Only 10 Days To Live. What Agony.

Doctor assisted suicide. It is still very much a controversially subject, I am learning, even while it is now legal in Canada. It seems everyone has an opinion on the matter and the subject it quite volatile. The only other time I remember people reacting so strongly to information from me was when I would tell them I was vegan, just before sitting down to a meal in a restaurant. It seems, suicide, whether doctor-assisted or not, is generally still abhorred in our society. But I’ve jumped right in without the preamble, which might help.

June's Flowers
Flowers Received for June

My mother-in-law (MIL) June, was diagnosed a year ago with cancer. She was told she would have two or three years to live with treatment and maybe a year without. During the last couple of years, she had watched other friends die or become incapacitated. She herself had lost a lot of eyesight to macular degeneration, and she had become very depressed as her life changed as a result. She could no longer play bridge, read or do her puzzles and she struggled to get out the door. She said her life was over, taken from her when she lost her sight, and she said she was now only living, waiting to die. Besides being horribly depressed, she was resigned that she had lead a long and good life and she was ready to go. So when the clock ticked now, she decided not to opt for treatment.

It really wasn’t a surprise when in January, about nine months later, she advised she had made an appointment with “Dr. Death.” This doctor was actually a team of two, who one would see only after going through a battery of conditions and criteria that had to be met, including a psychological screening. Sue and I had figured she would turn to alternative measures such as these, but it still kind of leaves you feeling a little winded when you first hear it. And she wanted to be alone. Wow, that really got to me. I mean, I hold strangers hands while they die so they are not alone. Sue and I don’t believe our animals should be euthanized without our comforting presence. And here she was, deciding to be alone at that time. Wow. I was very surprised at how much that bothered me out of everything.

It was through discussions with friends and family that we discovered just how divided and controversial this act. For June, it was an act of self-love, one act of self-care. So we watched as June made up new rules. Okay, remember not to discuss this anymore with {blank} person. She needed to fire that PSW helper. Those friends were cut off instantaneously. Anyone who objected were immediately cut off and cut out. So, we got on board, and fast. June had said she would just need to give a few days warning so Sue’s brother could make it in from New Zealand. In the meantime, a reporter, Catherine Porter asked to interview June and her family. She wanted to do an exposé about the Right To Die history in Canada, terminating literally, with June’s final act. My MIL was in her glory with all the attention, and even as she said, she wouldn’t be around to see the article, the idea of five minutes of fame, even in death tickled her pink.

The real hardship, was still to come. You see, we didn’t see it coming and hadn’t anticipated it. The preemptive strike on June’s part. She had decided she would just skip in its entirety the pain and suffering, and becoming ill. She was vain and didn’t want to become sickly, thin, pale and feeble looking. That idea really bothered her. I had imagined that when close to her death bed, that she would then call the doctor to the bedside, much like when we call last rites. But no, she informed us as she stood looking healthy and fit, still eating and going out for social events, that the doctors would be coming on March 31. That’s ten days from now. She had no intention of becoming sickly and living any longer in discomfort than she needed to. She was good with this and she expected us all to jump on board. I mean after I stopped reeling from the shock, it did make sense. If you were going to go through all the suffering, then why would you need any intervention. This was, for her, to avert that suffering. But as much as it made sense when thought of in this manner, it was still really hard to look at someone, just beginning to experience the repercussions of a disease, still mostly healthy and fit, making a decision to take her own life. At least that’s what it looked and felt like.

Both Sue and I have struggled with euthanizing an animal in the past. You never stop wondering “Did I do it too soon?” or “Did I leave it too long?” I don’t think it ever rests easy for any owner. But I do know, this wasn’t our decision about the timing, and June was of sound mind making this decision. Now we had to just keep going. It’s interesting. It puts you immediately into a grieving mode, which is strange, because you are grieving for someone who is still here. And it was especially difficult because June just said everything was taken care of and we didn’t need to worry about it. Everything would somehow be mysteriously revealed once she was gone. For her, that meant she had a will and a lawyer or accountant fellow that knew her wishes. She told Sue, “Just go to your brother Bill, he knows everything” and when Sue did, she was told he didn’t know anymore than her. My MIL refused to discuss anything before she died in those ten days, leaving it ‘up-in-the-air’ for those around her. So we struggled with the unknown which created more anxiety and craziness. We didn’t know where the keys to the apartment were, or the codes for the safe or for the alarm system. Even smaller things like her brand new IPhone, her computer and her wifi passwords, all unknown.

“I’ll be dead soon. I’m not giving out any more money, you’ll just have to get it from your inheritance.” She’s telling me this as I book a “cost is not an issue” hotel room on her request for the family coming from New Zealand. I let her know, it’ll be nearly $6,000.00 and it will take nearly a year for probate and for Bill to see the money. He had purchased tickets from New Zealand for four and had to change them once she set this date. He was already out a lot of money.  It could cost him a hardship during that time. I suggested she put the cost on her credit card to pay for the room so the estate would pay the fee and Bill would not endure any hardship. As she agrees to this, she tells me that Sue and I will need to cover the expenses of the apartment as of April 1. “Just take out a bridge loan” says a woman who describes herself as wealthy and can’t comprehend our socio-economic situation. And so the tense times, conversations and constant anxiety started, and never ceased during those ten days, until she expired.

And so we lived, in this limbo state. A state between grieving and getting ready, trying to live in the present moment and be there for her while very anxious about the future and all the questions and things that could be arranged and planned for. Of course, I try to logically look at this and say if she dropped dead of a heart attack tomorrow, we wouldn’t have any more answers. So why is there a different expectation now? Somehow, we expect that it should all be wrapped up and completed with a bow, totally prepared and comfortable so that when March 31 comes, it’s all good. But that’s just wishful thinking because whether sudden, prolonged, expected or not, death is messy. Just sometimes it easier and sometimes it’s a relief when the suffering ends. But it’s never easy, just easier. And so we mark down the next ten days. It’s bitter sweet. So nice to have the time, but the time is so sad and heavy. Each thought, sentence and action is a goodbye. It’s a very hard process, made all the more stressful for everyone because of the health of the individual making the decision and the long time between announcement and action. I think my choice would have been told, “I’m really in a lot of pain and can’t do it any more. In two days when Bill is here is the plan.” It’s what I am accustomed to, as family is asked to come quickly and say goodbye for the end is imminently soon. This waiting and the length of time, was very difficult, for everyone.

So, as we enter the last week, Sue is not sleeping. She is grieving. Family and grandchildren are in from New Zealand. A stranger looking in, not knowing the gravity of the situation, would guess it was just a family visit. It’s very  surreal and as Sue expressed throughout “Weird.” I used to believe whole heartedly in self-determination regarding our health and choices. However, now that I have gone through it and experienced it as a family member, I’m not so sure about this. I remember Sue Rodriguez’s rally at the government that started this all in her battle to escape the degradation of Lou Gehrig’s disease. I do believe that June was doing exactly what this was meant to do – stop the suffering. But I find it hard to reconcile that it just feels like suicide. Period. It just happens to be doctor and legally sanctioned. So, I’m not sure how much I support it anymore, but then again, as Sue says, it will become much more common in our society. Then maybe there will be more acceptance and understanding. However, for now, June is a pilgrim in this area. One of a few hundred who are travelling this path, one of which they want to highlight and write about.  She did get comfort and strength in her last week, knowing she was amongst the first and that her story may help others. She was very pleased that might be the legacy she leaves behind. For the rest of us, those ten days were torture, mental and physical, and it seemed so much longer, so very much longer. The death, meant to avert the suffering of June, also stopped the family suffering, as we all breathed a sigh of relief.

June Cecile (Hertzman) Vaile
June 26, 1936 – March 31, 2017

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