Dying to live

For me, living is Christ and dying is gain.
–Phil. 1:21

In 2004, my good friend Sam* experienced severe pain in his neck while driving his car. He was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and given about three years to live. However, Sam defied all expectations and lived for 13 years with his cancer. He continued to work during most of this time, punctuated with many radiation and chemotherapy treatments at Edmonton’s Cross Cancer Clinic. About a year ago, his cancer spread to his blood and into his spinal fluid. Also, over the last few years, because of a severely compromised immune system, Sam had recurring bouts of very serious double pneumonia and sepsis that sent him to emergency hospital care where he almost died several times.

Last May, during one such hospital stay, Sam asked a few of his friends to hold a living wake for him. Because Sam was too ill to be moved, permission was given to hold the wake in a meeting space in the hospital itself. More than 100 people came. Many were from Edmonton’s sporting community. Players from some of the many hockey teams Sam had coached testified to the positive impact he’d had on their lives as boys and young men. Parents of kids he’d coached came to express their appreciation, as did friends and colleagues from his work places.

Much to the surprise of everyone, Sam was once again released from hospital. But his health continued to deteriorate. Walking more than a few steps proved very difficult, and he felt nauseous most of the time. Nevertheless, he volunteered for very painful and aggressive experimental treatments. In October, Sam asked me to accompany him to his oncologist for a review. Sadly, he was told that the treatments were unsuccessful and that there was nothing more that could be done for him. His oncologist gave him three months to live. Soon after, Sam was again admitted to hospital with double pneumonia. I remember him saying, “I’m looking forward to being rid of this body.”

Retreat

On December 20, 2017, my wife Louisa and I visited Sam in his hospital room where Louisa gave him a haircut. It was there that he told us that he had made his formal request for MAiD: Medical Assistance in Dying, which, if he was still of sound mind, would be carried out on January 1, 2018. Shortly after this visit, Sam was transferred to a palliative care unit in one of Edmonton’s Catholic hospitals. On the evening of December 30th, Sam and eight of his closest Christian friends gathered for prayers, anointed him with oil and shared communion. The next day, I had my last visit with him. Because the Catholic hospital would not participate in MAiD, he was taken to Edmonton’s Cross Cancer Clinic and on New Year’s Day, at the scheduled time, Sam passed away peacefully.

During the last few years of Sam’s illness and hospitalizations, he and I spoke frequently about end of life issues. We both agreed that life was a precious gift from God; but, as Christians, we did not believe that biological existence was to be idolized. Both of us expressed fear of dying because of the needless suffering it often causes, but we were not afraid of death because it has been swallowed up in Christ’s victory on the cross and nullified by the Easter promise of resurrection. A few weeks before his death, Sam, who had a real interest in military history, said to me, “You know, our culture venerates heroes who go on fighting till the end, whether on the battlefield or in a hospital bed. Sometimes, though, retreat is the better part of valour, especially if that retreat avoids unnecessary suffering and leads to new life. I’ve fought this cancer for 13 years. I’m ready to retreat to be with my Lord.” To which I replied, “Amen, my friend, I’m with you all the way.”

*Not my friend’s real name. “Sam” asked that his decision be kept confidential because he knew that some of his friends, both Christian and non-Christian, were not ready to accept MAiD. He did not want his death to cause dissent or sadness. 

While Bob mourns the passing of his friend and colleague, he believes that his courageous decision is a testament to his faith in his resurrection through Christ.

Author

  • Robert Bruinsma

    Robert (Bob) Bruinsma is a retired Professor of Education (The King’s University) living in Edmonton. He has interests in language and literature and loves birds and the outdoors. To help pass the time on long winter nights, he makes wine and beer (and drinks it in moderation) with his wife of 46 years (Louisa). Bob is a member of Fellowship CRC where he tells stories for children and happily participates in weekly communion. He and Louisa have three grown children and three little grandsons.

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