Returning Home, Changed
Back in Boston after two weeks that seem like time on a different planet. Many of you have been through this already. And thank you so much for all your kind words and notes of support. I’m deeply grateful for feeling so accompanied through the strangeness of loss and grief and change. You have shared your own and made me feel a natural part of a much larger dance of life. The physicality of death, the emotionality of families, the hole in the ground and in your heart, the voice in your head that channels the departed (loudly in my case). It’s all part of the whole.
Two weeks ago, I got on a plane to visit my mother at home in Toronto. Two weeks later, I leave the city with my mother dead and buried, executors trawling her accounts and papers, and the house a topsy-turvy mess. My brother and I have been going over her effects for memories and family distribution. We live in other countries, so don’t have the luxury to leave all this for a later, more digested time. What a sudden, mind-boggling shift in what seems like the blink of an eye.
I’m used to a lot of change, and even, usually, enjoy it. But this is a lot – even for me. Although it’s not like we weren’t prepared.
My mother had announced her intentions at the beginning of the summer. Canadian law (since 2016) supported her wise, 97-year-old’s decision to call it a day. She got to 96 living independently, in my childhood home, with just some daily support getting up in the morning. But an accident last October led to seven (!) months in the hospital, the eventual flunking out of palliative care (ever the survivor), and a return home in conditions that dismayed her. She was immobile and entirely dependent on 24-hour care - and in near constant pain. She thought it inhuman. Enough was enough. Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) is something my mother lobbied for for decades, through her support of an association called Dying With Dignity.
She was also, before the passage of the Canadian law, a member of Switzerland’s Dignitas, the only option for those who opt to die on their own terms in countries that don’t yet allow a choice of exit. We went there years ago, when she was first hit by a debilitating case of spinal stenosis. At the time, she got the prescription that assured her a ticket out if - and when - she needed it. Most people who visit Dignitas don’t actually use it to end their lives, but they are comforted by the control of the end it offers them. Having control of the end of her life, as she’d had control of much of her life, was absolutely essential to her. She knew what loss of control could mean.
Canada is not alone, the number of countries offering some kind of assisted dying is rising fast. Some form of help in dying is now legal in 18 jurisdictions. Over 200 million people now have access to euthanasia and/ or physician-assisted suicide (PAS). New legislation is being crafted or considered in Portugal (where Parliament has voted three times to support it), Spain and 16 US states. Germany overturned a ban on assisted dying services and New Zealand was the latest to legalise euthanasia, with effect in 2021. I’ll be writing more about this soon. It’s an essential piece of managing Q4, what a friend calls ‘a wise demise.’
Having seen assisted dying in action, up close and personal, I can only conclude that this will also be my own choice. I just hope I live somewhere that allows it. That may become a criteria of choosing where to move in Q4.
My mother’s end was about as peaceful, serene and meaningful as anything she (or I) could have hoped. She spent the summer in the sun of her back porch, receiving friends and family, and watching the birds and squirrels and raccoons in endless fascination (not shared by most of her guests). A delicious last dinner with the whole family gathered and a menu carefully curated with my mother. A fresh side of salmon, the snap peas she adored, the Greek-lemon potatoes my daughter lovingly made, the green salad that was de rigueur after every meal in her house (and mine), and the tarte au citron my sister-in-law baked. And, since she didn’t have to worry anymore about interference with her drugs, she coiffed a glass of the Italian Moscato she was once partial to. We all raised a glass with the Jewish salutation ‘L’chaim’ that I had heard all my life. “To life.”
Part of Jewish (and Muslim) culture is a (very) rapid burial. So my mother was buried the day after she died with a simple funeral on a sunny Monday afternoon - the same day as the British Queen. The contrasts between the two funerals of these two women of almost the same age were part of the joy and meaning of the occasion. A simple pine coffin with no adornments or flowers. Jews like to confront death as it is – not dressed up or beautified. Lovely eulogies and memories from a small handful of her loved ones. A wonderful young rabbi who reminded us that Moses had resisted the call to lead the Jews out of Egypt by arguing that he was no leader – and not as strong as the mothers who had borne children. An appropriate nod to my mother’s astonishing courage and resilience. A ritual sprinkling of earth on the coffin, lowered into its place, reserved for her next to my father, who has been patiently awaiting her… for 57 years.
And here ends the story of a life.
But not really. As my brother and I, with our spouses and kids start opening drawers and photo albums, generations of ancestors come tumbling out. The basement is full of my father’s extraordinarily prolific writing and publications and letters on math, and education and philosophy. Much has been gifted and donated to York University, where he taught, but more keeps emerging from the entrails of this seemingly bottomless basement. There is a vast, rarely-opened chest full of European linens and lace from another world, another era. Photos and letters from grand-parents and colleagues and friends – in French, English and German. And some strange Cyrillic lettering we can’t fathom, probably from the Russian side of the family. Opening each new box feels like unlocking a flurry of undocumented, often forgotten spirits, demanding to be seen.
Echoes, legacies, love, legacy - and trauma. Books, a houseful of them. And documents that echo European history (and reverberate with what’s happening today). Safe passage for my father in 1942 from Germany to Switzerland. My mother’s registration and proof of birth with the German authorities in 1939, stamped with the ominous German eagle and the darkness to come. Photos of grandparents we never knew, uncles we never met, aunts who were later estranged. And a chillingly precise list of all the Nazi Camps (Auschwitz, Bergen Belsen, Theresienstadt) and the date my mother had been forced through each of them in a document requesting a US visa (which she was denied). A job application from my father with an astonishingly long bibliography for someone who died at cruelly young, at 36.
I’ve missed a couple of weeks of my Harvard classes on ‘The Meaning of Life,’ and ‘Dying Well.’ But I feel like I’ve been given an accelerated master class. The family, my kids and all our friends now have a roadmap for exiting gracefully and meaningfully. It shows my children how I would like to end, in my time. And shows us a country that manages death eyes - and heart - wide open.
I share this tale because it is still rather taboo. It’s time to normalise and embrace death as an intrinsic and meaning-making part of life. This includes the freedom to choose where you place the final period to your narrative.
There is much for all of us to learn in my mother’s modelling of life and death. I certainly have. Tonight is the Jewish New Year (currently 5782), where candles are lit. Mine are ready, in the window. My mother’s light shines on. Happy New Year!
Elderberries is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.