Most of this was written in early April. I just realised that it was never posted, so after adding the last paragraph or so, here it is:
On February 28th my father chose to end his life rather than go through another ’round of health deterioration and increasingly ineffectual treatment and associated side-effects, with his colo-rectal cancer. He had already lived for 7 years with a colostomy – which was giving him increasing problems and complications, and he simply refused to endure the kind of slow agonizing end he had previously witnessed his sister Lydia suffer through.
My youngest sister Alvina and I rushed out to Edmonton (where our father lived and died) to join our other sister, Leslie, at Dad’s bedside. We had a couple of hours to be with him before the medical staff removed the breathing tube they had put in when my father had arrived that morning after shooting himself in the back of his head. The physician in charge was willing to keep Dad alive until Alvina and I could arrive and say our goodbyes – along with Dad’s sister, Edna, and other extended family members.
We all got the chance to be with him for some time before the breathing apparatus was removed, and in the 35 minutes in which he continued breathing after that. I was surprised at how big and robust a man he still was, right until his last breath. The only other time I can remember being at my Dad’s side when he was in bed (in my adult years, and maybe all of my life) was seven years ago, following his surgery for the colon cancer. We, and he, did not not know whether he would survive then. He had shared with my sisters when they asked him to undergo treatment 7 years ago, that he would not go through another bout with cancer if it ever returned.
Although we tried all the numbers we had for contacting my niece, Mona (my Dad’s eldest grand-daughter) she unfortunately did not get the messages I had left her until we had left the hospital following Dad’s death. Mona got there later and talked to the staff. They were very kind and thoughtful with her.
Anyway, my sisters and I were then launched into grief and and action mode both at once – having to arrange for Dad’s cremation and his Celebration ceremony. Despite some really trying negotiations with staff at his Senior’s home in the first days following his death, we decided to go ahead with our initial plan to hold his celebration at that home -where he lived the last few years of his life. It turned out to be a good decision, and was a healing opportunity for the family and close friends, and for the care staff and other residents at Ottewell Lodge.
I was very struck by the meticulous planning that went into my father’s departure from this life. He wanted the impact of his suicide to be minimal for those he left behind – and in my view he was pretty successful in that.
Just about three weeks before my Dad took his life, my mother had had a serious fall, back here in Victoria. She fell often and had sustained some worrying injuries in the past – but nothing on the scale of this last time. While preparing for bed one night in Early February she slipped and fell. As she went down she hit her head on the wooden dresser or on the floor of her room. No one witnessed it, so we had to piece it together from the staff’s comments and what my mother recalled afterward. Both my partner, Karen, and I had bad cold/flu at the time of this fall so we were not able to visit her in hospital until a few days later. That added to her distress. I talked to her daily, and my friend Garry went to see her, as did Karen’s sister, Candy. My brother Ray and his wife, Bunny also went to see her once during that hospital sojourn. Unlike our father, Mom was in and out of hospitals on a routine basis. But she was also like a bouncing ball – or had been that way. Mom surprised all of her family and friends many, many times with her ability to regain consciousness and her faculties to live on another day, week, month and year. All of that was different after the fracture of her upper neck, however. She made it clear to family, friends and care staff that she simply didn’t really want to carry on living with a very restrictive neck collar, and feeling the judgments from herself and others for “stupidly” having had a serious fall. There was nothing stupid about it – though it was supremely unfortunate. On the other hand, maybe even her fall was some unconscious move toward readiness to depart this life.
In any event, she was hugely affected by the news from my sisters and I that Dad had taken his end of life process into his own hands, and had completed that journey. She told Garry, Karen and Candy that none of the care staff at Oak Bay lodge “got it” that this was not her ex-husband (as he was legally, for over 30 years), but simply her husband (as he had been for longer than was not the case, and as he still obviously was in her heart) who was no longer of this world. I think she felt intensely alone in her struggle with remaining alive. After all, she had bounced back from a very close shave with death while Alvina was pregnant two years ago, and was absolutely delighted to be able to see Olivia enter the world and get off to such a great start to life. Mom saw that Olivia was in glowing good health, with fine loving parents and that she was (and is) a bright, beautiful being in her own right. I think Mom saw her children and family, including Olivia, and thought something like: “I no longer need to be here, …. I would rather be free of this mortal coil, as my husband is”.
I received a call from Mom’s doctor the day before Dad’s celebration ceremony saying that she turned some sort of corner in the view of her care staff, and she had been put on a palliative care list. My partner, Karen Ledger, is a nurse and knew Mom very well. Karen was a fierce and loving advocate for my Mom’s welfare, at all times. But that advocacy was crucial in my absence, in the last few days of her life. When I told Karen about the call from Mom’s doctor she went back to see her. Karen had been with Mom on the occasion of the Skype call when we informed her of Dad’s death, and on the next day when we touched in again to see how she was faring. Mom said she looked forward to Easter when both my sisters had committed to returning to Victoria to see, and be with her.
When my father’s celebration was over, but before packing up everything, I went upstairs (where I had cell coverage) and discovered that my mother’s physician had called me twice, and Karen had called once. I spoke with Dr. Vaughn and reiterated that I had left Karen with the instructions to keep me informed of changes in Mom’s health, and to act as her advocate in my absence. My conversations with both Karen and Dr. Vaughn had me very concerned about Mom’s lack of response to usual stimuli. I shared my concerns with both my sisters and the rest of the close family that remained at the time. But it was still a huge shock to learn via a text from my brother, Ray, that Mom had died at 6:50pm that day, on March 6th. I was about to get on my plane connection back to Victoria by the time I heard, but Mom had actually died before the last family members and I actually departed Dad’s seniors residence.
On reflection now, I realise there is so much that I have to be thankful for from both of my parents. I will be writing more in the next while about the gifts I am left with.
May you both rest in peace…. love, Howard