My father Ken touched the lives of many with his kindness, warmth, generosity, and jovial spirit.
Kenneth Wheeland was born Oct. 2, 1934 in Branford, Ontario at the peak of the Depression.
Hitler and Stalin were consolidating power and setting the stage for the murders of untold millions. It was, as Dickens might describe it, the worst of times, but my father was determined to make the best of those times. He was a brilliant student and would earn academic scholarships that got him into Chemical Engineering at U of T at 17. He graduated at 21 and started his first engineering job in Montreal, where he met my mother, Connie Curtis, at a church social. He wooed and wed her in short order. He was married at 22, celebrated his first child at 23, the second at 24 and the fifth before he was 30.
Our family started out in predominantly French Rosemont, but my dad’s brave French-immersion project ended in 1962 when he took a new job at the Monsanto chemical plant in LaSalle.
Developers were then building bungalow communities in the middle of nowhere, so in 1963 we moved to the mostly Anglo West Island. The modest house at 126 Evergreen, in D.D.O. that sprung up in a deserted pasture became a nurturing home for the next 53 years. This is where Dad would prove that in the best of times and the worst of times, he was a man of abiding courage and resilience.
The first big blow was an overnight gas explosion at the Monsanto plant in 1966 that killed 11 employees. Dad spent long hours at the plant as they investigated its causes and how to prevent similar mishaps. When Monsanto later decided to shutter the facility in stages, Dad had the painful job of delivering the news to his employees. He told me it was one of the hardest things he did in his working life — telling those men and women they no longer had jobs.
Two years later, my mother’s increasingly unusual behaviour erupted into a psychotic break. Doctors at the Douglas delivered a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. The understanding of the disease and its treatment at the time was primitive. Lengthy and even lifetime institutionalization was common, antipsychotic medication often rendered patients depressed, profoundly lethargic and suicidal.
Mom, then 36, was literally no longer the woman he had married. She was still there — the beautiful, compassionate, funny woman he fell in love with — but she was struggling in a turbulent sea of delusion and fear. At home were five children ages 2 to 9, too young to understand why Mom had gone away. Dad shrugged his shoulders and added caregiver, homemaker, and cook to his duties … for the next 50 years.
Now, when I say cook, I use the term lightly. Whatever culinary skills Dad picked up at lumberjack camp had evolved little. Besides Sloppy Joes or Salisbury steak, Dad offered grilled hot dogs with melted cheese, tomato and lettuce salad, and bread strips dipped in maple syrup for dessert. We had two spices in the rack: salt and pepper — and the pepper was for special occasions.
Cooking was about the only thing Dad didn’t excel at. He was scary smart and knew the answers to so many questions that his middle name should have been Google rather than Graves. His library was full of engineering texts, but also novels by Dickens and Twain, short stories by H.G. Wells and Guy de Maupassant, and biographies of explorers and politicians. Dad had a quick sense of humour that was so dry that it took me 30 years before I even understood he was joking. That sardonic wit was passed on to his kids — but with varying levels of skill.
Sometimes the best teacher is not just what your parents do, but what they never do. I never saw my parents fight, belittle anyone, or push us on a course of their own choosing. They were always there to support and guide us. My father had no tolerance for intolerance, no patience for ignorance.
Dad was also one of the most generous men I have ever known. Despite all of the burdens in his life, he was always willing to volunteer. Two years after mom’s diagnosis, her sister wrote that she was moving back to Montreal from England with her husband and three kids. Dad made room for them in the basement, almost doubling the household for six months as he looked for a new job after he too was laid off by Monsanto.
Kenneth opened his home to youth in need
And it wasn’t just family he took in. When I was 15, he called me in for dinner from the park across from the house where I had been hanging out with my friend Phil. “Isn’t your friend going home for supper,” he asked? I explained that Phil’s father was abusive, and that Phil had run away from home. “Where does he sleep?” he asked. ‘In a friend’s car, sometimes on a friend’s couch,’ I told him. “Then you had better invite him in for dinner.” Over supper, Dad got Phil’s story and told him he was staying with us until he got on his own feet.
Phil was not the last person to see that generosity. Dad did the same for my friend Cliff. There were others he took in. And most guests would find themselves warmly greeted and gently interrogated by my father, whose genuine curiosity helped turn strangers into family in short order.
Even after the children flew the nest, Dad continued to volunteer. After working more than 20 years at Noranda Research Centre in Pointe-Claire, where his humour and compassion as a boss were renowned, he volunteered for decades before and after his retirement. Those who benefitted included the Cheshire Foundation, a home for young adults with physical disabilities; Avatil, which assists people with mild cognitive disabilities to live independently in the community; and Meals on Wheels and the West Island Volunteer Bureau.
What made Dad’s generosity so uncommon is that he never drew attention to it, didn’t boast of his good deeds, never expected praise or public acknowledgement.
Dad finally surrendered our childhood home five years ago when advanced arthritis in Mom’s knees turned our many stairs into hurdles and hazards. They moved to an independent senior residence, but when Mom’s arthritis took away her mobility, they were required to leave. I say “they,” because even though Dad was still able-bodied, there was no question of separate abodes. If schizophrenia couldn’t erode their lifelong commitment, arthritis didn’t stand a chance.
So Dad sought a new home for the two of them and, two years ago, settled on Résidence Herron in Dorval.
When we celebrated Mom and Dad’s birthday there September 2019, he was spry, alert and as jovial as ever. Aside from some memory gaps, there was no sign that vascular dementia was soon to upset his balance, eat away at his cognition and take away his ability to walk. But his wit and humour were still sharp. When a doctor came to test Dad’s cognition, he asked: “Mr. Wheeland, do you know what date it is?” Dad waited a few seconds, as if pondering, then said “yes.”
“No, no,” the doc said, “Can you tell me what date it is?” Dad didn’t know the answer, but he was damned if he was going to admit it. “You’re the doctor, I’d hope that you know what day it is.”
But the cognitive decline was rapid and it wasn’t long before Mom and Dad switched roles, with Mom taking over as caregiver. It was as if they shared a single source of energy and, as Dad’s waned, Mom’s kicked into gear. She advocated for him at the residence and with the family, and she missed him profoundly during his stints at the hospital in December and January.
Connie was deprived of the chance to say goodbye to Kenneth
When Herron wanted to hike the price of Dad’s care by 50%, she supported the tough decision to temporarily move him into the public system, to live separately for the first time in 63 years. On the day of his scheduled move, a few days after Quebec long-term care homes had been quarantined because of COVID, mom was being dressed by Herron staff for her goodbye visit. But Dad was already gone, hustled by other Herron staff into a taxi, with barely a change of clothes, to take him to CHSLD LaSalle.
Mom was heartbroken that her chance to say goodbye had been robbed from her, especially after we found out that Dad would now be cut off completely from his family. No one had told us that the lockdown meant Dad wouldn’t have a phone at LaSalle. We didn’t have a chance to talk to him again until two weeks later, as the dual COVID/dementia devil took his breath, his voice — and then his life.
We are grateful that Judie, Nick and I were able to be with dad in his final days. It is a mercy that too many people have not been granted. Lockdowns, isolation and the often rapid progression of the infection have meant that hundreds of thousands have died in pain, fear and alone at the end of their long journey.
As I said, Dad couldn’t talk at the end. But if he could, I know his first and final words would have been: “Take care of your mother.”
Dad, we fought to rescue Mom from Herron and then from the hospital, where COVID isolation and loneliness nearly took her will to live. After she finally tested negative, the “system” insisted she be sent back to Herron, but we refused, and she has been in our care ever since. We promised her she would never be alone again.
Connie’s here with us today, Dad, and she wants everyone to know what a great man, husband, father, and companion you were, and that she loves and misses you very much.
We know Mom. We all feel the same.