This First Person column was written by Gordon Gibb, who lives in Peterborough, Ont. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
When Naomi revealed to the family that she was pursuing a medically assisted death, my first thoughts were how my wife would feel. Sherrie and her mother were close, and Naomi’s prognosis was dire. Her brain tumour was entwined around her carotid artery — akin to a ticking time bomb.
Difficult as it was to accept, we both understood why Naomi was choosing the Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) program.
Naomi set her date for Jan 31. As for me, I prepared to be supportive in any way I could toward my wife and family.
What I wasn’t prepared for was my own reaction to the reality of losing her.
This went completely against the patently ill-advised stereotype by which people often view their mothers-in-law — everyone from Ralph Kramden to Fred Flintstone bemoaned even a phone call from Alice’s or Wilma’s mother.
In contrast, I liked my mother-in-law — even when she had to set me straight on occasion. Tough, but fair, she saw the path forward well before the rest of us had any inkling about the need to be somewhere. She was always positive, generous to a fault, and totally engaged in the comings, goings and events of a large, and extended family.
In 2000, Naomi was diagnosed with a non-cancerous tumour taking up residency in her brain. Surgery followed, and the doctors managed to extract most, but not all of a mass that impacted her optic nerve. For 23 years she endured eye patches, specially-fitted glasses and further eye surgeries while the tumour itself, mercifully, remained dormant.
And then, last year, it went rogue.
Suddenly, there was a runway looming and a departure date in the books as we began to assist Naomi in doing what Naomi does — looking after things and teaching my father-in-law how to cook and do laundry for when Naomi wasn’t around any longer.
Meanwhile, I was in a quiet state of panic. Did Naomi know how much she meant to us? Did she know how much her life mattered? Did she know how much — how painfully — we would miss her?
The departed never get to hear the eulogy, I thought.
So on a rainy morning up at our cabin, I composed one in the form of a letter to her. I wanted her to know. I needed her to know. As I read it to her, I could see she was touched. And I was relieved — not that my recitation was over, but that it was delivered to her while she was still among us. That settled me down a bit, and I went back to undertaking whatever support I could be for Sherrie, and the rest of the family.
As much as I loved my mom-in-law, I respected her even more for her grace under pressure, and for her courage. Once she had made the decision to control her own narrative, she decided to approach death as she did her life — ensuring nothing was left unattended and that no one was left wanting. She was my teacher.
Her considered and careful response to her own plight not only taught me not to fear death, but also how to live. That, and the wisdom of affording ample opportunity for goodbyes.
This wasn’t about our sorrow at losing her. Rather, this was about her triumph in punching her own ticket, and choosing her path.
This path also led her to write her own obituary, which doubled as an invite to a celebration of life hosted by Naomi herself in her home near Fenelon Falls, Ont., the day before she died. And no one had a better time than Naomi herself, walking amongst her smiling guests wearing a glittering halo headdress left over from Halloween.
“I want the devil to know what team I want to be on,” she said, to chuckles all around.
WATCH | Gordon Gibb’s mother-in-law hosted her own celebration of life
On the day of the procedure that would end her life, she was up early writing thank-you cards, before getting on with her daily routine.
“What’s she doing?” I asked.
“Laundry,” came Sherrie’s reply.
Her mom could not bring herself to leave a needed chore unfinished.
Laundry done, she disappeared to have one last soak in the bath. By the time she emerged in a new nightdress festooned with red cardinals, she was beaming.
The tumour — the one thing Naomi couldn’t influence — hadn’t won the day. She had.
Minutes later, in her own bed and hooked to an IV, Naomi embraced every member of the gathered family individually. The saying “I’m not crying, you’re crying” comes to mind. But it was Naomi serving as the strong one in the room, consoling us with individual words of encouragement. When it was my turn, I longed to offer some comfort, to assure her that we were all going to be OK.
“You have taught us so much,” I said, through tears splashing onto the inside lens of my glasses. “And we’re all going to take very good care of each other.” That brought a smile, one of many in those last moments.
Naomi, the caregiver, was moving on. The job of looking after one another was in our hands now.
Before she slipped away, not in sorrow but in victory, Naomi promised to try and send a sign that she had “made it across” — that her passage had gone well.
And the next morning, while we were gazing at the undisturbed snow pack in the backyard of my in-law’s home, six cardinals flew in and landed on the tree closest to the patio doors. Ignoring the well-stocked bird feeder, they remained at their perch for probably 20 minutes, their red feathers magnificent in the morning sun. Then, in an instant, they were gone.
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(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by PostX News and is published from a syndicated feed.)