In Which A Woman Agonizes Over Death

By Callum Pengelly
My mother’s family had always made a fetish out of death. Each year, my grandmother
would stand in judgement, proclaiming that since she and my grandfather were now one year
older they were now one year closer to death. This meant that my nuclear family had to spend the
entirety of our available vacation time visiting my two most elderly relations. For myself, these
annual pilgrimages to the holiday destination of Calgary AB, became routine, a trip to be delayed
or diverted if at all possible. For my mother, they were of the utmost necessity. She felt guilty
each time my grandmother brought up the subject of death; a topic that she would raise often,
though never in front of my grandfather.
My grandmother always had some justification for the necessity of each years visit.
Perhaps my grandfather had wander off again, suffered another stroke, or made another attempt
to abort his oncoming senility in a most permanent manner. She did her ample best to conceal the
worst of these instances, as well as her own dementia, from the rest of the family while still
managing to make each situation seem like a minor crisis.
My grandfather never quite got the premature finale he spent so much time rehearsing.
After decades of depression and repeated suicide attempts, his two daughters ensured that he
made it past the ninety mark. When he became too feeble to remain in the family home, they
shuttled him off to an assisted living facility, then into full time care where he continued to exist
under the watchful eyes of orderlies and nurses. That is the best way I can describe the manner in
which he passed the final years of his life. It would be an injustice to call it living. His daughters
meant well. Their actions were never meant to be cruel. My grandmother had instilled in them a
feeling of responsibly for their parents deaths. Rather than be held liable, they did everything in
their power to prolong those lives.
My family lived in the town of Nelson BC, a full eight hour drive from Calgary. The
distance never seemed to bother my mother except for when she had a conversation with my
grandmother over the phone. My mother would talk about moving to the city to take better care
of her parents, but in the end, she flew the two of them into Nelson’s miniature airport and
established them as residents in a local old folks home. Almost everyday she would go to visit
her ailing parents. When the two of them had lived eight hours away, it was easier for my mother
to believe that the drug regimens, the restricted freedoms, and even the extreme pain that he
experienced all seemed worthwhile because he was still breathing. This had been the paramount
concern communicated to her all her life. Now, she saw quite another reality.
The truth was that my grandfather was suffering far beyond his breaking point. If he had
been free to take his life, he most certainly would have. His frequent requests to be allowed to
die went unheeded. He had no agency with which to take his own life, and so he was forced to
beg it of anyone who would listen. He couldn’t overdose because the orderlies controlled his
medicine. He could have refused meals, but his dementia prevented any sort of long term action.
He had no options and no hope. He continued to suffer in this manner until the day he died, of
slow and agonizing natural causes, having had no choice but to continue living.
After her father’s death, it struck my mother just how miserable his final years had been. I
remember her telling me that she wished that she would have let him die earlier. There had been
several opportunities to do so. The refusal of any number of treatments would have done the
trick. She was too scared, she told me, too afraid of loosing her father. So instead, she had acted
out of obligation and guilt, unable to make that final call. I know that she was afraid of dying like

her father. She was utterly terrified herself of suffering from dementia, afraid to outlive her best
before date, unable to remember the names of her children and instead calling everyone around
her Sunny Boy.
Initially, my mother’s cancer diagnosis came bundled with one of complete remission.
The growth which her doctor had removed was cancerous, but they had got it all. Because the
cancerous growth was so rare, the leading medical professionals in the field all showed an
interest in her diagnosis. Every few weeks another doctor would write in with a new diagnosis. It
took some time for them to reach a consensus. In the end, it wasn’t good.
Not long afterwards the growth returned, and this time no amount of surgery was going to
stop it. Her doctors tried of course. The leading cancer surgeon in the province performed a
surgery which removed almost the entire tumour, but by the end of the week it was back. So
instead she started a regimen of chemotherapy which her doctors hoped might be effective. They
weren’t very confident that it would be, but they had no other methods of treatment left.
My mother’s diagnosis, doctor’s appointments, and surgeries had all taken place in
Vancouver BC where the facilities and personnel were available. Living in that city, I had grown
used to my parents frequent visits, but the new therapy allowed her to remain at home, rather
than continue to travel long distances for appointments and surgeries. The chemotherapy quickly
turned more deadly even than the cancer. She found herself a semi-permanent resident of the
hospital in a worse position than ever before. General prognoses changed from months, to weeks,
and back again like a compass unable to locate true north which instead spins erratically before
locking onto the nearest piece of metal.
During this time, my mother talked a great deal about the manner of her parent’s deaths.
Being in so similar a position herself so soon afterwards, she could hardly help doing so. She
was determined not to follow the example of her own mother’s constant manipulations. She
repeated that if I were to return to Nelson, it would be setting aside everything that I had built for
myself in Vancouver.
“I don’t wan’t to be the cause of that,” she told me.
She reflected that her mother would have insisted all of her children return home
immediately, recalled to active duty. She did not intend to be like her mother. Perhaps she felt
guilty to make so inconvenient a request. It would have been like her to see the situation in that
light. Nor did she desire to become a model of her father, withering in the darkness. Instead of
suffering the agony of her treatments, she made the decision to cease all cancer therapies. This
would giver a month or two of time with her family and then she would die, or so she fully
expected. The usual thing in any health crisis is to fight for more time, but she had seen the sort
of effects time had worked on her parents and she was afraid. It was not an experience which she
wished to endure.
The doctors had said it might be only a matter of weeks, but those weeks drug out into
year. It seemed that although she had resigned her soul to death, her body hadn’t quite got on
board. It did make a series of slow concessions towards that goal however, diminishing her
quality of life in steps. She lost the ability to all the things in life which brought her joy. She
could not rider her snowboard because it hurt too much. She could not create artwork since her
hands were too weak. She could not go outside and visit friends because she did not have the
energy. Worst of all, she could not occupy her time with intellectually pursuits. She started
several books, but her mind could no longer focus on the words. She would forget what she had
read only a few sentences ago. This was not the dementia which she so feared inheriting from her

parents. It was just the effect of incurable pain on the human mind. Like a worm softly chewing
through its fruit, the pain stripped away parts of my mother, devouring her mind as its twin did
the same in her belly.
Many people were heard to remark in her presence that she was lucky for the extra time.
Of course, it was the last thing in the world which she would have wished for. She felt, in
addition to a great many other things, guilt over her increased longevity. Many family members,
no small number of whom had travelled considerable distances, had payed her their final visits.
She had recalled her eldest son from his life in the city. She had said her goodbyes and ordered
the usual arrangements.
“I feel like fraud,” she told me one morning when she felt particularly talkative. “I asked
everyone to visit, and they thought that I was going to die, so they did. But I didn’t. They might
not believe me if I ask again next year.”
This had clearly been bothering her for some time, but she had not wanted to talk about it
previously. She confided in me that she felt like this whenever she was able to regain a certain
measure of ability. Was she perhaps faking a horribly slow death by cancer in order to illicit
sympathy in others and self-pity in her self? Why for the past four hours she had felt perfectly
healthy. Dying women ought not get days off. This was ludicrous of course, and she knew it.
Nevertheless, she continued to feel guilty about it. She had felt guilty when her parents merely
threatened to die. She held herself culpable in the sufferings of her father. When it was her turn,
she felt like a burden on her family and friends.
Somewhere in all of that misplaced guilt was something else. It clung to back of her
mind, hiding from the worm which lived there. It was an idea which she had always known was
there: the guilt she had felt all her life was only there because she needed to be in control. To
admit that she was blameless was to admit that she had never been in control, not of the cancer
which was killing her, not of her parents deaths. She had done more than was required, and she
had done so for many years. In some ways, she had been doing so all her life. When she thought
back on it, there had been no real opportunities to hasten her father’s release. My grandfather did
not have the agency to end his own suffering. He had been voyageur in his own body, unable to
affect events, but that did not mean that she had held the helm. Her situation was a different
vessel however, one which she could steer however she pleased. When it came, my mother’s
death was on her own terms. It was the first case of a medically assisted death in our local
medical district. For once, her decision was as free of guilt as such a decision can be. My
grandmother would have been furious, but I believe my grandfather would have understood
completely.