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first person

Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

The purple Fitbit appeared four years ago, on a vacation in Whitehorse. It’s an older model with a purple wristband and does the basics – step count, floors climbed, minutes walked, heart rate and calories burned. You can take a good look at all the stats when it’s linked up to a computer and make some comparisons about your health and fitness.

Our close friends and Whitehorse hosts correctly deduced that my mother (93 at the time) - a former Second World War radio-telegram operator, physical education teacher, hiker and sportswoman - had a competitive streak, so it was the perfect gift. Mum took to the Fitbit like a teenager to a new iPhone. She learned how to read it and charge it, and still takes great pleasure in checking her pulse and step count on daily walks. She has shamed friends and her grandchildren with her loudly proclaimed tallies - occasionally over 10,000 steps (now at almost age 97)! She’ll even go out for an extra walk around the park and up the hill to meet a goal…. “over 5,000 today, well, not that impressive,” she says. “I need to get out for a longer walk tomorrow. It’s good for me - you need to get out, too.”

Tracking our lives… this has been a time for it. Keeping active and establishing routines has helped us all get through this strange and unusual time. Mum has particularly benefited from her Fitbit during the pandemic. What with no bridge club games to organize and play, no choir practice to attend and no church on Sunday, not to mention a lack of visits from many of her friends, the Fitbit and steps counted has given her a sense of purpose. It’s measurable; there’s some sense of achievement as she walks around her yard, up the road, down by the lake and through her kitchen.

The Fitbit seems an appropriate metaphor for life these days. Counting is de rigueur. We count quarantines – the 14 days our daughter spent in one half of our house on return from two months in New Zealand, midway through her University exchange program, the two weeks mum spent property bound after a trip to Mexico and the two weeks our in-laws spent housebound on retirement from overseas. We count days and weeks of restrictions and numbers of people in our bubbles, ever-shrinking - the work bubble, the family plus close friends bubble, the family only bubble. We count the days and months that the Canada-U.S. border has been closed. Almost every day, we hear the counts of cases of people testing positive, people recovering and in hospital, and finally, the number of deaths. Sobering thoughts and numbers.

2020 started well for our family, with a hike on a warm, sunny day on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast, inappropriately sunny for Jan. 1. We enjoyed February, with beach walks, weekend trips and bike rides. However, the countdown to our long-anticipated trip to New Zealand in March to meet our daughter seems laughable, on reflection. We were packed, bags at the door, mentally on vacation. But then we unpacked, and two days later New Zealand announced their border was closing for the first time in history.

“Staycation” was the word of the moment! New routines became a necessary part of daily life. Mum came to visit for a few weeks in May, a bit fed up with all the new rules. With a mask in her pocket and cane in hand, she headed out the door every day, while we monitored how long she’d been out walking to ensure her safe return. When the walk exceeded an hour, the search party was launched, my husband on his bike, me on foot, my daughter on the run. We tracked her down once at the cinnamon bun bakery - a mere 1.5 kilometres from the house. “Just thought it would be nice to bring these home,” she said.

I took a week off and spent it walking with mum. We did all the best flat walks I could think of - the Ambleside Sea walk, the Jericho Beach trail, the South Dyke walk in Steveston, the Arbutus Greenway and the Granville Island walk. She had to be convinced to catch her breath for a moment on a bench. “It’s good to get the heart rate up,” she’d say.

This summer, the back deck became the social hub. A limited number of friends or family could dine, appropriately spaced. Mum visited again in the sunny days of early October. As we were busy working from home, she kept herself busy, knitting baby blankets and socks, reading and of course, walking, with or without company. Once again, mum did the extra walk up the hill plus stairs in the park to get her heart rate up. I started carrying my phone in my pocket so I could count my steps, too.

We’ve spent 10 months in this new state of living and we’re still counting two metres of separation, numerous masks and many hours of distance from each other. The 200 surgical masks a former student kindly sent me from China in April are shrinking in number. After initially giving them away, not thinking they were really needed, I’ve started hanging on to those left in my cupboard, trying to calculate how many I will need over the next weeks and months.

Mum came for Christmas; she is at an age where seeing her grandchildren, even masked on the chilly wet back deck with a bouncy dog, is more important than almost anything.

The purple Fitbit may need a new battery or even an upgrade. Come rain, snow or sunshine, mum was out, accumulating steps and walking her way to more healthy, positive thoughts about life. COVID is a motivator. We are learning and counting the ways to be stronger.

M. Joyce White lives in Vancouver.

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