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It Happened to Me

The great Canadian bake-off

Struck by a desire to give thanks to her medical team, Janet Dunnett's mother enlisted her help to make almost 600 cookies

When my mother told me, "I want to make some Christmas cookies," it was a bit of a shock. I knew what her idea of cookie making involved – she cooked for a family of seven children, and everything was always made in huge batches – but she no longer had the strength to stir and she couldn't sit for very long.

My mother had what doctors would call multiple chronic complex conditions. They call it the new way of dying, actually. You get diabetes, and then you can't breathe so well, and then your heart isn't so great. They think you have lung cancer, and you have what's called spinal stenosis, where your spinal canal narrows and your spine just starts to collapse on itself. It's excruciating, and living with that chronic pain creates all sorts of new issues. She also had macular degeneration in both eyes, so she was virtually blind.

But she was adamant that baking cookies was what she wanted to do. It was something that my mother had always loved doing. So I got out all the old cookbooks she had, and it was easy to see which cookies we were going to bake because they were the ones on all the greasy pages.

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Pretty soon, we had this long list: the peanut-butter cookies that we, as little kids, would squish with a fork, all the sorts of cookies we'd cut out with cups because we didn't have star-shaped cookie cutters then, and the rum balls that my little brother loved the most.

She then said, "You know, I want to make a dozen cookies for everyone helping me." And that's when the project became more grandiose. There were the different doctors, the various specialists for her eyes, or her cancer or her lungs. Then there were the many care providers, from nurses to the people who delivered lunch. Then there were all the people who cut her hair or took care of her feet and toenails.

In the end, we were going to be making 49 dozen cookies. That's nearly 600 cookies.

When you're making that many cookies, you're filling the car with the ingredients several times over, and filling the apartment. It was almost a cottage industry, like a little business. As each batch came out of the oven, mom would get into her wheelchair and be pushed into the kitchen to maybe put some sprinkles on. Every time she did, all the memories came back to her, all the smells of the baking. She was in utter joy.

This went on for two weeks. We cleared out all the cookie tins in several dollar stores.

It was her job to say who would get what. She couldn't see, but she could dictate a little note saying thank you to all of them and she could hold a pen to do a little squiggle that was her signature.

Gradually, all these cookies were sorted into tins and stacked all over the apartment. In the end, my twin sister, Judi, and I went out to deliver them all. That took several days. It was probably the best Christmas we'd had with her all our adult lives.

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This interview has been edited and condensed.

As told to Wency Leung.

Janet Dunnett is the author of The Dwindling: A Daughter's Caregiving Journey to the Edge of Life, published earlier this year. She lives in Qualicum Beach, B.C.

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