My mother was a brilliant, beautiful woman, a woman with a passion for great literature, high fashion and duplicate bridge. She was a woman who disliked sentimentality of any kind, so I hope somewhere she’ll forgive me if I say I’m still haunted by the memory of the day I took her for that fateful neurocognitive exam, the day the specialist delivered the bleak diagnosis: Alzheimer’s disease.
My mother’s response was straightforward. She asked for medical assistance in dying but she was, of course, both too early and too late. Her death was not imminent. Her sufferings would eventually be grievous and irremediable, but they weren’t yet. And at the same time, she had already lost much of her capacity to be her own medical decision maker…
I can tell you as the years ground on it was terrible to see my proud, elegant mother lose her ability to read and write, her ability to dress herself and her ability to recognize her oldest, dearest friends.
Last July, after months of pandemic isolation where we could only visit with her at a distance, which confused her horribly, my mom suffered a broken hip. In the emergency room the doctor was blunt. There was no way she would recover from her injury. The doctor therefore offered me two terrible choices. We could leave her shattered hip untreated, pump her full of morphine and send her to a palliative care centre to die. I asked if she would be given anything to ease her death. No, I was told.
Instead, the doctor told me their only option would be to withhold all food and fluids and leave her to die of dehydration and starvation. Oh, and because of Covid I would not be allowed to be with her. I would need to say goodbye to her right there and then in the emergency room and send her off to die alone in pain and terror…
My mother suffered in hospital for more than a month in agony, fear and raging, violent fury, unable to understand why she was there and why I wouldn’t bring her home. Every long day, I bore witness to her torture and torment. I listened to her scream and scream. She was so utterly vulnerable.
It was my job to protect her. I failed. Eventually she stopped eating and drinking, and I can’t tell you whether that was out of instinct or some conscious choice. We chose not to have her force fed with a feeding tube. The hospital moved her to a quiet, private room and brought in a bed so I could sleep beside her.
My brother and I were both with her as she died, over the course of hours, her way finally, belatedly, smoothed by generous doses of hydromorphone. My mother would have hated this speech. She would have found it sentimental, manipulative, mawkish and a grotesque invasion of her privacy. I failed my mother when she needed me most.
(Editor’s note: Senator Paula Simons of Edmonton delivered these remarks in February 10 debate on Bill C-7 An Act To Amend The Criminal Code on medically-assisted death)