Leaving a trail for the living to follow

Special to The Globe and Mail

Catharina MacMillan lived a private life, raising her two children, volunteering at their schools, hiking, skiing and playing tennis with them, cheering them on at hockey and rowing, taking them home to Sweden for summers and supporting her husband’s business career as he rose through the Canadian banking echelons, beginning with Bank of Montreal and ending as president, chief executive officer and then chair of CIBC Mellon. In preparing for her death this month at the age of 67, she created lessons for the living that will endure beyond her time and place.

There was a sweet whiff from the drooping flowers in the vases scattered on tables and ledges, and an elusive absence in the living room of Tom MacMillan’s midtown condo. He was alone on a Sunday morning, three days after his wife’s funeral. For more than two years he had been organizing caregivers, juggling visits from family and friends and sharing the intimacies of his wife’s dying after nearly 40 years of marriage. Now that the public grieving was over, he had disposed of most of the medical paraphernalia, cleared out closets and, with his daughter’s help, bestowed a collection of designer scarves on mourners. For the moment, Tom had nothing to do but remember the woman who was no more.

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Catharina MacMillan lived a private life, raising her two children, volunteering at their schools, hiking, skiing and playing tennis with them, cheering them on at hockey and rowing, taking them home to Sweden for summers and supporting her husband’s business career as he rose through the Canadian banking echelons, beginning with Bank of Montreal and ending as president, chief executive officer and then chair of CIBC Mellon.

“She was heroic, but she didn’t make a big fuss about how brave she was,” said her sister-in-law, historian Margaret MacMillan, the author, most recently, of The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. “None of us ever heard her complain” about a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in her 20s, breast cancer in her 50s, or how the two diseases conspired to rampage through her body in her 60s.

Bravely born is the eulogist’s cliché for women such as Catharina, who die of a devastating illness. She had plenty of those noble qualities, but what was truly noteworthy was the calm, resolute manner in which she turned her life, and especially her death, into a model for facing the unknown. We all die, but talking about it with doctors, family and even ourselves is hard, often impossible. That was not Catharina’s way. In preparing for her death this month at the age of 67, she created lessons for the living that will endure beyond her time and place.

Asked last fall if she had any regrets, Catharina said no, articulating a straightforward philosophy: “Try and do what is right, and even if it is not right for somebody else, as long as you are happy with your decision, it is probably right for you.”

Catharina Leissner met her future husband on a skiing holiday in the Italian Alps in 1973. After finishing a master’s degree at the London School of Economics, he was in Grenoble, ostensibly to learn French, but really to play semi-pro hockey. He had linked up with his older sister (who was finishing a doctorate of philosophy at Oxford) for a week of spring skiing. “There was a group of Swedes,” at the cable cars in the mornings, remembered Margaret MacMillan, “and Tom kept talking about a very pretty girl, who was Catharina.”

When Catharina returned home to Sweden, she told her father she had “met this Canadian guy and he played hockey.” Quite reasonably, the senior Leissner asked, “Does he have any teeth left?” That was the beginning. The couple were married on Boxing Day, 1974, and lived successively in San Francisco, Houston and Denver before settling in Toronto a decade later.

After her initial breast cancer diagnosis in 2005, Catharina survived – as the vernacular has it – for most of a decade, before the disease metastasized to her brain and her lungs. She endured treatment, including its ghastly side effects, and even underwent brain surgery, but by the spring of 2013 her old chemotherapy regime was no longer working. Balancing hope with pragmatism, she and her husband decided it was time for a frank talk with the oncologist. “How much longer will she live if we continue treatment,” Tom asked in a consultation that June. Probably a couple of months more, the doctor allowed. “When we heard that,” Tom said, “we looked at each other and she said, ‘I’m done.’”

Wisely, the oncologist listened to them and even suggested they might want to meet with a palliative care doctor, just to have a connection if they ever needed it. This was a hugely helpful piece of advice because it meant they learned early on what the health-care system can offer in the way of palliation and home-care services – all of which reduced their anxiety and her discomfort.

“This is not what I wanted to happen,” Catharina explained about her prognosis in a conversation in September, 2013, in the kitchen of her condo that looks south from Bloor Street to the CN Tower and the Toronto Islands. Nevertheless, dying was the reality that confronted her and she wasn’t going to shrink from its challenges. She was wearing jeans and a purple sweatshirt and sitting on the chair of her walker. Her angular face, with its sculpted cheekbones, was puffy from steroids and her postchemo hair was wavy and sparse, but her blue eyes were clear and her gaze was direct.

You only get one chance at death; there are no practice rounds. Perhaps because she had found her way as an immigrant in this society, Catharina knew intuitively how to map the landscape of dying, leaving a trail for the living to follow. She decided to “prepare what she could prepare and enjoy what she could enjoy,” and that meant making sure that “no one has to take care of things for me after I die.” From the start, she was open about dying, including speaking with a journalist who recorded her family story on an audio CD.

“My name is Catharina MacMillan,” she begins in her alluring Swedish lilt before explaining how she grew up on an island off Stockholm, filling in details about her widowed grandmother, a nurse who raised three children on her own, and with whom Catharina lived during two long periods when her own mother was ill. Listening to the CD is like reading a diary filled with delicious domestic details from a bygone era, a record that will be invaluable when memories falter.

Having given her version of the past, Catharina looked to the future. Wills and estate planning were big topics, which she approached in her forthright way. “I don’t want the second wife to get my share of the money,” she said calmly in October, while her husband blushed and looked slightly sheepish. “I have no intention of marrying again,” he insisted. Of course not – but just in case, Catharina, who had always been a homemaker, wanted to ensure that her kids were protected when she was no longer around.

Aside from the condo, the MacMillans split their capital in half, giving her the satisfaction of establishing funds for her children. Her son, Alex, his wife and small children moved into a larger family house with Catharina consulting on the renovations; her daughter, Megan, is expanding her catering company in Colorado with her mother’s support.

Having dealt with practicalities, Catharina wanted a final pleasure: to spend time with her husband, children and grandchildren and her only brother and his wife in a place she loved – the Canadian Rockies – while she was still strong enough to travel. Tom made all the arrangements for eight adults and two grandchildren to stay at the Rimrock Hotel in Banff for a week over Thanksgiving, 2013, a trip that still lights up his face in the recounting.

As the weeks of her dying stretched into months, and Catharina moved from a wheelchair into bed, her demeanour never changed, even as she grew progressively more fatigued. In December she planned, and Tom executed, a traditional Swedish Christmas Eve with Bach and gravlax for a coterie of friends and family. Never a voluble talker – that role in the family belonged to Tom, for which he was gently roasted at her funeral – Catharina began planning her death – at home, if possible, but in a hospice if necessary – and determining what should be done with her ashes.

“She didn’t leave anything on the field,” said her husband admiringly, wearing jeans, a blue checked shirt, grey pullover and slippers as he sat in the living room of his condo. “Her timing was impeccable,” he added, pointing out that after lying dormant for two decades, the disabling ravages of MS only manifested themselves once the children were grown, and the precipitating crisis with her breast cancer occurred just as he was retiring and able to devote himself to her as a hands-on caregiver. Even in death she achieved symmetry. Born on the first day of November, she died on the first day of April – but in the afternoon, thereby avoiding the stigma of April Fool’s Day.

“I want the people who mean the most to me to be there when I die,” she had declared in January. That wasn’t possible, because her daughter Megan, who had visited from Colorado in March, was in transit, flying back to her mother’s bedside, but her husband, their son Alex and a palliative care nurse were in the bedroom.

“We had remade the bed that day so the sheets would be fresh,” said Tom, anticipating the end. Fitted with a morphine drip, she had become sleepier and less responsive, until her breathing gradually slowed and stopped.

“I heard a breath and then a sigh and I felt a spirit leaving her body,” her husband said, deriving a comfort in the retelling of what he had worked so hard to achieve: the ultimate gift for his wife – a good death.

Follow me on Twitter: @semartin71

Follow on Twitter: @semartin71

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