On the day my husband planned to die, I woke him early for a last bath. “I’m so tired,” Clarence said, pulling the sheet up to his chin. I turned over, leaned in and gave his chest a dramatic sniff.
“Don’t you want to meet your Maker smelling fresh?” I didn’t actually care how he smelled, but at this point in our 42-year marriage, I’d unintentionally changed his role from husband to beloved child. I wanted to wash him, swaddle him, bundle him in my arms and perhaps even change his mind. This bath would be our last time alone together in this life. My last time to see him sitting at the other end of our tub built for two.
I ran the water, putting in plenty of Epsom salt and essential oils. He held my hand as he stepped into the bath, settled himself at his end and closed his eyes.
I didn’t want to see him lying there with his eyes shut. I needed to pretend it was Friday night and we were discussing world politics with a glass of wine and a plate of crackers nearby. But he was tired. Alone with me, he could stop pretending to be okay for the sake of our kids. He was finally getting what he’d wanted for the last few months as his cancer pain worsened: an end to his suffering.
We’d had a bit of trouble picking a date. He wanted Christmas; I hoped for summer. We settled on the end of March 2018. The date drew closer and our nights became longer as we went to bed early and got up late. We redefined the act of spooning, wrapping ourselves around each other in a desperate expression of our vows, the two becoming one.
More on Broadview: Will Canada let Ron Posno die on his terms?
Lying opposite him in the bath, I chatted like it was any other day. Every now and then, he’d open his eyes and smile at something I said. Mostly, he rested and I talked. And talked. Finally, we could hear the household stirring and knew it was time to get out. He wanted to put on a pair of jeans.
“Jeans!” I said. “And a belt? Are you going out somewhere? Why not be comfortable?” I brought him a pair of soft pyjama pants and a T-shirt. He let me help him get dressed without a single argument. I really wanted him to fuss a bit more because I knew he hated being told what to wear. This casual acceptance meant that he was already moving away from me, even as I held his hand. Even as we walked into the living room where our children were waiting. He sat down in his favourite chair, and I prepared his medication one last time so he could be almost pain-free when he died.
We had breakfast, keeping it casual, though it was hard to see his inability to swallow his last meal. My three daughters and son-in-law took turns sitting beside him, holding his hands.
And then came a knock at the door. Clarence smiled in relief. He was ready to go. The medical assistance in dying team — a doctor, a nurse and a social worker — took off their coats and came up the stairs. We all chatted for a good while, and they explained what was about to happen. Every word they spoke was clear, gently delivered and expressed in a way that made sense to my young granddaughters. The doctor told them that with the very first needle, their grandfather would drift off into a peaceful sleep.
I remember the day in May 2017 when my husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer. When the oncologist left the room, I turned to Clarence and said, “There’s been a mix-up. This isn’t your file.” I meant every word. Maybe that’s how it is when you’ve been married a while and life has been generous to you.
Perhaps a sense of disbelief is nature’s way of softening the blow. But how can you not notice the rapid decline of the man you’ve been with since the age of 19, the one who makes you laugh and is still the most interesting person you know? Denial might be a soft cushion, but it falls apart when the pain gets real.
Six months after his diagnosis, we met with the MAID team for the first time in a tiny conference room at their Winnipeg office. We were surprised at how immediately we felt at home with them. We laughed a lot, which was unexpected. They answered all of our questions, and their extensive interview with Clarence left him feeling reassured and me less alone with his decision.
I was not the one suffering from cancer. I didn’t have to swallow all the medication or put up with hospital stays and weekly appointments. And yet, you can’t cut the partner of the dying person out of the deal. That tearing asunder happens only with death.
They gave my husband what he desperately wanted: the gift of a conscious parting, something not many terminal patients experience.
When that day in March 2018 finally arrived, the one circled on my calendar with a code word beside it, the nurse inserted IVs into both of Clarence’s arms. The doctor asked if it was hurting him in any way. “Not at all,” he said, reclining in his favourite chair and looking more relaxed than he had in months. Sitting close behind him, I couldn’t stop stroking his beard, his cheek. Resting my head against his. Our three daughters, my son-in-law and two granddaughters gathered around in a tight circle while the MAID team sat on the floor between us. And though we were all crying softly, there was so much peace in the room.
The doctor explained everything clearly and carefully one more time so we all understood what was about to happen. And then the social worker asked us to leave the room, so they could make sure this was really what my husband wanted. It was. We came back, and it was time to say goodbye. He had something to say to everyone, words of hope and love, and dreams for all our futures without him.
We’d been talking every night about what his world would look like on the other side of death. I’d asked him to picture where he’d like to find himself. A cabin in the woods, a cozy spot beside the ocean, a canoe trip down a river? All were places and things he loved.
“I’d like to go for a swim,” he said that morning. Then his eyes twinkled, and he fell asleep. We kept talking to him. Telling him we loved him. When it was time for the second of three needles, the doctor explained that his face would get ruddy, but not to be alarmed because it wouldn’t hurt him. He was already past the pain.
“Some people like to hang around for a bit,” she said after the last shot. “Keep talking to him.” We did. It was the best advice.
Maybe every team is different. Maybe there are some with brisk efficiency who get the job done and then leave. But that morning, we loved our three visitors for their warmth and kindness. For flying over 600 kilometres to be with us in our home in Flin Flon, Man., on such a difficult day. For the way they all went into the kitchen after it was over and cried. Such an intimate thing, the last hour of someone’s life. They were with us in our goodbyes and our grief. They gave my husband what he desperately wanted: the gift of a conscious parting, something not many terminal patients experience. They gave him dignity. He had cancer in his spine, but was able to go while he could still walk and use the bathroom by himself.
This decision of my husband’s might not make sense to people untouched by the trauma of a painful terminal disease. But I can’t help thinking that if you have to die at 65, what a blessing to have loved ones nearby and a gentle passing. I’m grateful that Clarence and others like him are allowed that choice. Thank you, Canada, for the gift. May all in need have such a compassionate exit.
This story first appeared in Broadview’s June 2020 issue with the title “Our last day.”
Broadview is an award-winning progressive Christian magazine, featuring stories about spirituality, justice and ethical living. For more of our content, subscribe to the magazine today.