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“What would you want for your last meal if you were healthy enough to enjoy it?” It was a question I’d thrown out on occasion, always curious to hear the response. “I’d want lobster,” my husband declared. My daughter asked for food from our local vegetarian restaurant. My son voted for poutine. I said I’d want mountains of berries and cream. When I asked my mother, she said “I have no idea,” as if it was the strangest notion in the world. But then we’d always known that while she appreciated good food, her true nourishment came from rich conversation.
At 94 and widowed for nine years, my mother – a staunch feminist, retired social worker and women’s studies professor – was still sharp, feisty and engaged with the world. But she was increasingly frail and weary with escalating mobility challenges. She had constant pain from osteoarthritis. Debilitating tremors in her hands made it hard for her to eat and almost impossible to write, probably her greatest loss. She was terrified of what lay ahead for her, haunted by the prospect of being banished to the dreaded second floor of her retirement home where those with memory loss or needing more care were relegated.
Last summer, my mom decided she’d lived long enough. It wasn’t a surprise to any of us who knew her well. A long-time supporter of Dying with Dignity, she had championed the Sue Rodriguez case and later the 2016 Supreme Court decision. But this was different, a sharp turn from the theoretical to the personal when she asked my sister and me to look into medical assistance in dying. Her impending death became a looming reality after two wise, compassionate doctors approved her request at the end of the summer. There were many of us who would mourn the loss of our passionate, complicated, wonderful mom, grandmother, great-grandmother and friend.
If it had been up to my mom, she would have proceeded then and there, but we asked for more time. We supported her, but we also needed time to get used to the idea that we were going to lose her. Thankfully, she agreed, but “not for too long.” She’d stick around for her birthday in October, but would want to go soon after that. Determined not to live through another winter, she was keenly aware she could lose her approval if anything happened to compromise her mental competence, such as a stroke or a bad fall. We checked the doctor’s availability and set the date for Oct. 24.
The next few weeks were a whirlwind of colliding emotions. I had many poignant moments with mom, sitting on a park bench, sharing a meal, reminiscing. My sister and I took her to see the play Shirley Valentine in September and celebrated her 95th birthday at a favourite spa.
We were cutting to the chase in new ways. Not that we’d ever been prone to small talk, but our conversations plumbed new depths. It was the same for the heartfelt connections with the family members and friends who came to visit, or phoned and wrote letters. It took a while, but I came to accept that my mom’s decision was a life-affirming one: She had lived a long, rich life and had no wish to lose any more capacity than she already had. But I was also consumed with pregrieving angst as I tried to imagine my life without her.
My mom didn’t want to die at her retirement residence or in hospital. My husband and I had already agreed before she asked if it could be at our house. I asked what she’d want for her last night: who did she want to be there, what did she want to happen, what did she want for her last meal? She didn’t know.
We were in anxious countdown mode as the weeks became days. Soon, we’d be counting the hours. But my mom was unwavering and upbeat. She hadn’t anticipated the outpouring of love and affection and was revelling in it. She had often complained about the food at her residence, but was starting to sound more positive: “I’m not stuck here now!” she’d say.
My mom, sister and I went out for supper two days beforehand. We enjoyed our meal and laughed a lot. It occurred to me that even though my mom was going to die two days later, she wasn’t “dying.” She was well enough to go out to a restaurant and have a good time, something most dying people can’t do.
Then it was time. My mom would come to my house the afternoon before the appointed day, have supper and sleep over. The doctor and nurse would arrive the next morning.
The three grandchildren were there when she arrived along with my sister, husband and me. I threw together some leftovers: baked chicken, lentils and rice, salad, berries for dessert. The conversation was rich and meaningful. Everyone was fully present: listening intently, sharing the air time, no one interrupting. My mom said she loved the food. Later, the grandkids read her letters they had written before helping her slowly climb the stairs to bed.
The next morning, my sister and I sat with my mom, holding her hands as she lay on the bed. The doctor was in the next room – she’d told us to take all the time we wanted. My mom told us she loved us and that although she’d railed against the institution of motherhood, she’d loved being our mom. She was ready. She died peacefully surrounded by much love.
Maybe in the end it doesn’t matter what we eat for our last supper. Maybe what matters is that the people we love are there with us. And that we go in peace.
Tamara Levine lives in Ottawa.