Yesterday I completed one of those tasks that makes me feel like a real, live grown up. I wrote a will, and a living will. On Saturday I put the final signatures on my life insurance policy. Later today, I will draft my wishes for my memorial service and instructions about what to do with my remains. No, I’m not dying. At least no more than any of us are.
I think I have a unique perspective on life and death. I mean, I suppose we all do, but mine has been shaped by a lot of exposure to the subject matter in relation to the few years I’ve been around. I’ve held hands with death in several different contexts; surprise tragedy, surprise medical events, miscarriage (mine), still birth (dear friends), and the most common in my world, cancer. Fucking cancer.
After reflecting for a considerable amount of time on the subject, I conclude that surprise death is the worst. This is my personal conclusion, of course. When I was in my twenties, and barely comfortable in my own skin, I witnessed a dear aunt who was a personal hero waste away with cancer. Aggressive cancer that took her just over a year after her diagnosis. Watching how her body morphed from voluptuous and vibrant to a skeletal shell rocked me to my foundation. I thought it was the worst thing that could ever happen.
Then, months later another of my mother’s sisters died very suddenly of a brain aneurysm. She was vivacious, loving, fun, active, and literally a month away from her retirement. There was no time to wrap up loose ends, make amends, say goodbye, or even get to savour the freedom and relaxation she had worked her entire life to finally enjoy. Watching how shattered her nearest and dearest were by the sudden cruelty of fate was almost scarier than watching illness waste a body away.
A sprinkling of years after that, I experienced a very early term miscarriage with a pregnancy I hadn’t planned. None of my life circumstances were ideal for bringing a child into the world. In fact, I was so cynical and afraid of myself, I had vowed that I was unfit to ever have children of my own. Losing this life, or these cells, or this soul that had become planted inside me barely felt like cause to grieve, and yet I did. Down to the very ends of my roots. As a result of this miscarriage, I knew absolutely that I wanted children, and I prayed fervently that my body would allow me to make at least one child. This event was a game-changer.
Fast forward over a decade. I am a fully immersed mother to my daughters, I’m in a stable relationship with my best friends, I have been blessed with a biological son of my own, and at this point in my life, our dear friends lose their baby in their seventh month of pregnancy. We are making presents, Sarah is planning a maternity photo shoot, our girlfriends are giggling over the scandalous baby shower cake we are going to create. Then the bottom falls out. I am utterly devastated, and can say that these two incredible people are the strongest that I know. In the background of this terrifying event, my fairy godmother is dying of lung cancer. Our little Aemon died in August. My fairy godmother would die in November. I can’t sleep anymore without waking in the middle of the night, terrified that something will rip me away from my children. This continues to this day.
My godmother, Carmen Chouinard, finally let go of this mortal coil in a truly beautiful hospice (Dorothy Ley) in late November. I had spent the night there with Sarah, and Carmen’s 23-year-old daughter Alex, who is beyond incredible. We were all standing by, convinced by the stage of Carmen’s illness and by all of her caregivers that she would pass at any moment. Carmen was notoriously stubborn, and didn’t seem to think that was the case. She couldn’t speak or move, and her body had wasted away. Her breathing was laboured, she wasn’t eating or drinking, but yet she hung on. I still don’t know what she was waiting for. I never will. She finally took her last breath after nearly all of us had all left her room. Maybe she was waiting for a smaller audience, or for her daughter to take some time to take care of herself. When I returned to the hospice, about an hour after Carmen had passed, I once again witnessed the amazing reality of an illness-ravaged body at peace. I’m not very religious anymore, but I feel certain that something leaves our body when we take our last breath. Something greater than what science can explain. I have felt this on a level that neurology can’t quantify.
Have you been close to death? I don’t mean you, in your body, though perhaps if you’ve had a near death experience, you will understand what I mean. I mean a brush with death close enough that you cannot go a single day without thinking somewhere in the back of your mind that you might be next. Or your lover. Or your child. Our mortality has now become the single most terrifying and motivating reality in my life. My awareness of the fragility of this meat-sack I occupy has finely honed the world I am shaping for my family. I did not choose the life I live because of some sexual proclivity, or because I can clearly identify a specific sexual orientation. I chose this life because I love these people. I love the way they see me, and I love how their love challenges me to be my best self.
To assume we aren’t taking legal precautions to protect each other and our children is folly. I’m smarter, and I love better than that. As you embark on your life’s adventures, make sure all of your bags are packed. It’s morbid, perhaps, but it’s also smart and responsible and a beautiful gesture of love and care.
And it’s really kind of foolproof online: http://www.legalwills.ca