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  • Ilse Schaefer (1921 – 2018)

    My mother died two weeks ago. She was 97.

    I think the 35,668 days she spent on this planet covered an incredible range of highs and lows both for humanity and for her personally.

    There were two billion people on the planet when she arrived and seven and a half billion when she left. She lived to see widespread adoption of refrigeration, automobiles, radio, TV, mobile phones, and the Internet, as well as the eradication of many diseases through vaccines and improved hygiene, the spread of democracy around the world and so much more. Also, depressions, fascism, communism, gun violence, terrorism, economic inequality, and the continuing oppression of women and people of colour.

    She lived through many personal hardships like hyperinflation in 1920s Germany, the rise and fall of the Nazis, hiding her newborn daughter in the woods when the air raid sirens sounded, emigrating to a land where she did not know the language, working in a fish factory or as a cook at a hospital to make ends meet, and losing her husband and child to the cruel hand of cancer.

    Ultimately, I think she was happy with her life and with her death. She ended her working life in the scientific journal acquisition department at the University of Waterloo, living in comfortable apartments with all she ever wanted materially. Once she retired – 35 years ago – she travelled, painted, learned to swim, fell in love twice more after her husband’s death, and lived to see her granddaughters graduate university and start their adult lives.

    She’d been physically fit and living independently until this Spring when she had a rapid series of strokes that left her bed-ridden, unable to care for herself, and with limited communication abilities. This was exactly what she’d been hoping to avoid, praying that she’d be taken swiftly when the end came. She’d talked of ending her own life if she was ever unable to look after herself, but my mother didn’t think she could do much more than stop eating, and when she tried that a month after her stroke, it proved much harder than she imagined.

    Fortunately, in talking to her fantastic care team, I discovered that Ontario’s laws had been changed in the last year or so to allow for Medical Assistance In Death (MAID) in particular circumstances. This was what she’d always been hoping for, a way to end her life with the dignity, privacy, and comfort she had always sought in life.

    It took about a month to go through the process to have her approved for the medical procedure. That’s lightning fast for a medical process with government oversight, but a lifetime if you’re waiting and praying for the end.

    We found out on a Monday that she’d been approved and that her death would be at 9:00 PM on Saturday, September 8th. This is a rather bizarre thing to know. Our society does not have the rituals to accommodate awareness of your own or your loved one’s time of death. It made for an odd week, but it was wonderful in that it gave us time to say our goodbyes and to make plans so that the experience would be pleasant for her.

    When the time arrived, she was at home with the lights down low and soft music playing in the background. I held her hand as the doctor administered a series of drugs via IV injection that made her sleep, then become numb, then stop breathing. It took less than five minutes and she went from saying “I’m not sleepy yet” to eyes closed and no more motion or pain or fear in moments. I’m so thankful we allow this most humane form of ending one’s life and I hope this becomes available to everyone everywhere.

    For all the commonalities the 7.5 billion of us on this planet have, I think we are all essentially unique. I’ll miss her uniqueness in this vast world. I keep thinking of things I want to tell her about how my day is going, or how the kids are doing. I’m sure I’ll get over that in time, but for now, I appreciate those moments to remember her connection to and love for us all.

September 21, 2018

September 20, 2018