John Ecker, left, brought his father Ed to Brantford, Ont.’s St. Mary’s Church — “his church” — for one final Mass just after Father’s Day 2021. At right is Fr. Luke Kopaniak. Photo courtesy John Ecker

One last Mass eased a father’s passing

By  John Ecker, Catholic Register Special
  • June 17, 2022

Readers may recall my May 2020 article in this publication. I shared how my Dad, Edward Ecker, was coping with the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic while living in a long-term care facility in Brantford, Ont.  

I wrote that piece just a couple of months into the pandemic — 25 months ago. I was optimistic about a return to normal “soon” and how the re-opening of the economy was on the horizon. How wrong I was. 

As we approach Father’s Day 2022, I find myself in a reflective mood. On May 31 2021 my Dad celebrated his 97th birthday. He died a month later on June 28, just a week after Father’s Day. 

In a span of 10 months, I lost my Dad, my father-in-law and my dear uncle, Paul Mitchell (the “father of CYO basketball” as reported in The Catholic Register not long after his passing). All three men were fine Catholics who were strong in their faith and wonderful fathers, each in their unique way. 

The pandemic took its toll on so many of our seniors, my Dad included. From February 2020 to the Father’s Day weekend 2021, he was under severe restrictions, often confined to his room. No programs. No monthly Rosary. Sunday communion visits cancelled. No monthly Masses.  

After such a difficult 2020, Dad’s decline quickened at the start of 2021. To help him more and to better monitor his care, my bi-weekly visits from Whitby to Brantford were supplemented by those of my wife Helen on most alternating weeks. Then, our visits became weekly, ensuring Helen or I were there every three to four days.  

My efforts to have Dad moved to a long-term care home just a five-minute walk from our Whitby home had been fruitless. They were frustrated by a bureaucratic system seemingly more adept at managing numbers and enforcing rigid rules than truly finding ways to meet the needs of seniors and their caregivers. 

With the help of Fr. Luke Kopaniak, pastor at St. Mary’s Church in Brantford, I was able to bring Dad the Eucharist on many visits. This always lifted Dad’s spirits.   

In February and March 2021, Dad began losing the ability to speak. Phone calls were no longer possible. Connecting with the right staff to discuss Dad’s health and needs was near impossible. 

Dad was also finding it difficult to swallow and he needed pureed food. By April he could only consume thickened liquids. Despite the challenges, he kept his dry sense of humour and somehow maintained the ability to play his accordion. Despite an increasingly shaky hand, a whiteboard was a helpful communication tool for him. 

On the weekend before Father’s Day, Dad motioned me to pass him the whiteboard. With great effort, he wrote, “I miss church.” It was heartbreaking to read. Attending Mass, receiving communion and participation in parish life was so important to Dad and for his spiritual health. 

Given his clear message I had to explore options. Outside excursions had recently been permitted for fully vaccinated long-term care residents in Ontario. Since Dad could no longer safely transfer from his wheelchair to my SUV, I arranged transportation via a wheelchair-accessible van. 

Dad and I arrived early for the Friday morning Mass at St. Mary’s on the Father’s Day weekend. I took Dad on a tour of the church — “his” church, ever since it was dedicated in 1955. I reminded Dad of all the important family occasions that had been celebrated in that church including dozens of sacraments — baptisms, first communions, confirmations, weddings and funerals. I showed him the newly refurbished stained glass windows, a project funded by generous parishioners, including him.  

Various well-wishers approached Dad, expressing their joy to see him back in the church. As Mass began, Fr. Luke noted Dad’s presence and welcomed him back to St. Mary’s just in time for Father’s Day. Applause. After Mass, more well-wishers and a photo with Fr. Luke. 

Dad was so happy, but exhausted. He was grateful to be back at St. Mary’s for what he surely felt in his heart would be his last living time. 

It was. Dad declined steeply. When I visited him just six days later, I was shocked by his appearance and lethargy. I immediately alerted staff. They assured me they were going to call me “soon.”   

I was at his side, holding his hand, when he passed away three days later. He was in his 98th year. 

At his funeral, I referred to Dad’s “captivity” in long-term care. It was an appropriate term. In the depths of the pandemic, residents were more like inmates than residents. Facilities were often in “lockdown,” visitors were screened to ensure they did not bring in “outside” items. At various times no contact was permitted and privileges were often restricted. Many staff worked hard under trying circumstances. But the burn-out was evident and widespread. 

No doubt numerous physical lives were saved by many of the measures implemented in homes during the pandemic. But the severe spiritual, cultural and programming restrictions certainly and undoubtedly contributed to the loss of lives. When two of Dad’s meal mates died within a short span of each other, a staff member called it a “failure to thrive.”’ 

Some say that it’s time to end for-profit care. Speaking from my own experience, witnessing my father-in-law’s care in a for-profit setting versus my Dad’s in a non-profit setting, I don’t agree. High standards and robust programs for residents are central to a quality care setting. Certainly not all for-profit homes are good. But not all non-profit homes provide great care either.  

Unfortunately, I’m also left with a rather stark memory of my Dad’s final day. After he passed that morning, I was exhausted. My plan was to return in a couple of hours to pack up Dad’s room and his remaining worldly possessions. That would not be possible according to the home’s new policy. Once I left the building, I would not be permitted back in. Staff would take all of Dad’s possessions and bundle them in boxes and leave them for me at the front door. 

I was shocked. I called Helen who hastily brought in numerous bins and bags so that we could properly pack up family photos, memorabilia, antiques and other personal items. All that as my deceased Dad lay there in his bed. I alternated between anger, shame, embarrassment and remorse.  

This year will be the first Father’s Day in my life without my Dad. And, a year later I most certainly know that getting Dad to Mass last Father’s Day weekend helped ease his passing a week later.  

I hope that our society and governments figure out better ways to help families care for their loved ones who can no longer be cared for at home. I know we all want to see the pandemic in the rear-view mirror. But some things, including how we treat our most senior citizens, must be more carefully and thoughtfully addressed. After all, the dignity we might preserve in doing so could well be our own. 

(Ecker is Director, Family of Faith Campaign & Special Projects for the Archdiocese of Toronto.)

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