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National Cancer Institute/Unsplash

We feast

5:30 a.m. The alarm clock beeps dutifully. Rob quietly pulls himself out bed, sighing upon an upright, resting position. He’s careful not to disturb Carla, who usually slept for another hour or so before rising with the kids. It’s a Tuesday morning in late September; the hardwood floor is cool beneath his feet. They would need to raise the thermostat soon. While he was often uncomfortably warm, he knew his wife and children would want the home to be a few degrees warmer – his oldest daughter was already complaining about the house being chilly.

With the children now in their teens, life had a more predictable routine. Rob and Carla were paying off the mortgage on their house. It was more expensive than the previous, so stability was especially important to them these days. While their paychecks kept them afloat, each month unexpected costs caused stress and created tension in the household. However, their daughter recently began working part-time which provided some relief to the household’s finances. Both Rob and Carla agreed that receiving a paycheque would introduce the discipline necessary for her to achieve short-term saving goals, while aiding the family’s budget ­– most of the costs of teenagedom were no longer theirs to bear.  

Thankfully, Rob was the family’s only early-riser, so he didn’t have to worry about tension with others this morning. After going to the bathroom, Rob rounded the corner into the kitchen where he found the brewed pot he had programmed and prepared the night before. Rob wasn’t much for breakfast this early in the morning, especially this morning – his nerves wouldn’t allow it.

After finishing his coffee, Rob left the house and headed to his new job with one of the local long-term care facilities for the elderly. He was feeling rather anxious. He spent the morning completing the usual intake tasks that come with a new job: reading policies, signing forms, and taking a picture for a staff nametag. Following the paperwork, Rob navigated a flurry of introductions to staff members and managers which left him feeling less confident than when he arrived. Throughout the morning, Rob had noticed that most of the facility’s front-facing staff were white, and the racialized staff members worked behind the scenes in departments such as housekeeping and maintenance. He was working as a dietary aide in the kitchen and dining hall, and he was the only visibly Indigenous staff member of those he had met so far.

During a slow tour of the facility interrupted by casual, draining chit-chat between the tour guide and her colleagues, Rob studied his new workplace. The dining hall was large, sterile, and impersonal. Off to the side of the room, a large TV played as its only viewer, an elderly woman slumped in her wheelchair, dozed off. Rob looked around hoping to find a couch with a blanket to cover her with. As he studied the meagre living-room setup, he thought of the homes of Elders in his community and realized that the facility was residents’ permanent home. Where he was from, Elders were taken care of by kin, often their descendants, not put in institutions. His grandmother had recently moved in with his mother so they could support one another after his father’s recent passing. Family was a connected chain, holy and unbreakable, or so his family had showed him his entire life. He visited his siblings and mother as often as he could, and they could always depend on him. 

Following a lunch break alone in an unremarkable staff room, Rob was paired with his coworker Debbie for the rest of the afternoon. Debbie was a stout woman, a few inches shorter than Rob. She had a nasally voice and a powerful bark that tested Rob’s patience. He estimated that she was about 15 years his senior, though her workplace seniority reeked strongly enough that he decided to keep his distance despite her chatty demeanor. His short responses were uninviting and Debbie seemed to get the picture. Rob was a no-nonsense kind of guy, and not interested in small talk.

These types of jobs were not new to him. He figured that as long as he had a working body and hands, he could adapt to almost any job. He prided himself on being flexible and adaptable – these skills had helped him grow into the reliable father he was. Rob often found himself in teams of people he found lazy, whiny, or who didn’t pay attention to the detail of the work. However, he found it even more maddening when his coworkers were dishonest in front of management. He had a rigorous work ethic that left no room for cutting corners, performative interactions, or a job poorly done. He would have to exercise patience with his new team.  

As they made their way to the dining hall, Debbie explained that lunch was the final large task of their shift. After serving residents lunch and cleaning up, there would be a shift change and other staff would take over the rest of the day’s tasks.  Residents were wheeled and transported to the dining hall, name cards on the tables indicating each Elder’s seat at the table. The room slowly filled with residents of all sizes, shapes, degrees of mobility, speech, and motor skills. This task was one Rob connected to: at home, Elders were served first, and only once they had their food could those serving them and their family members serve themselves. Rob and Debbie suited up with hairnets, gloves, and, in Rob’s case, a beard net, and began serving residents lunch. Today’s menu featured a greyish serving of what Rob assumed to be sherpard’s pie alongside steamed veggies, a slice of toast, and a small dessert square. The team began serving lunch from kitchen trolleys to residents in the dining room. Once they were done, they would support anyone who required assistance eating and monitor the group for any other needs, like, creator-forbid, responding to a choking incident.

As Rob glanced around the dining hall, he felt the large boulder sitting firmly in the middle of his stomach double in size. While some Elders had the company of the staff at their table assisting with feeding, most sat in silence while they ate. There were no visitors. Instead of the sounds of avid storytelling, cheeky laughter, or lively debate, residents sat in silence chewing, utensils scraping plates, the occasional outburst, or the ongoing whispers of one of the residents who hadn’t stopped mumbling since he sat down at the table. The staff, Debbie included, milled about serving residents, seemingly unfazed.

Rob felt so wildly out of place in this setting where instead of their revered seats at the tables of their families, the Elders were discarded in this so-called home. His heart ached for his own grandmother who was now well into her eighties. She, however, had never resided in a long-term care facility. This afternoon she was likely at home tinkering in the kitchen, prepping her garden’s fall harvest for canning. Tonight, she and her daughter would sit down together for dinner, probably a simple meal of vegetables, sliced pickled beets, meat, and potatoes.

“Excuse me, sir?” an Elder interrupted his thoughts. To Rob’s surprise, the man was also Indigenous. He had a salt-and-pepper buzzcut and was wearing worn, brown, plaid, flannel pyjama pants paired with an equally old t-shirt. The t-shirt advertised a fishing-lodge in Lake of the Woods. In his younger years, the man surely would have towered over Rob, but now worn with age, his body buckled into his new semi-mechanic form, a wheelchair.

“Could I get another piece of toast?” he implored further once he had Rob’s attention.

Rob met Debbie’s nearby gaze, who gave him a stern look in return. He paused for a moment, his heart rate quickening. The boulder in his stomach lurched to life, rising from his belly into his esophagus making it difficult to breathe.

“For sure buddy,” Rob choked out. Without any further thought, he grabbed a piece of soggy toast from his trolly and passed it to the Elder.

“Rob,” he declared, offering an extended hand to greet the Elder.

“Theodore, but you can call me Ted,” the Elder responded. Ted returned the gesture, his grip firmer and more assured than Rob had expected. Rob shared a smile and a slow blink in return. Ted reminded him of his own father whose hands were also spotted with callouses from years of handling hunting tools, traps, and nets.

He caught Debbie’s eye again, who shared a disappointed glance. In training he was taught that he should only serve residents their allotted meal, but he felt his chest tighten at the thought of declining Ted’s request for more food. He prided himself on providing his children what he lacked as a child – he never said “no” to either of his children when they asked for more food. In fact, it was his life’s mission that his family never go hungry or become homeless. Though Ted had a roof over his head, could this place really be considered a home? Was Rob really going to deny him an extra serving when he was still hungry after eating the pre-portioned meal? At the end of his shift, Rob left the facility haunted by his interaction with Ted.

***

That evening over tea, Rob was relieved to hear his mother’s voice over the phone. He imagined that Ted, too, was joining them for evening tea. Rob had promised her the week before that he would call to tell her about his first day at his new job. Before breaching the subject however, he wanted to hear about his grandmother, how she had spent her day, and what they had for supper. Afterward, Rob shared his thoughts and reflections on his day, including his displeasure witnessing how Elders are treated in the facility. Emotional vulnerability was not his strong suit, but with his mother he didn’t have to voice his emotional turmoil – she could tell by the  sharp tone of his voice. He couldn’t reconcile the fact that this community’s esteemed Elders were forgotten and abandoned in a cold, clinical setting – the furthest setting from home imaginable. After telling his mom about his interaction with Ted, he was met with silence. He knew she was shaking her head in disbelief on the other end of the line.

“That’s not right, my son. That’s not how we do things. And for your coworker to be stern with you for giving an Elder more to eat? When we gather around the table at the end of the day to eat together, we eat! No, no…  we don’t just eat. We feHe ended their call feeling resolved of his decision. He sat back down at the kitchen table and wrote his resignation letter which he would turn in the following morning. Other jobs would come, he told himself. His mother had reminded him that his cousin needed help making deliveries for a bakery in the city. On Thursday, the paper would be delivered and he could browse the classified section for  full-time employment opportunities for individuals hoping to make a meaningful living.
 

*This essay was the runner-up in the creative non-fiction category of our 13th annual Writing in the Margins contest, judged by Helen Knott. We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Regina Public Interest Research Group (RPIRG) for this year’s contest. 

Kayla Tanner is an Anishinaabe Metis woman from Winnipeg, Manitoba in Treaty One Territory, with roots in Duck Bay and Pine Creek First Nations. She currently works as a frontline worker with community in Winnipeg’s downtown and central neighbourhoods with Ka Ni Kanichihk. In her spare time, she enjoys attending live music shows, local artist talks and performances, roller-skating, harvesting medicine, and participating in ceremony.

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