A beautiful life: Celebrating Christa Winterhelt
Personal Stories | January 28, 2022 | Nikki Winterhelt-Brown
My mother, Christa Winterhelt, was an extraordinary woman.
Her life experiences were many; some rewarding, some defining and some incredibly heart-wrenching. She lost her father at the age of four. She lived in Berlin during World War II when she was a teenager. She emigrated to Canada at the age of 26, alone and not knowing anyone when she got here. She had planned to study plant genetics at the University of Guelph and chose to go a year earlier to become more proficient in English. Five months after arriving in Canada, she met my father and soon thereafter moved to Nicholson’s, a remote island in the middle of Lake Ontario. There they would manage an exclusive private hunting club.
It was just the two them until they increased the population 300 per cent by having three children. She would joke that she gave up on her university dream but would later start her own genetics program with my father. After eight years, they moved to the mainland, where they ran a quail farm/hunting club raising 25,000 birds. In addition, my father bred, trained, and boarded hunting dogs.
When my parents divorced, my father moved to California, leaving my mother to run the farm and raise us on her own. To make ends meet, she started a career in real estate and worked tirelessly to provide for us.
She eventually sold the farm and we moved to Whitby, where Mom continued her real estate career. Sometime after that, she chose to start her own business making lamps and lampshades made from flowers, leaves and grasses that she grew, picked, pressed and arranged into stunning shades. She even made the lamp bases by paining, firing them in the kiln and wiring them herself. For 25 years and into her 80’s, she was successful in selling at craft shows across Ontario and wholesaling to well over 50 stores.
Tragedy struck in 1990 when my brother Doug took his life after suffering from schizophrenia. It was devastating for my mother as she had tried desperately to help him fight his mental illness. Then tragedy struck again in 2003, my second brother Greg, passed away suddenly while on a trip with his wife and three young children. For my mother to lose two children was understandably gutting.
My mother never complained. She could, however, not understand how life could have dealt her the hand she was given. She pushed through, always maintaining a positive attitude and reminding me that there will always be those who have suffered much more. That hardships in life make should make us value the good times. That wasting time dwelling on poor me is just that, wasted time.
Long before medical assistance in dying (MAID) was legislated, my mother felt it was something that needed to be introduced into our society. When Switzerland made it legal, my mother made me promise to take her there if the time came.
Six years ago, my mother began displaying signs of dementia. Her short term memory was becoming extremely affected and eventfully I moved her into an assisted living facility. She was content. She loved her apartment, the facility, and her caregivers.
Truth be told though, the ‘old’ Christa would never have wanted to be in a facility. She had lost the ability to go for walks on the ocean, tend to her garden, make her own meals, take a bath or have conversations with her beloved grandchildren. I watched this amazingly strong, independent, stoic woman begin a downward slide towards everything she was deathly afraid of.
On September 26, while I was driving home from the airport – I’m a flight attendant – I got the call that Mom had suffered a tragic fall. I raced to the hospital to find Mom with both shoulders badly broken. For four weeks, she lay in bed unable to move or feed herself. I came for every meal to feed her, help change her, and simply be with her.
My Mother was 92. When an elderly person with dementia is bed ridden for an extended amount of time, they are often unable to walk again. This was my mom’s new reality. In diapers, unable to walk or feed herself. She was now helpless. Again, her biggest fear in life.
I contacted the MAID coordination team in Vancouver. They advised me that my mother certainly could be a candidate for MAID as long as she could pass the assessment from two doctors. My mother had such a strong conviction for dying with dignity that, despite her dementia, she was able to share her wishes with the doctors. Eventually a time would have come that she would not have been able to convey those wishes.
Mom passed both assessments.
I was able to move my mother back to her facility. A hospital bed was placed in her living room. I had Nona the caregiver assigned to us, she was heaven sent. I was there 24/7 for two weeks. I surrounded Mom with photos of her family and closest friends. I set up two bird feeders in her garden outside her window. I had an abundance of fresh flowers ever present. I cooked her favorite meals, starting with Bailey’s in her coffee in the morning. We played her favorite music and I read her life story, that she had written. We looked through countless photo albums and I talked and talked and talked. Mom had lost the ability to keep a conversation going, so I did it for her. I cherished those last two weeks with her. No words were left unsaid, no hugs and kisses left unfelt.
On November 7, I invited some of my closet friends, my family and my Mom’s last remaining friend from Vancouver. We laughed, we talked, we cried and were simply present with an extraordinary woman, my mother, Christa.
The little gathering came to and end and everyone said their final goodbyes.
The MAID clinician came to Mom’s apartment with a nurse. She gave Mom an IV and the doctor administered a mild sedative. He then administered the drugs which put Mom into a peaceful sleep. The final drug simply stopped her heart. The last thing I heard from my Mom was, I love you.
I cannot thank Dying with Dignity Canada enough for the work they have done to bring MAID to where it is today. There is still much work to do. When the end of life is imminent, why would we not do it with love, honour, comfort, dignity and most importantly, choice?
Respectfully and Sincerely,