With the right to bodily autonomy at risk for Americans with uteruses, and Canadian Conservatives speaking at anti-abortion rallies, I’ve been spending a lot of time reflecting on the power of choice.
When a trip to the ER in October 2017 revealed that Gabe had a pancreatic tumour, we had many uncomfortable but necessary conversations—as spouses, as patient-caregiver, and as two human beings facing the unfathomable. As his power of attorney and proxy for his values should he lose his ability to voice them, I knew that if this turned out to be cancer and metastasized, he would exercise his right to die through Canada’s Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) Program. This right, granted to Canadians with terminal and degenerative illnesses, had only become federal law in June 2016.
As Gabe’s power of attorney, I needed to be clear on his wishes. As his wife, I didn’t want to think about losing him that way. It’s one thing to believe in something intellectually. It’s another thing to live it. The idea of witnessing my partner choosing to end his life was unthinkable to me.
After two negative biopsies in Canada and the US, we headed to Europe in search of a definitive diagnosis and a shot at curative treatment and surgery. On the flight to Paris, I unwittingly chose to watch Me Before You, a film about an optimistic caregiver who forms an unlikely bond with the cynical paralyzed man in her care. Near the film’s end, the man decides to pursue medical assistance in dying in a Swiss clinic. As I watched a parade of emotions flit across actress Emilia Clarke’s expressive face, it poked holes in me that bled as freely as the tears that streamed down my face. I’d felt every one of them myself: Fear. Resistance. Grief. Disbelief. Resolve. Love. Raw pain.
Over the ensuing months, I was consumed by these emotions several times over as I watched my husband’s face contort in sickness and pain, and his life force waste away with his body.
When we returned to Canada, I knew it was time for me to pose the single most conflicting question I ever have: Would you like me to get the paperwork started so you can pursue your right to die? He turned to me, and the look on his face as he spoke these words seared into my memory like a brand on cowhide: “Thank you, Amanda. It’s time to let me go.”
I knew it was. I knew. I saw on his face what I’d been waiting to see since the day our lives changed: Peace and acceptance.
When I asked him what day he wanted to claim as his, his eyes pierced mine with an intensity I hadn’t seen in months: “The Americans aren’t about freedom anymore, so I’m taking their day. July 4 will be my Independence Day.” It was so quintessentially Gabe. Incisively witty, laced with dark humour. The shocked laugh that bubbled up my throat was cut off by a sob.
I watched his spirit flood back into his impossibly frail body with the force of a tsunami. In exercising his autonomy over his own body and life, Gabe reclaimed his personal power.
I accepted his choice. That he would die. That it was time. My exterior radiated the calm that everyone around me seemed to need, but a violent protest raged inside me. I didn’t want this. It wasn’t my choice, and I’d need to live with it.
Knowing the date and time someone you love will die is a mind fuck of epic proportions. An unwelcome prescience. I started measuring time in milliseconds and life in micro-moments. And yet—those seconds and moments gave me, Gabe’s family, and an expansive group of friends from all over the world an opportunity to tell him how much he’d changed and influenced our lives. To show him how deeply he was loved.
People camped out at our house for days, taking turns caring for him and spending time alone with him. On the day of his assisted death, 30 of his closest friends and family gathered to send him off on his biggest travel adventure into the afterlife. We gave him a living wake and he gave us all a few last pieces of life advice:
With his head cradled in my lap, the nurse asked Gabe for his consent to end his life. He surprised me by gripping the back of my neck with unexpected strength and pulled my face down to his to deliver one last, passionate kiss. It burned on my lips and infused my body with warmth and love as he died with a smile on his face.
The power of choice.
Happy Independence Day, Gabe.
Amanda Burgess is a Toronto-based writer who specializes in slice-of-life content that women over 40 can see themselves in and be inspired by. With over 22 years of journalism, PR, branding and advertising experience, she’s a seasoned storyteller who helps clients craft stories and campaigns that move people. She is co-founder of the Sharyn Mandel School in Gobele, Ethiopia, along with her late husband and his family. Looking to be the change she wants to see in the world, she is also a Certified Cancer Journey Coach who creates a safe space for cancer patients and caregivers to design their dream lives—while living with cancer, and on the other side.
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