In March 2020, the United States shut down due to COVID-19 and as a result, we were not able to see our parents in person. Don Morris, our 81-year-old dad, was not in good health. He didn’t know what was wrong. Dad wasn't feeling well, was losing weight, having trouble swallowing and didn’t want any of his family to visit for fear that we would bring him the COVID-19 virus. While Dad was really pretty good with technology, for some reason we could not manage to get Skype, Zoom, or any other online platform to work to connect us to see each other. Finally, in November, we sent our parents an Echo Show and quickly Alexa, the device's virtual assistant, became a dear friend. While Mom doesn’t like the screenshot (see left) that I took of that first day we connected, I absolutely love it. Dad was so very happy! I distinctly remember him pointing at the screen and saying, "well THERE you are Trace!” After that moment, we had video calls all the time, sometimes 2-3 times a day. While Dad had worked for telephone companies most of his adult life, he rarely used the telephone. But, now that he could simply say “Alexa, video call Traci” or any other of his kids/grandkids Dad would check in regularly. The ability to see each other again, lifted all of our spirits so very much. While Dad was still not feeling great, he sure was smiling a whole lot more.
In January 2021, 10 months post shut-down, Dad saw two physicians for a series of medical tests. As I logged in to see his online test results I held my breath. It was clear Dad had esophageal cancer and advanced prostate cancer. His follow-up appointments were both the week of January 18 and it was then that our family received two of the greatest blows of our lives. Treatments were recommended but by no means was there going to be a cure. The doctors told us that if Dad chose and was able to tolerate treatment, he would have about a year left with us.
A week later, Dad began treatment, but we ended up only getting a little less than two more months with him. As the cancers progressed and the treatments became harder and harder on our now 82-year-old Dad, he had less desire to work on his computer and definitely had difficulty focusing on tasks. He certainly knew how to email, create charts to track his treatments/stats, pay bills, and surf the web, he just didn’t feel up to all of that anymore. With the change in his health status, the Echo Show went from being a novelty and a convenience to an absolute necessity. You see, not one of Dad’s three children lived in state and none of the nine grandchildren lived in his town. Everyone felt an urgency to be together, to be close to Dad. At the same time, his days were long and he wasn’t enjoying them much. With each video call from his family, he would light up. The video calls gave him energy. Some grands showed Pappy how they had detailed the car and others took Pap on grocery story runs. The grandchildren were able to let him see their sweet dog, talk about their volleyball games, and even see engagement rings and share in the excitement of making wedding plans. No matter how tired or how badly Dad felt, seeing his family gave him a few minutes of happiness and it gave each of us our own special time with him. Time to encourage him, remind him how much we loved him, and most importantly time to laugh with him.
In those two months of directly battling cancer, Dad had multiple hospital stays. The hospital was only allowing one visitor a day and the visitor had to stay on site. So, on top of already not feeling well, Dad now felt super isolated. We also felt like we were getting robbed of precious days with him. However, all of that changed when we took the Echo Show to the hospital! While it wasn’t as good as being with him, we now all had access to him and his physicians. If we couldn’t sleep at night we could use the drop in feature and check on him without waking him. If a physician came in and we weren't at the hospital, he could video call us to hear the update first hand. In addition to the hospital's limited visitation rules, the trip from my parents' hometown to the hospital was not an easy one. The trip to the hospital was 45 minutes to an hour, one way. The snow and ice often made the road treacherous in some areas, which was only complicated more by ongoing construction. The daily journey took a toll on all of us, but was especially hard on our 77-year-old mom. The Echo Show; however, gave us all a chance to be present and see Dad, even if it was not “our day” to visit.
Not only did the Echo Show help keep us connected, it kept Dad entertained. He enjoyed asking Alexa to play different types of music. Dad could ask her questions and get recipes. When hospital staff would come into Dad's room, he loved showing the Echo off and sharing how easy it was to use Alexa. Dad would tap his hand to the beat and sway to the rhythm of songs that made him happy. Many days Dad would tell me I should have brought more devices with me, as he knew we could sell them to others on his floor!
When Dad found out he had to go to a rehabilitation center and we could not even visit it before he would be transferred, he was devastated. He wanted to be home, in his chair, watching his tv, and hearing the trains go by his home. No amount of crying or begging could convince the rehabilitation facility director to allow one of us to be with Dad for his transfer. With COVID protocols, it simply was not possible. Instead the director stated she could allow one special, one-hour visit the following week. It was heartbreaking and Dad was scared. The only reassurance we could provide him, other than telling him how nice the facility looked online or naming someone we knew that had been there and liked it, was telling him that he could take his Echo Show with him and call us any time of the day or night. We would not be coming each day, but we absolutely would still be 100% connected. Dad put on his game face as I reviewed all of the items we were sending in his suitcase. He had photo albums we had made and framed pictures to sit around his room. Dad joked with me and said, “Are you afraid I’m going to forget you?” I quickly explained to him that those pictures were not really for him, but rather to remind all of the employees that he was super important to many people and they had better take great care of him. Dad shook his head at me and really only wanted reassurance that someone there could get the Echo up and running. Shortly after Dad was transferred to the new center, he video called us and had a therapist use the screen on his Echo Show to tour us around his room. Not only were we able to see each other that night, a train went by in that call and he was able to hear the familiar sounds of home that he had been missing.
A few days later the West Virginia University men's basketball team was playing in the NCAA tournament. Dad was staying in a WVU facility. The rehabilitation center did not carry the game. Our Dad, a problem solver far ahead of his time, video called my Mom on his Echo Show and told her to hold her Echo Show up to her television so he could watch the Mountaineers play!
Technology was the key to connecting us with Dad. We had so many great moments we would have missed had we not had the Echo Show and the Alexa assistant. We were all comforted to know Dad never really felt alone when he had the device with him. Dad heard his final train whistle on March 23, 2021 when we played the Orange Blossom Special for him in his hospital room.