Patricia Dunnigan and Aydan Dunnigan-Vickruck: Kept Family Connections Strong

During the lockdown of mid-March to mid-May, Patricia Dunnigan, age 76, and Aydan Dunnigan-Vickruck, age 67, celebrated their 25th anniversary of “being in love” with a dance on their front porch, a bottle of wine, and a takeout dinner from their favourite restaurant. 

Their love story is one of unconventionality, strength, perseverance, and commitment. They met at a conference in Virginia, U.S.A. in 1996. Dunnigan was working as a consultant, and Dunnigan-Vickruck had recently left his career as a Lutheran church minister and was working in a group home. The conference addressed abuse in the Catholic church from a perspective of female leaders. A mutual friend introduced them and they discovered they were on a similar journey. Once back in Canada, they began emailing back and forth, Dunnigan from Edmonton and Dunnigan-Vickruck from Calgary. 

Dunnigan described what this was like. “The idea that you couldn’t visit was hard. We had visits on the balcony, waving to us at first. We let them take the lead on how often we would see each other. The funniest thing for us is that they were protecting us, because we don’t feel old.” She added that the hardest thing was “not being able to see and physically hug the kids.”

Dunnigan’s six children were grown, with only her youngest son, Marcel, living at home while he attended university. Dunnigan-Vickruck shared custody of his children who were four and six years old. He had his children on weekends and some weekday evenings. After a year, Dunnigan-Vickruck moved to Edmonton and travelled to Calgary to see his children on alternate weekends. Time together with Dunnigan was difficult to come by as he also worked every second weekend. 

Dunnigan said, “Those were challenging years and it’s amazing we pulled it all off.” 

With eight children between them, they are now grandparents to 18 grandchildren, ages eight to 28, and one great-grandchild.

A wooden sign hangs on the open porch of their home. It lists the names of all their grandchildren. This exemplifies how important family is to them and how important they are to family. During the lockdown, officials advised families not to see each other. 

Dunnigan described what this was like. “The idea that you couldn’t visit was hard. We had visits on the balcony, waving to us at first. We let them take the lead on how often we would see each other. The funniest thing for us is that they were protecting us, because we don’t feel old.” She added that the hardest thing was “not being able to see and physically hug the kids.” 

When restrictions eased at the end of May and into June, the couple seized the opportunity to reconnect with their family. They had always camped, but this year they bought a tent trailer. “This was a way to see the family,” she said. “This was a way to be with the family and be safe outside. Like little communes. We all camped together.”

Dunnigan-Vickruck laughed, “We weaseled our way into their bubble.” 

They ended up seeing their family a lot over the summer, perhaps even more than usual.  

They travelled to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park and spent time climbing in the area as well as canoeing the Milk River for several days. “Overall, it was a great summer,” Dunnigan-Vickruck said. 

One of their sons-in-law had a heart transplant and has no immune system due to the anti-rejection medications. 

Dunnigan said, “We’re strict about the six feet [distance apart guideline] and see him outside only.”

They also shared more general thoughts about restrictions and rules.

Dunnigan-Vickruck said, “People have relaxed. Some were literal about six feet [apart guideline] in the early days. Everyone had their own take on things.” The couple explained they are “in the middle in terms of being rigid and following the rules.”

Dunnigan-Vickruck remarked, “Over time, this is something we have to learn to live with.”

It has been difficult for the couple to watch the difficulties their children and grandchildren have experienced. 

Dunnigan said, “The hardest thing is with the three girls who are seven to 10. Both of their parents have full-time jobs and were trying to guide the kids through homeschooling.” 

In August, officials announced schools would open in the fall and parents had the choice to have their children attend in person, or continue schooling from home. Dunnigan described how that decision affected her children. “They’re not close to burnout, but the decisions and implications of going back to school is really tearing them apart.” The girls attend a francophone school, which makes schooling from home more difficult as neither parent is fluent in French.  

Dunnigan continued, “For another of my children, he has a blended family. They just got married. When the children go to their mom’s, it seems like a revolving door of people. It seems to cause stress and confusion.”  

Many conspiracy theories swirled about the Internet at first, leading some people to question whether or not the pandemic was real or a source of manufactured government control. Dunnigan discussed how that affected their family. “Aydan has a family member who spread conspiracy theories. There was some distance, I couldn’t tell what wasn’t real with him—between us it was difficult, but it passed.” 

She provided an interesting insight as to what living through a pandemic feels like.

“There is an element of denial. I feel good. I have energy. The compliance feels like it’s forced on you, except for reading the stats in the paper.” She said it was strange seeing people wearing masks. “Part of me thinks, ‘This is nuts. What kind of world is this?’ But still, the parks are full. The streets are full. There is a level that is so surreal.”

Dunnigan-Vickruck continued, “I don’t like the mask. Initially it was freaky, like being in a war zone. People were freaky. But I’ve gotten used to it. We make the choice to go out on the day.” He clarified, “The general opinion is that at least 50 per cent of what we’re being told is serving someone else’s interest. I took on masking as a social respect.” 

Dunnigan added, “I don’t trust the provincial government is not using this to incorporate their own agenda of privatizing education and healthcare. I find it really troubling. Doctors are so discouraged.”

Dunnigan-Vickruck interjected, ”Teachers are, too. Everyone in public service.” 

Dunnigan continued, “There is six feet of fear wedged in between us—it’s not hard to do, it’s the change in the whole dynamic. People feel threatened, disrespected, angry, at a time when community could mean so much.” 

They shared what they miss and also what they don’t worry about. 

Dunnigan said, “We miss live music. I would love to see a play. I don’t like screen time. My writing group is on Zoom. My income isn’t altered. I’m retired. I’m not worried about my kids and education. My parents have already died. Aydan is working from home, and is close to retirement.” 

The beautiful thing is they found a compromise that worked. 

Dunnigan-Vickruck said, “We do well together and didn’t mind the three month [lockdown], just the two of us. We missed work, colleagues, and my dance community but other things fill in the gap: family, writing.”

Dunnigan interjected, “We’re resourceful.” She continued, “This time has been a bit of a bubble. In spring, we were watching the plants grow. We spent a beautiful summer out on the water. Bigger things don’t hit me as closely. Life gets more insular as you get older.” 

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