires: masks or not, visits or not, travel or not, work, if it’s there.

But it’s especially tough for parents and their children facing a September of uncertainty. Some can manage keeping kids at home and safer. Others can’t. And for those teachers returning to the classroom, it’s the toughest of all. You know the kids need you, your own and those who will be returning to school.

Here is one strategy Perry Rath, an art teacher at Smithers Secondary School with three young children of his own, plans to use.





Got my selection of Back-to-School masks. I think they suit an art teacher, and will be part of my series of precautions to keep myself, my family, my community safe. I’m very wary and unconvinced of the BC govt’s plan for returning to the classroom, yet I also value my connections and support of youth, especially during this time. So I will adapt as needed … and hope and help for sensible approaches to prevail. There are many vulnerable people we need to think of. Baby Yoda Protect!


How can we help? As a grandmother, I echo the sentiments of Luanne Armstrong, a writer from the Kootenays.


As a grandparent, I am just as worried as the rest of the country about kids going back to school. But I have no “opinion” about it. I see my job as supporting my children and grandchildren in whatever way I can, in whatever decisions they make. But that is a very difficult place for me since I am far from a passive person and am used to thinking hard about educating myself about most things … but this such a tough decision for everyone, parents, children, teachers, I feel all I can do is be absolutely as kind and supportive as I can manage.

Yes, nightfall is coming earlier. But a few days ago it brought the most dazzling display – great flashes of lightning in the southern sky and phosphorescence in the water, sparks of fairy dust as we swam in the dark.

Be kind, be calm, stay safe.


“As the majority of people infected … have no symptoms and are unaware of their infection, the virus may spread through a large population before even being recognized.”

Sound familiar?

It’s not about Covid-19; it’s a reference to Canada’s polio epidemic. Most people with the disease had no symptoms; about five per cent developed mild symptoms and less than one percent developed limb paralysis. Of those, five to ten percent died. Between 1949 and 1954 about 11,000 people in Canada were left paralyzed and in 1953 alone, 500 died, the most serious national epidemic since the 1918 influenza pandemic, according to the Canadian Public Health Association.

My dad with my brother and sister a couple of months before he got sick.

In 1953, about six weeks before I was born, my dad, a millwright in the paper mill here in Powell River, got polio. He had mild symptoms for several days, my mom says. “He’d be standing in the bathroom shaving, saying his neck hurt. I finally got the doctor who thought it might be meningitis.”

While Dad was hospitalized, Mom noticed he wasn’t moving one of his arms properly. His symptoms were classic. He was flown to Vancouver and put in an iron lung as muscle function in his lungs deteriorated.

“It was quite bad because after he got flown down, we’d phone and they said he hasn’t reached the crisis yet – it was about ten days until he reached the crisis. It was,” she says, “a terrible time.”

My mother remembers standing beside a man, both of them looking in at their spouses lying in the iron lungs, the ventilators. The next day, the man wasn’t there and the nurses explained that his wife had died.

Mom and my one-year-old brother and three-year-old sister were injected with gamma globulin, an immune booster. There was no vaccine. I was born in December and six months later taken to see my father for the first time. My mom loves to tell me how the sight of my chubby red cheeks cheered him right up.

Dad lived, but he was one of the unlucky ones whose paralysis was permanent. It’s not like spinal cord paralysis that cuts off all feeling below the injury; the polio virus kills the motor neurons that activate muscles and they don’t regenerate. Rehab can bring some improvement and after about three years, my dad could walk, with support, and use his arms and hands.

Outside our new house.

By the fall of 1957, he was able to move with us into the house he’d been building when he got sick. Mom had gone back to work teaching and we managed quite well. Dad was able to be home on his own during the day and he was there when we came home from school.

It wasn’t easy – he had a temper and would get very frustrated as he tried to get us to do chores around the house or painstakingly teach us to do something he could have done in a second.  But I suspect the tensions were no more than was normal in most houses. Our family activities were limited, but he found ways to extend his mobility. He had a friend build him a wheelchair made of copper pipes that was very light and easy to pack when we went visiting. One summer Mom drove us all in our Vauxhall station wagon to Saskatchewan to visit his family. I think she had just learned to drive. He encouraged her to continue with summer school courses and finish her education degree, and later to apply for a job as a school principal.

While Mom was at school one summer, Dad stayed at Pearson Hospital where he had spent time in rehabilitation. Many polio survivors had been there for years, some in iron lungs or rocking beds. We felt lucky indeed we could bring our dad home.

When we had a house built down here at Grief Point in 1968, he and a neighbour, also a millwright, designed its elevator. But less than two years later, he developed symptoms of post-polio syndrome, which no one knew much about then. He died suddenly in his sleep Feb. 11, 1970.

My father had a life beyond his wheelchair; he worked as a bookkeeper, he read, played bridge, and loved a good argument. He was also very aware of how people with disabilities were judged and taught us that labels mattered. Cripple was still a common name for folks like him; he hated it. He was a paraplegic, he insisted. Disabled. Today, we often imagine how much fuller his life could have been with an electric scooter and a computer.

As of today, there are over half a million confirmed cases of Covid-19 around the world and about 25,000 deaths. According to the Canadian International Immunization Initiative, at the peak of its spread, polio “paralyzed or killed over half a million people worldwide every year.”

I used to get upset when people didn’t vaccinate their kids because our family experienced directly what diseases like polio can do. Now, when people talk about how we’re over-reacting, about the low percentage of people dying from Covid-19, I’m even more frustrated. It’s easy to forget that each one of those deaths is a loss to families, friends and communities.

Seeing those images of rows of people in ventilators in ICUs, I can’t help thinking of my father. How much pain he must have felt, how afraid he would have been. We have been through this before and I say, bravo! to those (that includes all of us) trying to stem the tide flooding the world right now.