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first person

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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

“You make the decision,” dad says to me after the emergency doctor reports: “Your mom is a very sick woman.” We are standing in the hallway and the doctor’s face is contorted into that semblance of professional grief meant to assure me there is nothing left they can do.

“There is nothing more we should do,” she says. “But that must be your decision. It’s up to you of course,” she reiterates.

The previous morning, lying in the hospital bed, mom asked, “Is this what dying feels like?” and I turned my head to look out the dirt-streaked window at the cars racing down the main drag in downtown Edmonton.

I say to my sister and dad, “I don’t want her dying while cut open on an operating table,” and they solemnly nod while agreeing, “No, we don’t want that.”

“It should be up to all of us, but yes, Rayanne will be the spokesperson,” my family says. And I agree. Asking dad to make that decision is out of the question. My sister is already too fragile because of her divorce. My brother, mom’s baby, cannot take on something like this – saying the words to let mom go and then holding firm. It would be too much to ask of any of them. And, we agree, I am the strongest about these kinds of things.

“We agree to no extraordinary measures,” I say to the doctor outside in the hallway, where mom can’t hear.

The doctors tell us that even though she is mostly asleep, she can still hear. When lucid, mom still asks for popsicles and ice cream. By talking in the hallway my family doesn’t have to acknowledge the decision. It lets them remain neutral. They do not have to say the words. I wonder later, still, if they hold me accountable for mom’s death.

In the dark, I hold myself accountable.

I need to see a counsellor, I know this. For 10 days, I watched my mother die. And now I’m writing about it. Sometimes, I think I am perverse, with this need to write about it all.

When you watch someone die, you spend a lot of time talking about all the wonderful things they meant to you. All the beautiful ways they touched your life. You listen to your aunt tell childhood stories about how they tortured their younger brother and rebelled against their stepmother and how your mother always wanted to marry a farmer. How when mom found out dad was a horseman, she made him her choice. You talk about the pile of stuffed animals she still has next to her bed because she refused to let that childlike part of her go.

You do not talk about the ways she frustrated you or how terrified you are of what comes next. You do all of this because you must do something to stay sane while syringing water down her throat.

Outside of mom’s room, my sister says, “I don’t understand,” for the 50th time that week and I want to punch her in the face. What doesn’t she understand – that cancer kills? “Are you sure they need to give her such a heavy dose of painkiller?” my aunt asks within mom’s earshot for the 10th time that week.

And I say, for the 10th time that week, “Yes, they do. We don’t want her suffering.” There is anger in that room, mixed with grief and disbelief.

When my brother arrives with a Tim Hortons Iced Cap, we spread the liquid over mom’s lips with our fingers and she opens her eyes. When we ask, “Do you want more?” she nods and whispers, “more,” and we all laugh. When I say, after the 10th spoonful, “maybe that’s enough,” mom squints her eyes into a glare and cocks her finger like a gun, and we all laugh again. We know this will be a memory we share over and over after she is gone, to highlight how funny and strong our mom was. We’ll add it to the stories to be told at her celebration of life. I keep a notebook with me, while in the room watching her die, so I can write the stories down. “You’ll deliver the eulogy,” my family says. And I agree because I’m a writer and performer and will be the best at this kind of thing.

But I keep thinking, did she point the gun at me because I said, “no extraordinary measures?”

Ten years ago, I gave my mom a cutting from my Christmas cactus. Her cutting grew and grew and grew until she had starter plants of her own to share with friends. Every year her cactus bloomed, sometimes twice a year. Mine stopped blooming eight years ago. Mom took perverse pleasure in sending pictures of her plant every time the pink buds popped open. We would chuckle and I would say, “Stop bragging. You’re such a brat.” Eventually, my poor excuse for a cactus weakened so much that I stuffed the final shreds of it in with a spider plant and let happen what would happen. No extraordinary measures. Seven weeks after mom’s death, that tiny shred of a cactus plant bloomed. I walked into my bathroom to see baby pink flowers poking out from underneath the spider plant.

“She will send you signs,” my best friend told me the day mom died. “Make sure you honour them.”

Dad, who is trying to downsize, wants me to inherit the now massive cactus plant I gave mom all those years ago. I’ve decided to place it next to the blooming bits of what remains.

Rayanne Haines lives in Edmonton.