I respected my grandma's choice of MAiD, but didn't know how to prepare for her passing
So I turned to pop culture for comfort
This First Person piece is written by Nellwyn Lampert, who lives in Toronto. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
In memory, my living room is chiaroscuro; in reality, the sun had only just set when I started watching the clock, waiting for it to strike 5 p.m. My husband stood under a pool of light at our kitchen island, opening a good bottle of red wine. I looked out the window at a cloudy November sky and remembered something my grandmother told me when I was four or five, and already self-conscious of my appearance: "A face with freckles is like a sky full of stars."
There likely wouldn't be any stars that evening, but the sunset had been glorious. I checked the clock again. It was behaving predictably. My husband placed two glasses of wine on the coffee table, and we left them untouched as I talked about my grandmother. She was at Toronto Western Hospital with my father, where she would receive Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) at 5 p.m.
We held a moment of silence when the time came, then picked up our untouched wine glasses and said a few words in her honour. I looked at the clock again; we were scheduled to gather with my family at 6:30pm, after my father had returned from the hospital.
It was 5:03 p.m. Suddenly, I was adrift, facing an impossibly long 87 minutes, and found myself reaching for the TV remote. I turned on The Lord of the Rings. It wasn't something I planned to do, but in that moment, I knew I would find comfort in Gandalf's wisdom on life and death. Even so, I felt silly, and a little ashamed.
I was afraid that popular culture — a fairy tale with wizards and dragons and elves — wasn't meaningful or serious enough for the moment. I have lost four grandparents, and I have known when each of them was going to die. When the first two passed away in 2012, the timelines from doctors were both vague and specific, but always short. I learned about bedside vigils and sleeping in hospital waiting rooms and eating bags of cheese curds for breakfast. I was privileged to be with both of them when they passed, surrounded by family singing favourite songs and telling old stories to carry them gently away.
MAiD offers many people some comfort during grief not only because it gives a loved one dignity and agency, but also because it gives them some control over time. Family and friends can gather, can create rituals, and find meaning at the end of a life. But my grandmother did not want anyone except my father, her only child, to witness her passing. She wanted to be remembered as she had been in life: strong and independent. I admired those qualities in her, and knew she could not be dissuaded. There was no bedside vigil, and she is certainly not the only MAiD recipient to make that choice.
She and I came from different worlds. She was born in Poland between the two world wars, a Holocaust survivor and an immigrant single mother who rebuilt a beautiful life for herself as a professional artist in Canada. We bonded over our shared love of art and literature — a love she helped me develop from a young age. She never criticized or dismissed my drawings and stories, though in other areas my grandmother always made her thoughts and desires explicitly clear. I often privately disagreed, and infrequently did what she thought I should, but in her final weeks all I could do was honour her wishes.
It wasn't easy.
The doctors told us my grandmother would die that Tuesday at 5 p.m. In our increasingly secular society, we are left with no frameworks or guidelines for how to mourn and honour, and MAiD's certain timeline disconcerted me. I come from a family of storytellers, and our past experiences of loss have taught us the power of simply being together and sharing our memories. Our family made plans to gather later that Tuesday evening to do just that. I took comfort in this plan, but I still felt lost.
Rituals anchor us in these moments, but I am still learning how to create meaningful experiences and find wisdom in life's mysteries as a secular person. It's hard to explain the perfect alchemy of The Lord of the Rings on that evening. The not-so-subtle themes of a life well-lived, of doing the right thing — values my grandmother shared. The comfort of a familiar story, the connection to millions of people who have found something worthwhile in the same story for nearly 70 years.
For a long time, I wasn't sure how I felt about my apparent inability to give that 87 minutes more gravitas. But now I think about an old family story from a different time — about spaghetti and getting tomato sauce all over an important businessman's fancy suit. It was my grandfather's favourite; one he loved to tell us over and over again, one we re-told as he lay dying, and we continue to tell it a decade later to remember him.
I'm still processing the strange realities of MAiD and am still exploring how to find the sacred in the secular, but I'm starting to think it might have something to do with wizards, and spaghetti, and gathering to tell stories.
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