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Choosing hope…

Being Mortal, a book by Atul Gawande, helped Jeannie and me develop a level of comfort talking about end of life topics. About death. Written by a surgeon, it expertly explores end of life topics. Not just the final days, but how we age, how we prepare ourselves and our families and friends for our death.

Jeannie died 9 months ago – on August 16, 2020. I continue to experience the great sorrow of her passing, and the great joys of having had her in my life. Our daughter Annie and grandson John are going through this process too, and we continue to support each other. You also hold us in many ways – thank you.

“One has to decide whether one’s fears or one’s hopes are what should matter most.” Atul Gawande is clear. Being human provides us choices. We can be autonomous. That does not mean selfish. Autonomy means being the author of our story – without undue influence by others. Jeannie did this well!

Tuesday night, 7 to 9 pm – Alberta time, May 11, 2012, I am leading a discussion of this book on Zoom. It is part of a monthly Exploring Elderhood group at Hillhurst United Church.

Join the Zoom gathering
 https://us02web.zoom.us/j/4955126289

If you can’t join us, please ask me for the pdf of the slides and my speaker notes of the PowerPoint presentation – daafinch@gmail.com is my address.

Thank you, each and every one of you, for your love for Jeannie and for me and Annie and John. We feel your tender loving support in so many ways. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Hugs and more hugs,

David

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SIX MONTHS LATER…

            Sun floods in, illuminating flowers. And the couch where we sat, facing each other, and talked for hours. Jeannie died six months ago today – August 16, 2020.

            Our daughter Annie turned 33 last Friday so we caked her, a small party that included her partner Chris and her son John, now eight. Chris had a birthday in January and I turned 64 last December. John learned to whistle in September.

            So life goes on.

            We miss Jeannie so much. Grief is sneaky, punching when least expected and in places that hurt more than can be imagined. The sorrow and mourning keep evolving and friends who have been through this cautiously mention that it gets harder before the healing happens. And the second year can be even more difficult. Okay…

            “We are giving a vast number of people a model of how to do this this dying thing well,” Jeannie wrote in a letter to me she had me open after her death. We hoped the transparent way we walked through the 26 months from her diagnosis until death was more “a good example” than “a horrible warning.”

            Our death adverse culture, where disease and dying have been turned over to professionals, does little to teach us how to prepare for the end of life. We learned a lot. Be good medical consumers and work as a team – I was Jeannie’s secretary at all her medical appointments. Discuss Goals of Care – and complete the forms to make this legal. Make sure the dying person clearly states their goals for the end of life. And yes, you can change these goals as often as required. Find peer support – we found two groups; the Living With Cancer Program at the Sage Counseling Centre and The Brain Tumour Support Group at Wellspring – both in Calgary. Use the wisdom of others; people and audio and video programs as well as books. We read many books, and three stand out:

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

The Five Invitations: Discovering what death can teach us about living fully, by Frank Ostaseski

The Second Half of Life – Opening the Eight Gates of Wisdom by Angeles Arrien

            There are many ways to do this “dying thing” well.

            I’m now trying to do this “living thing” well, as a widower – I prefer the term bachelor. When Jeannie was pregnant with Annie back in 1987 a friend told me “life as you know it has ceased to exist” and it certainly was true for a couple having our first child. My life with Jeannie “has ceased to exist” and the implications continue to reveal themselves in ways both overwhelming and small. Many adjustments.

            Work projects are calling me back to my vocation. Covid19 continues to make my life alone more isolated. And yet the warmish winter has been kind. John sleeps over every Friday night and I’m building a wooden sea kayak from a kit. The paperwork involved with wrapping up Jeannie’s life continues. And on warm Friday afternoons we sometimes have a fire pit roaring in the sunny front yard here at 518 – 13th Avenue NE in Calgary. Bring a chair and a drink!

            Writing about the last three years has been part of my therapy. If you want to read more about how Jeannie and I lived with the brain cancer that took her life, please reply to this post or email me and ask for my essay, Master Thief: How One Family Kept in Touch with a GBM Patient to the End.

            “I am wholly blessed to be your partner, David,” Jeannie wrote in her final letter to me. “And I can barely express how glad I am that you have continued to choose me to be your partner. Together, often imperfectly, we have explored our vulnerability, joy and true healing.” I’m so glad she chose me as her partner. I am wholly blessed too.

            Thank you for loving and caring for Jeannie and me and our family.

All the best hugs,

David

PS – Pub nights will start up again after Covid19. And we are planning a musical blowout when people are allowed to sing together to celebrate Jeannie’s love of joyful sounds.

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Celebrating Jeannie

Jeannie’s funeral was Monday, August 24, 2020, at Hillhurst United Church and here’s the video of the event: https://youtu.be/f0Hh-bIfXIc

Words cannot begin to describe the passion, beauty and love that poured out from the small group – due to Covid restrictions – that gathered to hear stories of Jeannie’s life and listen to music Jeannie loved. Though the congregation was not allowed to sing along, during the final song – I’ll Fly Away – we spontaneously clapped and stomped our feet on the wood floors of the lovely other church as we wholeheartedly rejoiced in the wonder that was Jeannie. Oh, oh, oh.

Hugs, so many, many hugs,

David, for Annie and John and Chris and Dom and Erin

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Jeannie Finch – 1955 to 2020

            Friend, lover, mother, daughter, sister, grandma, auntie and elder in her many communities, Jeanne Vernette Anderson Finch died peacefully at home on Sunday morning, August 16, 2020.

            Glioblastoma multiforme took her from us, the brain cancer appearing in a test in June of 2018. Medical science extended her life about two years. And her quality of life remained good through the “extra time” she treasured as her truncated retirement and enjoyed with many family members and friends.

            Jeannie chose to die at home, under the excellent medical care of her family physician Dr. Frances Vettergreen and oncologist Dr. Paula de Robles at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre and other skilled medical staff in oncology. Nurse Robin Lyons coached and supported Annie and David in her role as Palliative Home Care Coordinator at Alberta Health Services in Calgary and allowed Jeannie to die peacefully in her music room, surrounded by art and books and musical instruments, birds visiting her at a feeder near her hospital bed.

            Born Jeanne Vernette Anderson (her father John Vernon really wanted a son after three daughters) to John Vernon and Beda Minnie Anderson at Buffalo, Minnesota on July 20 1955, she was the daughter of evangelical missionaries. Jeannie spent her childhood in Venezuela. As a legacy of those early years, she spoke Spanish. Her father “Bud” was a passionate Old Testament scholar and inculcated in her a philosopher’s ability to probe the deepest questions about the human experience. Her love of adventure continued through her life. She eventually earned a degree in Sociology after moving to Canada in 1979, where she became a proud Canadian.

            Living with cancer and living with dying are difficult. But the cadre of friends who became a family for Jeannie and David at the Living With Cancer Program at the Sage Centre in Calgary supported her in ways physical, mental, spiritual and musical, not to mention with humour and compassion and hugs. More hugs. And even more hugs. “They are like shooting stars,” she said on June 30, 2020, “some brighter than others, some with longer tails, all blazing and beautiful in the dark night of dying.” 

            Passions a many filled Jeannie’s life, among them a zeal for lifelong learning. Calgary Learns, her employer at the time of her brain cancer diagnosis, set up the Jeannie’s Fund (just type in Jeannie’s Fund for the link) to provide support for professional development for teachers of lifelong learners. Nothing would please Jeannie more than a donation to this fund, into which she invested tens of thousands of dollars.

            Jeannie’s end of life – her “extra time” – was just like the first 63 years of her life; loving family and friends, enjoying skiing and paddling and biking, singing a wide range of music, curating Christmas and Easter feasts for more than a dozen at our home, doting on daughter Annie and grandson John and her husband of almost 42 years, David.

            As a survivor of breast cancer in 2002, she was not bitter or resentful to find out about the terminal brain cancer that took her from us in the lovely  summer of 2020. “Why not me?” she asked when she got breast cancer, and again in 2020. Disease and old age take us all. Normal. Instead she considered herself lucky to be able to rock her way through a craniotomy – “like getting kicked in the head by a horse” – and chemo and radiation. Two lovely holidays with her sisters Shari and Joni in PEI and Victoria accentuated the gift of her extra years, as well as more time with David and Annie and John.

            Faithful to the end to the integrity of experiencing the lived reality, she worked hard with decreasing cognitive abilities to pass on her responsibilities to others and to do her best to rest in her final days with the limited and failing energy that is often the experience of dying of brain cancer. Jeannie lived a full life. Do likewise.

David Finch

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Jeannie is gone…

Peacefully, with Annie and David holding her hands, Jeannie died Sunday morning, August 16, 2020 at home. Jeannie died a “good death” as was her wish, where she wanted, how she wanted and with the people she wanted to be at her side.

We are devastated. The world is not the same. Oh Jeannie…

It was a “good death” for Annie and me too, supported by health care professionals and family and friends. We thank you all.

A small family service is planned and will be recorded and made available online. Watch this space for information on how to view this video.

Hugs and many more hugs,

David

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Jeannie’s Ruminations

Jeannie is still with us, her body waiting for the full effects of the brain cancer to end her life. Days at our home are very quiet. She still wakes enough for short visits or talks. But mostly she sleeps.

In late 2019 and early 2020 Jeannie penciled a few prose poems in the daily log we keep of medications and changes in her condition. She gave me permission to publish them, as gifts to us all.

 

Sunday December 29, 2019

The sun is golden on your face

Your eyes ocean jewels with twin black pinpricks

Don’t cry, it will be light a while longer

God, you are beautiful.

 

Tuesday December 31, 2019

I belong here yet, even as I belong to you

And need to spread the gospel of belonging to my family and friends

Oh such rest I find in belonging!

 

Sunday January 4, 2020

(after a stroke put her in the hospital overnight)

I invite you to peer over the lip of your cascading losses

Welcome the uncertainty

   And notice how you love the sharp clean air up here.

Dangle you arm into the cold water

   To write words on a stone.

I will weep with you.

 

Tuesday January 7, 2020

I am rooted

   In your love,

I am bathed

   In your grace.

 

Friday January 10, 2020

You are spiritually face-blind, dearheart.

I’ll come get you, bring you to my side.

The crowd is confusing, I know

It doesn’t matter who they are

Stay at my side

I’ll explain how to find me, how to find my own here.

 

Monday January 13, 2020

There you are!

I’m glad you heard my voice.

I love you and miss you when you are not by my side.

We have much companioning to do.

 

Hugs, David

 

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Complete – by Annie Finch

(Jeannie is now in her final days. Annie has, as she put it, “accidentally” written a blog post. Her text is below, and is, at her request, not accompanied by any images)

It was never a fight. The first time my mom had cancer she didn’t like to think of her body as a battleground. Instead, she told me she thought of herself as a garden. The glory of winning a battle is nothing compared to the beauty of any garden. She didn’t fight; she took care of herself, tended her health, and sought to restore balance. This time has been different. This time we knew there was only one outcome. This time the goal was to make the most of the time we had, to enjoy each other and our lives, to be good and gracious and engaged. Hope was different this time. We had total control over the outcome. We accepted our task of living, and yet it hurts so much now that she has reached her goal. Now she is done with living. She is no longer interested in what can be in this life. First her mind, and now her body has stopped doing what she wants, stopped allowing her to live the way she wants to live. And so she is done with life, not given up, not conceded defeat, but she has achieved her goal of living her life to the fullest. And this change is so painful to see because for me it was a fight. I wanted her to win, to get better, to stay. So I am called to practice letting go. Letting go not of her, not of my love or my hope, but letting go of my idea the there is victory to be had. No one wins this game. We all die in the end. The only thing we have is the meaning we create together by living and loving. And it hurts. Not but, always and. She has not lost, now she is complete. My mother has completed her life.

We think we can control our bodies because they rely on our volitional selves to meet basic needs, but this is not control. Throughout the last two years, my mom has remarked that her body didn’t get the memo that she was dying, and it still wanted to move, to walk, to get tired out, to eat and drink and talk for hours. Her body wanted all the same things it had thrived on before. But her capacity decreased. She could still walk and talk for hours, but the recovery time stretched to days. She could garden and mow the lawn, but that would be it for the week. And now, as she has completed her life, her body doesn’t know. She sleeps most of the time and loves to eat and drink. She is a completed person in a body that won’t let her go. This state is temporary. She changes so much each day, even by the hour, that I know this won’t last long. I don’t know what will come next, and soon her body will die. And always I will know that she is complete.

Annie

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Walking Each Other Home

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Jeannie turned 65 so we caked her on Sunday. She loved the attention and the food. The palliative docs are balancing her meds to keep her calm. Still loves her rum and lattes and life.

Always a joker, one night as I kissed her when I was going out shopping she said to our daughter Annie, lying in bed with her, “Your kisses are really different from Dad’s!” Annie laughed and said, “That was Dad. My kisses are not as prickly…”

Some of you might think we are carefully guarding you from the tough parts of this journey to death’s door, but really, this process is mostly gentle. Boring at times – we get lots of reading done and have enforced quiet time. Funny too. Occasionally frustrating and of course there are tears. We have lots of hours to reflect on the important things in life. Like relationships. Kindness. Touch. And of course, love.

We’ve read many books, Jeannie and I, and we recommend one in particular for anyone preparing to face death. Or walk to its door with another. Dr. Kathryn Mannix, a palliative physician who has witnessed thousands of deaths, pulled together a collection of stories in With the End in Mind: Dying, Death, and Wisdom in an Age of Denial. Her perspective is amazing.

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And so we cherish these moments with Jeannie as a family. Thank you for your love and support as we walk with Jeannie.

Hugs, and still more hugs, David

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More Precious Time

Jeannie is more comfortable now, as the end gets closer. More drugs are helping her with the unusual mental activity as the brain cancer does its damage.   

For the most part, Jeannie sleeps. She visits with family members and a couple of close friends when she is awake, but that is only a few hours each day. Juggling medications is part of life at our home now.  

Though getting weaker, she is eating heartily, enjoying meat and vegetables and brownies – and rum. Her body is still working well enough that she can often get up and walk to the bathroom and that makes her feel accomplished.   

Please know she talks about you all as a group, and mentions people by name too. You are all very special to her. I hope you find courage in her walk to death’s door. As the saying goes, “If you can’t be a good example then you’ll just have to be a horrible warning!” Jeannie is a good example, and so are each of you.

Hugs, David and the family