Nova Scotia

As my dad ages, we’ve discovered a new ritual to stay connected

This is a First Person column by Frank De Palma, a former newspaper editor who lives in Halifax. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

Sometimes the simple things in life can shine a light on the fray of day to day.

A few years back, I began a daily phone call to my aging father. Give or take a few exceptions, it has stuck.

“Hello, Dad, how are you doing today?”

“No bad. Keepa going,” my 91-year-old father responds, offering one of his favourite catchall phrases.

This is how we start a simple and sublime daily routine. He lives in our hometown of Hamilton, Ont., whereas I live in Bedford, N.S.

While I’ve made several visits over the years by train, plane or mostly automobiles, the calls help plug the nearly 1,500-kilometre geographic gap.

I came to Nova Scotia in the early 1980s to attend journalism school. My intention was to return to Ontario. However, a newspaper job that became a career at the Chronicle Herald in Halifax intervened and I ended up staying.

I made weekly telephone check-ins with my parents. The calls became more frequent when my mother developed dementia and my father became her caregiver.

For the De Palmas, keeping family ties has meant regular trips to Ontario. First great-grandchild Arbor, held by his mom Jessica, with his great-grandparents Dorina and Rosario, right, and his grandfather Frank. (Robert Short/CBC)

About three years ago, she died and after almost 65 years of marriage, my dad became a solo act. My calls became a daily connection. 

They also help with the guilt of being away and being unable to drop by more easily.

His wife’s three sisters and a brother and their partners were the base of his social network in Hamilton. That network is now gone as like my mother, they have all died. My dad is the last one standing.

Over the phone, my dad and I compare notes on meal prep. Lunch is my father’s most important meal of the day. It might be pork chops and potatoes one day or basa filets or pasta on other days

It’s a varied menu sometimes augmented by his homemade wine and infamous lemon chiffon cake.

“I take care,” he says when describing his frugal grocery store forays — another area where we compare notes.

We intersperse Italian and English as we catch up on life.

Come stai oggi, papa?” (How are you today, dad?)

Sei uscito oggi?” (Did you go out today?)

A photo collage with an image of a little boy held by his grandfather next to his great grandfather in a garden.
Rosario De Palma’s first great-grandchild, Arbor, held by his grandfather Frank, has made regular visits to check out his great-grandfather’s backyard vegetable garden. (Robert Short/CBC)
Twenty six members of a family pose for a photo outside to celebrate the great grandfather's 90th birthday.
The De Palma family had 90 reasons to celebrate in October 2022 so four generations gathered in Hamilton, Ont., to celebrate Rosario’s 90th birthday. (Submitted by Frank De Palma)

We didn’t always talk to each other regularly. Life was busier for each of us. And there have always been the regular relationship lumps and bumps.

But in many ways, we’re both alike. Like me, my dad also had his own story of leaving the only home he knew for employment. He left Italy and arrived at Halifax’s Pier 21 in the mid-1950s before continuing to Ontario. With our partners, we each raised families on mostly single incomes. He three children — me his oldest and two daughters. In Bedford, my wife and I raised six kids.

He frequently brings up the news of the day. I worked in daily news for most of my career. A newspaper subscription and television help keep him company. I took out a digital subscription to the Hamilton Spectator to keep up with his local news.

He recalls his childhood in rural Italy and his life as an immigrant in Ontario.

Some days he has plenty to relate to me and on others just a few words. The call usually lasts about five minutes. Sometimes more. Rarely less.

I provide him with the latest updates of his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren.

A man speaks on the phone while sitting in front of a window in a home.
Frank De Palma at his home in Bedford, N.S. (Robert Short/CBC)

There have been some blips. My dad had a run of not hanging the phone up properly and I would get a constant busy signal. My sisters or helpful neighbours, who live short drives away, got things back on track.

I know these calls aren’t a substitute for in-person love, but it’s my way of helping out in any way I can. 

It’s also a mental check-in and he usually passes with flying colours. If I mention a child is dealing with a burst pipe or a sore back, it’s the first thing he asks about on our next call.

Neighbours are a big help. One dear soul, also widowed, drops by with freshly baked cookies and conversation. Another keeps an eye on his driveway during heavy snow.

The neighbour who sometimes drops off cookies once told me she and my father have a pact to remain in their own homes and stay independent as long as possible. So far so good.

WATCH | Report warns about home care demand as senior population spikes: 

Concerns that Ontario isn’t equipped for surging senior population

As Ontario’s population of elderly people balloons, a new report by some health economists suggests Ontario needs about 6,800 additional personal support workers by 2028.

As I age and many of my friends lose their aging parents, I feel privileged to have my calls answered.

This daily connection is a precious slice of life and a ritual I will maintain as long as “able to do” — as my father would say.

It’s also inspired me to communicate more consistently with my own children. 

The to and fro of life can engulf and impede connections. My dad and I are both retired now and the window of opportunity is wide open.

An elderly man eating a pasta lunch.
Preparing a hearty lunch is a labour of love for Rosario De Palma, who shares shopping and meal prep tips during his daily talks with his son. (Submitted by Frank De Palma)

Connecting daily has strengthened our relationship and in many ways we have never been closer despite the space between us. The calls have taught me the significance of regularly reaching out and connecting with the cherished pieces of life.

So we’ll “keepa going,” one call at a time.

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