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first person

Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

As I settle into my flight to Toronto, my thoughts drift to yesterday’s phone conversation.

“Hi honey. I was approved,” my mother says, clearly pleased.

“Great. Approved for what?” I’m not connecting the dots.

“MAID – I can have MAID!”

Silence. Blood rushing in my ears. Something is not computing. She sounds like she won the lottery, not medical assistance in dying.

“Honey, are you still there?”

“Um, to be honest, I’m having a hard time with the good news part of this, but you sound relieved. I’m glad about that.”

“Oh yes sweetie, I’m so relieved.”

I gulp, and feign an upbeat tone, “Okay then. So now you can rest easy. Everything is ready for when the time comes.”

“Well, how about Friday? Can you be here for 10 a.m.?”

I blink back tears. What’s the hurry? This makes no sense.

“Well, the doctors are very busy, you know.” I need time.

And then, “We’ve spoken with the funeral home.” So, it’s all settled. But … but this is too fast. I take a deep breath.

“Okay Mum, I’ll be there as soon as I can.” So, she’ll be with us two more days. I book my flight, and wonder: How will I explain this to my young daughters?

Years ago, she asked me, “Honey, when the time comes, you’ll pull the plug right?” Her request never sat well with me, but I’d reassured her I’d do what I could for her.

Imagine my surprise when at 91, looking a decade younger, my mother confided that something was not right “down there.” Many appointments later, the oncology team recommended radiation followed by surgery.

“And if she chooses to do nothing?” we asked.

“She has 15 months at the most and it won’t be pleasant.”

And so, my mother bravely started treatment while concurrently looking into MAID.

Miraculously, the radiation had a good result and after six long weeks in a local hospital fighting infections, she was stronger and stable. Yet she is resolute that “it is her time.”

I don’t understand.

Once I land in Toronto, I turn my rental car out onto the westbound 401. Torrential downpour, as predicted. The sky and road merge into a shiny blackness. Mammoth trucks surround me. Gritting my teeth and gripping the steering wheel, I brace myself. I’m coming, Mum.

Without thinking, I drive past my motel and steer into the hospital parking lot. It’s almost midnight, but I have to see her.

The emergency room door opens. I’m greeted by cobwebs and spiders. Ghosts and goblins. Even a faux tombstone. I shudder.

I used to love Halloween.

As I approach her small figure, I notice a glittery, lime-green toy skeleton hanging from her bedside lamp, glinting from the moonlight coming in through the wet window. Seriously?

She turns. “Oh, hello darlin'. I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow.”

She catches my fixed gaze on the skeleton and says, “Oh, a nurse gave me that. She meant well.”

Sensing my impulse to rip it down: “Just leave it. It doesn’t bother me.” But it bothers me.

Putting on a smile, I lean down and kiss her cheek. “You can do this,” I tell myself.

“So good to see you, Mum. Can you believe this rain?”

Thursday. I wake to the sound of pelting rain. I dreamt she died. Not quite yet.

I cringe at the life-size plastic rats and angry pumpkins adorning the motel lobby. I’ll skip breakfast.

Back at the hospital, things are even more disturbing today. Medical staff in outlandish and morbid costumes are going about their workday. My mother is going to die less than 24 hours from now. This is not a celebration, people!

I line up for coffee behind someone in a white coat. He turns, revealing dripping red makeup and a rubber severed hand pinned to the lapel. I flinch.

“I’m a doctor bleeding to death,” he grins. I’ll skip coffee.

I stand frozen outside her room, steadying myself.

I enter. Breathe.

“Oh Mum, look who’s here,” my sister chirps, then goes on to share a few reminders with me about afternoon meds. It’s my shift now.

“See you tomorrow,” she says to us, as she kisses my mother’s forehead.

Mum appears to have shrunk since last night. This is really happening. She is disappearing.

As our last day together floats toward dusk, Mum sleeps, wakes, sleeps.

While she dozes, I sneak a picture of our hands. They match.

When she wakes, I ask her about music. She chooses Pachelbel Canon in D Major, the same lullaby we used to put my baby girls to sleep. She remembers.

Dinner arrives. With a chuckle, she delivers the line she’s clearly been silently rehearsing, “The proverbial last supper, hmm?” Very funny, Mum.

I tuck her in. Love you forever.

Her eyes are closed.

Fighting back tears, I blurt, “Are we okay? Is this really okay, Mum?”

“Yes, dear.”

“You’ll send me a sign that you’re okay, won’t you?”

“Yes, dear.”

Twelve more hours to go. It’s still raining. Will it ever stop?

Friday. MAID day. Mayday, Mayday. Mum would find that funny.

As I enter the room for the last time, I see she is covered in the colourful quilt I made her from remnants of our joint sewing projects over the years. I loved those times. Thank you, Mum.

As planned, we call Vancouver. Waves of tears flow back and forth across the country.

“I love you Gramma.”

“I love you, too.”

“I’ll miss you Gramma.”

“I’ll miss you, too.” Please don’t leave us. It’s too soon.

It’s time.

Nausea rising. Swallow.

Two doctors arrive: one to administer, one to record. No one to revive.

I stand facing her at the foot of the bed. My sister is at her side.

I press play and the music swirls into a symphony of grief.

Only the patient can give the cue to begin the sequence of injections.

So, we wait. Silence. Is she asleep? Maybe she changed her mind?

“Okay,” she says softly, eyes closed. “I’m ready.” But I’m not!

First injection: sedation. Her breath catches, her hand tenses.

“Mum!” I startle everyone. “Open your eyes! You’re not alone.” She blinks.

Second injection: freezing. I feel dizzy. I turn away, no longer able to watch. I lean against the wall with my temple pressing into its cool, painted surface.

Third injection. “She is no longer breathing,” a doctor says. Neither am I.

I lurch out the door before the fourth and final injection. Folding at the knees, flanked by friends, I hear wailing. Who’s that?

Wheezing for air, I implore a nurse to go back in and open her window. Set her free. Set us all free.

I drive out of the hospital parking lot one last time. The rain has stopped.

I turn on the radio. Adele’s voice croons: “Hello from the other side…

Goosebumps. Good one, Mum.

I exhale and resist the urge to check the rearview mirror.

Nikita A. Crook lives in West Vancouver.

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