Helping my father die was a parting gift. I wish I had said that in his obituary
This column was written in the first person by Kelly Corbin, who lives in West Vancouver, British Columbia. For more information about CBC’s first-person stories, please see common questions.
My father’s death has been something that has worried me for decades, perhaps ever since I learned that smoking kills. But years of protective anxiety had not prepared me for the crushing heartache that fell like a rock on my chest when he finally died of lung cancer at age 82 last year.
Little did I know how the deliberate way he chose to die would become part of his legacy. Or my mother’s reticence would prevent me from sharing with the world that she had medical assistance in dying. I hoped to honor my father with an obituary that would inspire readers to live harder and love greater. And I wanted to bring together his life, with all its complexities and idiosyncrasies, in an honest tribute that – if you read through the 20 columns – reveals his authentic nature.
For example, she wrote that he regaled us with tales that we never tired of hearing, that he was never the type to like small talk, and that he was most relaxed when he traveled. I’ll decode: My father would always preface his stories (albeit entertaining ones) with “Stop me if you’ve heard this,” and then launch right in with a nanosecond pause for interjections; He didn’t suffer fools, and without a margarita in hand on a tropical beach, he could have been pretty set in his ways.
The only thing I didn’t want to talk about was how he died.
I’m reticent to use a cliched term like transformative, but it’s the only term I have to describe what we went through. Medical assistance in dying spared my father many indignities, and for the family he left behind, knowing in advance the exact day and time of his death gave us the opportunity to say whatever we needed to say and send him off with the love he deserved. .
As I watched my father peacefully take his final breaths (and that’s not a euphemism, it was), I was overcome with gratitude that I lived in a country where my father had the option of foregoing a long, slow death. I wanted to share it with the world.
So, I asked my mom.
“Can I write that my father had a maid in the obituary?”
“I’d rather you didn’t.”
I’m not usually one to object. But this was my mother – just one day after her husband died at the age of 60. In addition, obituaries cost a lot, and they were paid.
“Okay, no problem,” I said and went looking for breadcrumbs to drop into the corpse. My father’s death was neither “sudden,” “unexpected,” nor “tragic,” which left me unsure of what coded language to use for assisted dying.
Finally I settled on the truth: my father died surrounded by his family as the sun set.
The following year, I regretted what seemed to me like a lie of omission. Then, on the first anniversary of his death, my mother said to me: “It took a while, but now I see that your father traded a few months of his life to give us a beautiful death.”
She was right.
My father had always been generous with material things, but his intentional death was perhaps his greatest gift. Watching him make his difficult decision with grace and composure was the bravest thing I have ever witnessed. We’ve always been a close family, but I don’t think any of us, even my father, could have predicted the way this rite of passage would bring us closer. Even a year after our patriarch died, I can sense a deeper intimacy between those of us he left behind.
I took my mother’s hole to investigate further.
“Why didn’t you want me to put MAID in the obituary? Were you worried about the stigma?”
“Me? Stigma? Not at all, but I didn’t think it was relevant,” she said.
Then she added, “But I’m doing it now. So go tell the world about your father’s big, beautiful, assisted death.”
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