Widowers never seem to write about the logistics of death. Which is understandable, given the emotional torrent involved in having your spouse die.
But the result is that those logistics remain a mystery: a dark threshold of potentially endless complexity looming at the end of a fraught hallway.
Herein is my attempt to mitigate some of that.
Provincial Palliative Care Centre
Catherine knew that her cancer was incurable from the get-go, so she had five years to live with that fact. She used her time well, and she didn’t beat around the bush about preparing as much as she could for the end of her life. As part of that she visited the Provincial Palliative Care Centre the year after she was diagnosed, and she decided that’s where she wanted to die when the time came.
On December 29, 2019, Catherine woke up confused, hallucinating and shaking; she called Palliative Home Care and the on-call nurse came quickly and, after consulting with a doctor, suspected that Catherine was dealing with the effects of morphine toxicity from her pain medication. She called 911 and paramedics arrived after only a few minutes, and agreed to transport Catherine to the ER at Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Catherine remained in the ER overnight.
It became clear to me, and ultimately to her, that she couldn’t reasonably expect to return home. While she was still in the emergency room, she had a visit with Dr. Lecours, one of the palliative care physicians, and Dr. Lecours started the wheels in motion to allow Catherine to move to the Palliative Care Centre; there weren’t any beds available immediately, so Catherine was admitted to ward one at the hospital for a few nights.
On New Year’s Eve, Oliver and I toured the Palliative Care Centre so that we’d know what to expect when Catherine moved there; we should have done this earlier, as it provided enormous comfort to see what a wonderful, welcoming place it is, and to meet the staff.
On New Year’s Day 2020 a bed became available in the Palliative Care Centre and Catherine was transported there by ambulance.
Over the next 24 hours, the effects of morphine toxicity started to lessen, and Catherine started to emerge from her fog. From then until January 13, while she was tired and increasingly frail, and sleeping through much of the day, she had times of the day when she was alert and communicative, and we got to spend a lot of time with her.
The Palliative Care Centre truly is a wonderful place: it is calm, as un-hospital-like as its functions allow, and while the primary focus is on the person in palliative care, the practical and emotional needs of their family are also afforded much attention.
It was rare that either Catherine’s mother Marina or I were not at her side while she was in Palliative Care, and for the last week of her life I stayed overnight with Catherine in her room, first on a cot and then, for the last three nights, on a recliner beside her bed. I was provided with meals. I had regular opportunities to talk with Dr. Baker, Catherine’s palliative care physician, and got to know almost all of the nurses and volunteers by name.
The services of the Palliative Care Centre are 100% covered by provincial medicare.
On Tuesday, January 14 I came home for the afternoon to have a nap and get some fresh clothes. Midway through my nap I got a call from a nurse at the Palliative Care Centre: something had changed with Catherine, and I should come right away, she said. I hopped in the car and was there in about 8 minutes. When I arrived it was obvious that Catherine’s breathing had changed, and that she was in some distress. Dr. Baker asked if it was okay to administer a sedative to relax her, and I readily agreed.
I sat by Catherine’s side for the next 12 hours, fully believing that she was about to die with every breath.
She did not die.
But she didn’t wake up either, and we never spoke again.
She lived, breathing calmly and with no distress, through Wednesday and Thursday. I didn’t leave Palliative Care, and didn’t leave her room through the evening hours, except for quick runs to the bathroom and shower while the nurses were with her.
On Thursday Oliver spent the day at Palliative Care: they generously set aside the “family room” for him, and set up a DVD player, and Oliver and Mike and Karen and my mother spent the day together, visiting Catherine every few hours, and spending time with Catherine’s mother.
Before supper time everyone else headed home for supper and much-deserved rest. Oliver gave Catherine a big hug before he left (after making sure that I turned off the “bed alarm”–he didn’t want to go to bed alarm prison).
After supper, I started to notice a subtle change in Catherine’s breathing: it was shallower, and slower.
I settled into the recliner at her side for the evening, and continued to read Life’s That Way by Jim Beaver, a gift from my friend Derek, that I’d started earlier in the week.
At 9:20 p.m., after stirring a little, and almost opening her eyes, Catherine simply stopped breathing.
I called a nurse, and she came in to confirm that Catherine had died, and stayed with me for a few moments. I asked if I could spend some time with Catherine alone, and she readily agreed.
I texted my brother Mike, let Catherine’s mother know, and then sat at Catherine’s side, holding her hand.
None of this was anything like I expected it to be. I cannot do the emotional or spiritual aspects of living through it justice in words; it will remain the singular experience of my life, being at her side when she was alive, and then, a moment later, wasn’t.
Catherine was cremated, at her request. She had some discomfort with the idea related to the environmental consequences of cremation itself, but she didn’t want to be buried, and so cremation was the best of the worst options available.
We didn’t start to make any practical arrangements for what would happen when she died until last fall, when I sent a tentative email of inquiry to Hillsboro Funeral Co-op in Stratford, selected because of its cooperative nature and its proximity; once Catherine moved to the Palliative Care Centre, I made an appointment to go to speak with Shawn MacLean, the General Manager, and we came up with a plan for the minimalist arrangements that Catherine wanted. Shawn was extremely accommodating and willing to provide exactly the services we needed and nothing more.
I left that meeting without a formal “pre-arrangement,” but having purchased a $50 co-op membership, which entitled us to 5% off the cost of cremation, and with a sketch of what would happen next: when Catherine died, the Palliative Care Centre would call Shawn, he would pick up Catherine’s body, transport it to Kensington for cremation, and return her remains to us. Shawn would also, at my option, arrange for a death notice in The Guardian.
And that’s pretty well exactly how things happened: Catherine died at 9:20 p.m. on Thursday, January 16, 2020; Oliver my brother Mike, sister-in-law Karen, and my mother arrived shortly thereafter and we spent about an hour with her. Palliative Care called Shawn, and he came that night after we left. Catherine was cremated on Saturday, January 18, 2020, and Shawn, driving through a blizzard, picked up her remains the next day and, on Monday, transferred them into the lovely urn that our friend BJ and Catherine’s mother constructed.
Catherine’s remains are sitting beside me as I write this; a plan is emerging to spread them this fall, extending from a question Oliver asked Catherine about what her favourite month was (“October,” was her answer).
The cost of the cremation was $3377.25.
A couple of years ago I started to read the deaths in The Guardian every day, ascending therein to a new level of neo-Islanderhood. This meant that I was well-familiar with the form. I started to write Catherine’s death notice while she was still alive, though I didn’t tell anyone else that I was doing this, in part because there remains a strong chord of “talking about death brings it on” in our culture. I’m glad that I did this: it meant that I didn’t have to write it in the overwhelming hours after she died; and it gave me a chance to get the details–spelling, birth order of nieces and nephews, etc.–correct.
While I could have submitted the notice to The Guardian myself, Hillsboro Funeral Co-op handles this at no additional cost, so I had them do it. They made a couple of stylistic suggestions, but it ran essentially as I wrote it. It went online on Friday, January 17 and ran in the newspaper on Saturday, January 18.
I’m something of a student of death notice photos, and this is something that Catherine and I never talked about, so I was on my own. While I had a few photos picked out, and one that seemed to be the best, BJ helpfully provided the one that I ended up using:
It was the perfect photo.
The cost of the death notice in The Guardian was $238.20.
Celebration of Life
While Catherine had made arrangements to have a memorial event to mark her death held at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, directly across the street from our house, we’d never really talked about the particulars of it in any great detail. We got a bit of a chance to do this when she was in the Palliative Care Centre, and everything else I had to make up as we went along.
On January 4, 2020 I had a meeting in Archdeacon John Clarke’s office in the Parish Hall to speak with him about what our options were, and to sketch out Catherine’s wishes for a “non-religious” event. John turned out to be the perfect person to talk to, not only for his flexibility in helping to fulfill Catherine’s wishes, but for the conversation and counsel he offered; on that day I needed to talk to a calm, reassuring presence, and John gave me the gift of that.
Catherine’s original plan for the event, given its secular nature, was for it to be held in the Parish Hall. John held open the option of using the church proper as an alternative, something that I don’t think ever occurred to Catherine, not necessarily for reasons of faith as much for reasons of “fuss.”
After talking with John, and with Catherine’s mother, and getting a sense of the number of people who might attend, I decided the church would, in fact, be the right place, and that’s how we proceeded.
Catherine died on Thursday; her Uncle and Aunt were set to arrive from Ontario on Saturday, my brother Johnny was set to arrive from California late on Sunday, and so Monday became the day for the celebration of Catherine’s life. The time was set for 11:00 a.m. because, apparently, while other churches use 10:00 a.m., events at St. Paul’s are, for reasons only of conventional wisdom in the funeral community, held at 11:00 a.m.
Earlier in January, after meeting with John, I’d gotten in touch with Robert Pendergast about catering the celebration, as Catherine wanted there to be food; it’s not an easy task, the “I’d like you to cater an event for an undetermined number of people on an undetermined date,” but Robert gamely agreed.
I’d also started to put out feelers about the music that might be part of the celebration: Peter Bevan-Baker generously arranged to make Dougie MacLean’s Caledonia happen, and recruited Michael Pendergast; Tony Reddin reached out to Oliver with an offer to play, and Oliver suggested Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell as one of Catherine’s favourite songs, and Tony agreed; and Roy Johnstone readily agreed, at the last minute, to finish the celebration with Niel Gow’s Lament for the Death of His Second Wife.
Others emerged to help make the event happen once the date was set: Catherine’s mother, BJ, and our friend Carol arranged a display of Catherine’s artwork at the front of the church; Isaac and Perry Williams stepped forward with an offer to handle everything related to the webcast of the event; brothers Mike and Johnny and sister-in-law Karen set up the tables and chairs in the hall on the morning-of.
St. Paul’s Anglican Church provided the church and the hall at no cost.
Because we mostly bootstrapped the event, the things that funeral directors think of, like guest books and name tags, we either forgot about or made up on the spur of the moment.
I didn’t plan on having a “receiving line” at the entrance to the church, but it spontaneously erupted once I stood near the entrance and people started hugging me. The rest of the family soon formed a line behind me.
I’d always thought that being the surviving spouse in a receiving line would be about the most draining and dreadful thing one could ever experience, but it turned out to be completely the opposite of that: I took tremendous comfort from every interaction, and, against type, I ended up hugging about 200 people.
It all felt very much like borrowing a tiny slice of strength from each person. It was entirely because of the receiving line that I was able to make it through the celebration of life intact, and to stand up in front of everyone and speak for 15 minutes without completely breaking down.
I debated whether I would speak at the event for several weeks beforehand.
I knew there must be a reason that the task of eulogizing often falls to a brother or sister, or to a friend, or an aunt or uncle. I researched whether Jackie O spoke at JFK’s funeral (she did not; there was no eulogy at all, it turns out).
I process life primarily through writing about it, and I knew that I’d benefit from being able to write about Catherine. But I was worried that I would start to cry, in front of a bunch of people, and not be able to go on.
The Sunday night before the event, with Oliver in the care of my family, I came across to my office and started to write, just to see what would come out. The eulogy that resulted essentially flowed out of me as I delivered it the next day.
I didn’t break down. Although I did have tears in my eyes.
And having just hugged most of the people in the room, I realized that even if I had broken down, even if I cried for 10 minutes, it would be okay.
Robert Pendergast and his crew set up in the Parish Hall kitchen at 10:15 a.m., and when everyone walked over from the church after 12 noon, they were ready to offer veggie chili served over handmade bread, with fixings to sprinkle on top, the end effect of which was to make every meal a kind of quilt. Receiver Coffee generously dropped off coffee and sweets; Robert boiled up some tea. Catherine would have been very pleased: it was just the kind of thing she’d like.
Almost everyone who’d been in the church walked over to the hall, and it was so, so lovely to be immersed in that crowd (if you’re going to be immersed in a crowd, as an introvert, being immersed in a crowd of people who loved your partner is a good crowd to be immersed in).
Many stories of Catherine were told. Many “oh, I didn’t know you knew Catherine too” coincidences were discovered (she had her oars dipped in many different communities).
Over the course of the afternoon people took their leave and, at the very end, I stood by the remaining food, snacking between Pendergasts Michael and Robert.
As Oliver and I got ready to head home, I realized that someone had brought over Catherine’s remains to the Parish Hall and placed them on the alter of the chapel, at my suggestion.
We almost forgot her there! But, at the last minute, we remembered (“where’s Catherine!?”). We gave her a good home for the night, and then headed home ourselves for a nap.
In the end, Catherine died where she wanted, how she wanted, and her death was marked as she wanted, by people who loved her dearly.
The thing I’d forgotten, while I’d been quietly fearing the unknown of all this for the years and months leading up to it, was that we would not be alone: the community that Catherine cultivated around her wrapped itself around us. And continues to do so. What a gift from her that is.