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facts & arguments

A never-ending slumber

After 18 months of battling lung cancer, my best friend decided it was time to stop, Susan Pederson writes

"We have a time," she said. "January 11th, at 11 o'clock. I could have picked the day before, but I liked the sound of the 11th at 11."

January 11 was the day my best friend, Beverly, chose for her physician-assisted death. After 18 months of trying to outsmart lung cancer and agreeing to stick around through Christmas, the relief in her voice on the phone, a province away from me, was palpable. I booked my flight, grateful for the advance notice – in time to take advantage of Westjet's seat sale, a small mercy for my bleak, black journey.

Eight days passed, an eternity, and the morning sun shook me from my half-sleep in Calgary; shook me from my full denial. No alarm clock was needed to remind me that the time was nigh.

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"I need a bra," she said, "I can't do this without a bra," and went to put one on under her flowered shirt. "Did you get something to eat?" She called over her shoulder. "Help yourself."

Indeed, the small gathering of friends and family grappled to help ourselves, and one another, as we tried to process that this dear soul would soon meet her maker. So we nibbled cold toast, sipped coffee, as strangers, clinging to one another.

Then the phone rang. The evangelical minister of her sister-in-law's church. "Don't pick up, don't pick up," we all surrounded her, but still his voice came on the speaker-phone as he laid down his words, "What you are doing today is a sin. You must stop this at once."

We gathered in closer, singing You are My Sunshine loudly to drown out the minister's voice, until we get to the part about "Lord, don't take my Sunshine away." Then we just hum, but his words still pierce the air, recorded now forever more, "You must stop this at once."

But that is what Beverly is doing. She's stopping this. Today. Stopping the pain, stopping the medical interventions, stopping the decline. Still, I can't help but think, "Why today? Why does she have to stop this beautiful life, today – at 11 o'clock, when she can walk about and go fetch a bra? When she can don her favourite pearl earrings and ask if we have had something to eat? And ask us if we will be okay, and we lie. We say 'yes,' through wet eyes, 'we will be okay.'"

Why today, when she throws in a load of laundry. Why laundry – today?

"Because it's the last time I can do it the way I want it done," she says. The way she wants it done. And then she coughs, and coughs again, and I know it must be today, at 11 o'clock.

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The phone rings, again, her evangelical sister-in-law now, pleading to save Beverly's soul, insisting she should instead suffer through these last days and weeks and months, until her Lord decides to take Beverly on his time. Her suffering, her penance. For what? "Please stop," says the sister-in-law.

"Did you get something to eat?" Beverly says, hanging up.

And then my fellow strangers, clinging to one another now, are inviting me in for one last group shot on their iPhones. One last shot with Beverly. The clock ticking, and I am stunned. Should I join in and smile then, as my brave friend is doing now? No, I will have no part of that. No part of immortalizing this moment in time. I help myself to a muffin and juice instead; I make small talk until the doorbell rings, at the allotted hour, not a moment too late.

The doctor, I am sure he is 12 years old, dressed in a shirt and tie, and flanked by two nurse practitioners. The doctor, her doctor, his eyes are wet. A shirt and tie, carrying the medicine, and I hadn't expected that his eyes would also be wet.

But soon after, Beverly is in her bed, her love by her side, and her doctor, his tears dry now, steps into his professional role. "Do you understand that the medications we will administer today will cause your death?" he says, and she nods, eyes closed, while I wince at those words. It is a necessary protocol; it has been no surprise, yet they one-two sucker punch me just the same.

Her doctor explains, that there will be two medications: one to relax her, and she will slip into a deep, blissful sleep. This dreamland medication appears, in its bottle, harmless and perfectly clear. The next medication is muddled and milky and will stop her heart beating. This is the milky poison she has been craving for weeks.

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Her love is by her side, and will do what he has done every night for months to ease her into sleep. He will read her Winnie the Pooh, just like that, he will do as he has done every night, to send her into this never-ending slumber.

With her intravenous inserted, we all listen in to hear how Eeyore has lost his tail. The clear liquid has done its job, and she sleeps, that half-smile at Eeyore's quandary. Her brave love, steadfast narration, something about Christopher Robin now, even as the milky liquid in her IV tube travels slowly down under their two joined hands, through the tube … and into her. I watch her breathing, as the liquid turns from clear, to milky. The milky liquid, through the tube and past the merry adventures of Winnie the Pooh and friends.

There is a long pause in her breathing, then one last deep breath, and her heart flutters now, under her floral shirt, the bra underneath. Flutters. Flutters and then flutters no more. The doctor calls it, "Time of death, 11:51."

And we don't get to find out if Eeyore finds his tail. No need to continue, for now, this time, her last time, she sleeps.

Susan Pederson lives in Nanoose Bay, Vanouver Island.

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