A timeless bond to face the world beyond
Personal Stories | June 10, 2022 | Diane Babcock
There is no way to describe the heartbreaking pitch and yaw when it comes to facing an early departure from your loved ones, but Rocky and I are two thankful souls who appreciate the MAID alternative in ‘when’ to stop the suffering.
The short of our story is that we were high school sweethearts who reunited after 45 years and 400 miles apart through an instance of divine inspiration that happened one fateful night in August 2017. It was the night before Rocky’s brain surgery to remove a metastasis that spread from his lung cancer and he had given up all hope of the forest fires abating to allow his flight to the brain surgeon waiting 400 miles away. Five years prior to this new life-and-death situation he had underdone a tremendously tough time when he learned he had lung cancer and one year to live, after which he entered an experimental treatment program that included intense radiation and chemotherapy.
The brain surgery was a success where Rocky left the hospital with a renewed joy for living and spent the next few months recovering with help from the anti-seizure meds. Sadly, just a few months later he learned the lung cancer had returned and the doctors’ only solution was a rinse-and-repeat of the deadly radiation-chemo combo that nearly killed him the first time when he was healthy. This time he knew his body would not take it, he still tried to start the horrid process with the first radiation treatment, but quickly did an about face when he realized it was 50/50 chance no matter what he did. This time the mass was too close to the spine to be operable and the excruciating pain had to be controlled by daily morphine tablets. At this point he chose to live for quality of life, quantity unknown – his happiness mattered, and I was suddenly a big part of that without my realizing.
Fast forward to February 2019 and our first reunion in 45 years, which to our surprise felt like we were still those same teenagers all those years ago who loved hanging out with each other, like best buds. I barely recognized him in his weathered state, but his eyes and spirit were unbounded by his frail condition. It didn’t take long after his next visit for us to decide we wanted to share our lives together, which was quite a surprise since it was all so unplanned with the focus over the past 18 months over the phone being all about him getting his health back.
It was quite wonderful for us to share such profound companionship once he moved to my city where he loved the climate so much as a kid himself and his health was improving immensely. We quickly put his cancer in the past and both looked forward to our happily married life – or so we thought.
Suddenly the seizures started creeping into our lives and in December the doctor informed us the brain metastasis was re-growing, which meant quickly learning what can be done, if anything at this point. By the way, these are full-body seizures that were not only extremely painful and terrifying in themselves, but in concert with the brain mass, they hastened the paralysis in Rocky’s left side, especially his arm.
We did manage to fit our quiet February wedding in during the rushed appointments with the neurosurgeon and tele-seminars with the cancer clinic, and even more so made sure we enjoyed life as much as possible. No one had a doable option for Rocky, as surgery would leave him as an invalid with the guarantee of full paralysis on his left side while the cancer clinic’s non-surgical SRS radiation therapy would sicken him to death. He’s the one who had to consider the over 30 radiation tests and treatments he’d already suffered wouldn’t leave much defense in his body so late in the game – he had his white blood cells to think about.
After facing zero medical options, it was Rocky who brought up the subject of medical assistance in dying (MAID), because I’d never heard of it, and he had clearly done this research during his struggles. We were very fortunate my doctor took him on as a patient when he moved here, because she is quite knowledgeable and supportive, and helped with the application. It was also an advantage that the doctor who performed this specialized service worked at the same clinic.
The process itself was a very simple one that required a personal interview so the doctor can determine the validity of the decision, which was done via computer at this date because of the brewing pandemic. The experience is where it gets surreal, as I sat quiet like a mouse beside Rocky, my mind reeling in disbelief that this is even happening while she sought the important answers from him with a caring compassionate voice for both of us.
There was no doubt Rocky would get approval based on his terminal health status, but it really got me thinking that I need to know my own line in the sand for choosing farewell to the world. And, I want to be free to make that choice. With the weight finally lifted in Rocky’s mind by having that business in order, it was time to check a few things off his bucket list for real. It helped a lot that his family respected his decision, but there was no discussion as it was entirely his choice and they lived elsewhere, so cannot interfere anyway. The special trip we made to the interior was his chance to see his friends and family one last time and tell them how much he loved them.
The next few months were the hardest and the happiest at the same time, because now that he had the okay, he could choose to leave at any time with just a phone call when life got too unbearable. And, as much as he wanted to live so we could spend more time together he couldn’t ignore the rapid deterioration of his body telling him it has had enough.
He was so amazing through what came next and never complained to me, but I could sense well enough to know what he needed and always found the right things to lift him up. I got much better at meditating, too, because I needed to be more centered than ever and where it has always helped me through difficult situations in the past this went way beyond any of that.
Things changed quickly and we did everything we could think of to make Rocky’s life more comfortable at home with a some assisted living equipment like a wheelchair, bed and bath supports, and a ramp so he could go out onto the deck. Rocky is as fiercely independent as I am, so there was no way he would let himself simply exist while others took care of him. Nor would he live in a home somewhere else without me. Somehow we had a strange way of coping in that we always felt like we were on some kind of adventure together and this was another one, only much bigger. It brought us so very close in such a short period of time and there was so much love around us all the time that people would comment they could see it and it made them happy.
Throughout this time we both knew at the back of our minds the day would come that he would make that decision to ‘call the doc’ and there were a few times he came close and backed down – and then the time in August 2020 when he didn’t back down, he was ready. Once that call was made the wheels of MAID were set in motion toward preparedness on the part of the doctor, nurse and funeral parlour.
Those three days were filled with a strange hopefulness that this was all a dream and there was no cancer and Rocky wasn’t leaving me, but I knew the pain had to stop for him somehow and this was his somehow. On the day of I kept wondering if I was going to freak out or fall apart or break down, but it didn’t happen. There was some kind of strength and love keeping everything together, including me and I didn’t want him to be upset at all on his last day on Earth. He got showered, shaved and dressed in his favourite summer clothes before he sat in his wheelchair by the door to scribble some last thoughts with a beer before the director came to pick us both up for the half-hour drive to the funeral parlour.
There wasn’t much to say it seemed as the finality was hitting me hard on the drive up and I think Rocky must have gone into some strange zone of happy reconciliation within himself, because he didn’t say much either. I think mostly I was afraid to open my mouth lest I start bawling my eyes out like I am in writing this while reliving it for the first time since that day.
Once we arrived we were ushered into a big private room with a couch where we sat while waiting for the doc after I searched for a box of tissues. When she and the nurse came she made polite introductions and since everyone knew the reason for the meeting, she asked Rocky to lay on the couch. He got me to sit at the other end with his feet on my lap while she pulled the intravenous tubes and needles from her bag. She spoke very calmly as she put the needle in Rocky’s right arm and instructed him to flex, after which she continued with describing her actions and inserting small talk as he became sleepy.
At one point Rocky looked over at me and said, “I love you” and I replied in kind still trying to hold back my tears without success. After a few minutes he gasped a quick breath and was quiet again so I thought he was still falling into a deep sleep, but the doc said that was when he left his body. Once I knew he was gone I gently removed myself from under his legs, kissed him one last time and slowly walked out of the room barely speaking to anyone. Shortly after, the director came and drove me back home where I wandered around the kitchen in a daze of disbelief before I called my cousin to come over and console me.
In closing, as hard as it is to face the death of a loved one, it is much harder to watch them suffer in agonizing pain at the mercy of a crippling disease, and much like Rocky, I would choose to leave peacefully and with my dignity intact.