An Irish Goodbye

Personal Stories | March 12, 2021 | Julie Branscombe

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A photo of Julie and her Dad on St. Patrick's Day

In celebration of a life well lived, we are sharing a daughter’s story about her gregarious Dad leading up to one of his favourite days of the year – St. Patty’s Day. Julie’s Dad chose a medically assisted death which reflected his brave character. He was able to say his goodbyes and celebrate in his way with those he loved. Julie recalls the parties, the visitors and the laughter, she also shares the sadness and grief that she and her family experienced and are still navigating since losing her Dad.

Nobody enjoyed a party more than my Dad. He was a gregarious guy with the fitting surname ‘Lush’ who loved to entertain a crowd. Years of practice ‘holding court’ as a federal prosecutor combined with a sharp intellect and impeccable timing meant you almost didn’t realize how dirty his jokes were.  Even at 80 the women loved him – his favourite 30 year-old ‘Kiss me, I’m Irish’ t-shit was still bringing in solid returns. 

This spirit served him well as he joked his way through a two-year battle with ‘Multiple System Atrophy’.  

After one particularly bad fall that broke his shoulder and ribs and left him in hospital for four months, he still mustered up some humor. When asked to share a bit about himself, he whispered through the pain, “tell them my nick name is Timber and that I enjoy scotch.  And, even several hospital stays later, with his mind as fit as his body wasn’t, I’d often arrive to find him providing comedic relief or free legal advice to doctors making their rounds.  Sure, I could see time was closing in, but we were having fun, and because he had declined several offers to sign a DNR, we were still in business. Go Dad Go! 

So, on March 2nd, 2020 when he texted to say that he had decided to ‘fool mother nature’ by dying with medical assistance (MAID), I was stunned. Had I missed a sign? Was I holding on when what he needed was for me to let go?  It was an acknowledgement that his best days were behind him, his way of saying it was ‘last call’.  And he had chosen St. Patty’s Day, just two weeks later, for his party to end. So, there it was. He was ducking out with an ‘Irish Goodbye’. We could no longer maintain the facade that he might get better. All pretenses had vanished. All bets were off.  Wow. Courage to accept mortality is one thing, courage to confront and act on it is fortitude of another level.  

The 14 day count down was both tragic and beautiful. As the Grateful Dead says, those were the ‘Days Between’.  Zeroing in on what really mattered made time both stand still and speed up. The anticipation of the loss was as profound as the eventual loss itself. I broke down when I realized the milk was going to expire after my Dad would. Each day I was trying to catch Dad’s final rays as his sun was setting.  Like an afternoon on a patio with a great band. Just please play one more song. I didn’t want those days to end. 

But there was certainly gain amidst the loss. It brought my siblings and I closer together as we drifted through the same unchartered emotions together.  There were 13 days of parties, each day with dozens of friends retelling hilarious stories which made him feel cherished and more ready to go. His usual impeccable timing spared him COVID-19 and he was leaving with the honour of a Saint who similarly was known for kindness, character and adored by all. To top it off, on his final morning I got the chance to share pancakes and scotch for breakfast, to tell him what he meant to me and to see the certainty and positivity of his decision.  

The goodbye itself was the single hardest minute of my life.  He wasn’t expecting me to be soft because it’s not in my nature. We shared a laugh when I reminded him of his favourite St. Peter joke and that there will be scotch at the gate. But I really wanted to share what my friend had relayed about her own near-death experience.  I cut to the chase.  ‘Listen, Cecilia said when you see the light, you’ll feel a warm gel. Lean into it. Don’t be scared. Just go with it.’  I paused and then added ‘Dad, I’ll find you’. He smiled and asked ‘Do you really think so?‘ … ‘I know so’. And then I closed my eyes and squeezed him as hard as his 80 pounds of skin and bones could stand, trying to imprint the moment, his smell, and his love, into my memory forever.  Brutal. 

The COVID-19 shut down later that very same day, March 17th, made it feel like the whole world was grieving with me but weeks later, with no celebration of life, I could sometimes trick myself into thinking he was still with us. My boss was the first to break through my denial by asking me point blank what I had learned from the experience. I was taken aback.  It had only been two weeks so how could I possibly answer what I hadn’t processed?  Did he think he could use my information to prepare himself for something similar in the future? The question was well meaning but I felt annoyed and exposed. Like first time parenthood, there is no way to prepare anyone for MAID. MAID was like a new private club I belonged to. I was only sharing its secrets sparingly. 

By summer that same question had been posed to me several times in several ways. Still, I needed more time to work a few more things out. Thankfully serendipity connected me with Cindy Hayhurst whose father, Jim, had also used MAID. I didn’t know Cindy but already felt connected to her. By coincidence, I had shared the Globe & Mail Lives Lived article about Jim’s MAID experience with my Dad back in March.  And, incidentally he said he and Jim knew each other years ago. Cindy helped me make sense of the confusing mix of grief and relief that had been weighing on me.  I started to see that it’s ok to love how the story ended but also, at the same time, feel sad that it had to end. 

The second COVID-19 wave provided me the cover and solitude and time for reflection I so desperately still needed.  I have made a little progress. Those trite Hallmark references about loved ones being all around finally make sense. I can now make it through at least two verses of ‘Fire and Rain’. And when inevitably the same question is sprung, I am able to share with more clarity and openness the tough lessons this experience has taught me… 

That life is not the opposite of death. We die a little each day. 

That there sure can be a lot of life in the end. 

That at a certain point death can be more philosophical than medical.  

That some people aren’t seeking the longest life, they are seeking more life in the years they have. 

That knowing it’s time to leave takes wisdom, courage and humility. 

That sometimes we may feel we’re out of options, but we still have choices. 

That to achieve a life with a sense that your journey is complete, to be the author of your own ending, is, in and of itself, a life well lived. 

And, of course, that an impeccably timed Irish Goodbye gets the last laugh. 

Cheers to you Dad. 

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