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A Different Way of Dying — Update   Leave a comment

Thank you for your thoughtful response to my post last week about Catherine Mitchell. I know many of us were curious as to what would happen next with Catherine. I received this email today from Catherine’s friend Janine. I think it is self-explanatory:

Hello Dear Friends,

As you know, tomorrow is the day Catherine is scheduled for Medical Assistance in Dying. We have had some very hard days this past week, as Catherine’s health has declined significantly. Today, on the other hand, was really beautiful. Lee and Brian were with Catherine during the day and they both had marvelous visits with her. Jamie and I tucked Catherine in bed wearing a beautiful yellow nightgown her mother made for her when she was about 16 years old. The nightgown is in pristine condition, of course, and Catherine looks like a ray of sunshine in it.

Catherine’s computer stopped working this week, but we were able to access her emails on the internet. We read her the wonderful messages that many of you sent, and told her about the messages left on voicemail. She was so grateful. She said she felt ‘so very blessed to have billions and billions and billions of good friends.’

Jamie and I cried and cried, and recited her favourite prayer with her for the last time—Now I lay me down to sleep…

It was wonderful to see her so at ease.

Catherine asked us to share this message with you tonight:

“Goodbye my dear friends. I am at peace.
I feel how I imagine the young Christa McAuliffe must have felt preparing to launch on the space shuttle Challenger: full of enthusiasm and just a bit of trepidation. Like the beautiful albatross, I hope to be gliding on the thermals with my dear dear Theo.
I leave you with this prayer: please forgive me, I forgive you, thank you, I love you, goodbye.”

Sharing the beauty and sorrow of grief with all of you,
Janine and Jamie


So there it is. Sad day, with the news of Anthony Bourdain taking his life — 61 years old, the same age as me.

We may as well live while we can friends, as well as we can.

Thanks for reading.

Posted June 8, 2018 by Eugene Stickland in Uncategorized

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A Different Way of Dying   3 comments



View from my balcony of the Beltline area of Calgary

Teaching has ended for a few months and so I have a moment to catch up with the events of this spring. If it was the winter of our discontent that just dragged on and on, the spring has been a tough one for me, with a few significant deaths I’ve had to process. The first was my brother Tom who passed away early in March in Regina. Then my friend Quenten Doolittle passed away in Calgary a month or so later. I shall write suitable eulogies to these two fine men in the next short while. For now, because time is of the essence, I wish to write about another death that is soon to happen as of the time of this writing in late May, 2018.

I live in the Beltline area of the City of Calgary, an inner-city neighbourhood just a few blocks south and west of the shiny office towers that comprise the downtown area. Most people only know this area as a few streets they drive through to get to work downtown from their homes in the suburbs.

Yet to those of us who live here, it is a neighbourhood in the truest sense. One of the first couples of this neighbourhood for years and years has been an elderly couple named Catherine and Theo. Theo was a lovely dignified man who wore a tie every day, even with a Tilly hat. He had been an aerial photographer in World War 2.

His wife Catherine referred to herself as a “wall-jumper” – she had been in the convent once upon a time but chose a different path for herself that eventually would include Theo. Following a career as a teacher, she has been the unofficial historian of this part of town for many years.

They were great walkers, who thought nothing of walking the bike path from Eau Claire to the bird sanctuary even well into their 80s. They went everywhere together, you rarely saw one without the other. Hardly a day would go by when I wouldn’t run into them somewhere in the ‘hood. Theo would likely make some observation about birds, had I seen many gulls on the bike path? Catherine would like have some historical tidbit to share, or some concern about the state of the world. They were active and engaged.

Catherine hosted a meal in Theo’s honour for his 90th birthday at the Lougheed House a few years ago. It was a great event, very well-attended. It was perhaps a year after that Theo had heart problems and died quite suddenly. They had no children, no family to speak of. There was no funeral or memorial. I guess that’s why Catherine had created that event for his birthday, so we could pay our respects while Theo was still alive.

That left Catherine alone, and after all those years together, you could feel the sense of loss radiating from her. She was quite lost. Suddenly she was a very lonely, even pathetic figure without her beloved Theo. When you ran into her on the street, she would only talk about Theo. There was nothing else on her mind. She wore her grief like an old and comfortable sweater.

A year or so ago, Catherine was diagnosed with cancer. Alone in the world, and older,  she never sought treatment. She had an entirely different plan. Rather, she decided it was time to die, but on her own terms.

As the cancer advanced, she looked into the option of Physician-Assisted death, which has been legal in Canada since 2015. It was approved. She found a doctor who would perform the procedure (for lack of a better word). She found attendants who would be with her at the end and then take care of her body after she was dead. This meant they would arrange transport to the crematorium from her apartment. Catherine would never set foot in a hospital during this entire process.

All that was left was to decide on was a date, and that date in now fast approaching, about a week away as I write this. She is monitoring her symptoms, her discomfort, her level of pain. When it all gets to be too much she will make the call and end her life.

A month ago she had a drop-in farewell party at her apartment. Lots of familiar faces from the neighbourhood were there, reminiscing, paying their respects, saying good-bye one last time. It was really an unforgettable event. None of us had any frame of reference for it. Small talk was rendered useless, and rightfully so. For all that, it was quite a joyous event after all. Certainly a tad surreal, one might say.

She had put out a few things that she and Theo had collected over the years for anyone to take. Otherwise, she had divested herself of all of her furnishings other than a few essential items. There was a rack of Theo’s ties, beautiful woolen tartan ties from Scotland. I took a couple of them. I don’t wear a tie often, but now when I do, I wear one of these ties and  think fondly of both Theo and Catherine.

Last Sunday morning, Catherine sat in Caffe Beano for a few hours. She bought coffee for all those who came in that morning. I guess she figured, what else was she going to do with her money? From what they say, you can’t take it with you. The Beano farewell had been scheduled to take place about a week hence. Catherine didn’t look well at all. I gave her a hug and thanked her for the coffee. I suspect it will be the last time I see her.

Many of us in the neighbourhood are talking about Catherine’s decision, even as we head into our later years ourselves. We’ve been paying attention, taking notes as it were. No one really looks forward to a slow and steady decline in a hospital or hospice. I think most of us admire Catherine and the path she has chosen to end her life. I suppose we all wonder if we will be so brave and decisive when our own time comes.

Personally, I admire her decision.

May angels speed your way, Catherine. Please give my warmest regards to Theo.



Death and Taxes   2 comments

I took this shot using the Hipstamatc App on my iPhone. This is what we call a lucky shot. It's taken on the steps of Grace Church by Caffe Beano.

I find it alarming to contemplate the dark thoughts some people carry around in their skulls on even the finest day. Even more alarming is their need to share these thoughts with anyone and everyone they come in contact with. Like a contagion, their gloom is spread. I always have my notebook and pen with me to create a sanitary barrier to such walking, talking contaminants. Yet, occasionally, despite my fortifications, they manage to penetrate and gain access and in the blink of an eye I too am infected with whatever bacteria they are spreading.

Why, it happened just yesterday. I quote from  my journal, which in this case was not enough to protect me from infection:

Some of the people around here are starting to really piss me off. They seem compelled, driven even, like the Ancient Mariner, to share their grim stories with me.

The other day, an acquaintance of mine felt compelled to tell me about his “levels.” I have no idea what these levels pertain to, and furthermore I don’t care.  Now for some reason, I know what his levels are (I believe he said 20, but 20 what, exactly, I have no idea) and now I know that at 20 they are dangerously low, or high (I can’t remember which).  When pressed about my own levels, I said, “I don’t have any levels.” He replied, “Everyone has levels.” “Not me,” I said. “Are you telling me you don’t know what your levels are?“ he asked? “That’s exactly what I’m telling you,” I said, packing up my notebook and pen. “You better get to a doctor and get your levels checked,” he cautioned.  “After talking to you I better get to a bar and get a drink is more like it,” I said, on my way out the door.

Suddenly I was in the wrong, not knowing what my levels are. Yeah? Well, fuck you and fuck your levels, too.

There’s always someone with a grim story to share. Today it was a person of only the most fleetingly insignificant relationship to me who felt the need to share his concern over his taxes. “Here we go,” I thought to myself, slamming shut my notebook and closing up my fountain pen.

And so began the drone of the taxes – I now feel I know as much about this man as his accountant, maybe even his wife! – droning out the cheerful chirping of the newly-returned robins on an otherwise fine spring day.

It may come as a bit of a surprise for some of you to learn that I occasionally darken the doorway of a particular church in southwest Calgary. Don’t worry, nothing too serious, just the Anglican Church. Catholic lite, one might say. All of the ceremony, none of the guilt. The 10 Suggestions. That kind of thing.

A few years ago, we had a visiting minister come in when our own man fell sick one Sunday morning, and of course we in the congregation were all mightily miffed about this. “Who’s this asshole?” we were all thinking to ourselves,  especially as the sermon began.  We were used to our own man Brian’s sermons which are mercifully short and always peppered with a few off-coloured jokes.

Well, the replacement preacher stood up there in the pulpit and glared down at us long enough that we were all squirming in our pews wondering collectively “What fresh hell is this” (to quote Dorothy Parker) when finally he spoke and this is what he said:

“When did you stop living and start dying?”

This was met with a somewhat lengthy and extremely uncomfortable silence. When, indeed? Maybe the hardest part about living is to embrace it, and the hardest part about dying is to ignore it.

Don’t get me wrong, at the slightest ache or pain or change to the intake/output ratio I am hardly one to suffer in silence. Just last week, on this very blog (in the poetry aisle) I waxed eloquent about my impending death, these musing being the result of a mild flu I was suffering through.

But you know what I’m saying. There has to be a limit. Sometimes – in the immortal words of my friend Bob White, quite often aimed specifically at me –sometimes it’s best just to “shut the fuck up.”  Especially when you’re talking to virtual strangers, who, when you get right down to it, don’t really care anyway.

As for death and taxes, I’m trying my hardest to avoid both of them, thank you very much – even on a conversational level.

Posted April 1, 2012 by Eugene Stickland in Uncategorized

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