For about six weeks in January to March, 2002, my husband, Doug, and I were privileged to enjoy our "trip of a lifetime" to Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, and a return to Hong Kong thirty years after we had lived and worked there. On Saturday, March 2nd we awoke to find a note under the door of our hotel room asking us to call our son immediately. When we did, he informed us that our daughter, Maggie, had been diagnosed with colo-rectal cancer the day before, and was scheduled for surgery on Tuesday, March 5. We phoned her doctor as well, and he gave us more information on the medical side. We were already scheduled to fly to Hong Kong that day, so we took that flight, and then proceeded to try to get an earlier flight back to Canada than the one we had scheduled for Wednesday, March 6th. We seemed to be blocked at every turn. In spite of the fact of a family emergency, the flights were full, and there was no way we could get seats. Finally, one of Doug's former students, who is now in quite a high government position, said he would see what he could do, and on Tuesday morning we got word that he had secured seats for us on a flight that day. We had talked with Maggie several times in the meantime. She seemed to be facing the surgery with her usual calm and practical attitude, but how hard it was to be on the other side of the world, and unable to reach her. Our best friends were able to come and be with Maggie and Steve the night before the surgery, and be at the hospital with Steve all day. We arrived at the hospital at 10:00 p.m. and were allowed to spend some time with Maggie that night before we went home.
That is how this journey started. Maggie recovered quite well, adjusted to having a colostomy without any major trials, and carried on with her life - her work as a Registered Massage Therapist, her activities with community theatre groups in the area, and her life with her husband, Steve, and their two cats (Rama and Esmeralda). Maggie and Steve had just been married in September of 2001, although they had been friends since the beginning of high school, and had been living together for seven years.
In January of 2003, Maggie was diagnosed with a recurrence of the cancer. Surgery did not seem to be an option this time, and she did not want to have radiation or chemotherapy. She was able to continue working until the fall of 2003, when the heavy physical toll started to become too much for her, and she began to look for other things she could do. She taught for one semester at a Massage Therapy School in Barrie. She started her own business called "You Write It, I'll Right It" - proofreading and editing. (Maggie and I had a running joke about neither one of us ever being able to read anything without a mental red pencil in our hands to make corrections.) Homeopathic treatments helped somewhat, but of course were very expensive and not covered by OHIP.
The palliative care part of the journey began on Tuesday, October 5, 2004, when Maggie was at "?Circle of Friends', a cancer support group which she had been attending. She had sudden severe abdominal pain and nausea. Her friends convinced her that she should go to the hospital, so she called Steve, and he met her at the meeting and went with her to Royal Victoria Hospital in Barrie. She was given medication to control the pain in Emergency, and was able to get into a hospital room on Tuesday night. At that point they seemed to think it was just a serious case of constipation. Over the next few days her blood pressure was very low, and she was still nauseous. On Saturday they tried to give her an enema, which was extremely painful for her, and just before midnight Saturday night, our son, Carl, drove to the cottage where we were staying near Barrie, to tell us that she was in critical condition. So, a flying trip into Barrie, to her bedside in CCU, where she was hooked up to what seemed a thousand tubes. We sat with her through the night, and on Sunday morning she had a CT scan which indicated that she had a perforated bowel. The doctor said it could be a matter of hours or days at the most. He wanted to know if we thought Maggie should be told - a ludicrous thought if you knew Maggie. We said yes, she will want to know every detail. It seemed like she already knew somehow, and when he spoke with her, she just said that she had three wishes. She wanted to go home; she wanted to say goodbye to her cats, and she wanted one last sip of Scotch. Because she had to be on massive doses of antibiotics because of the perforation, going home was really not a possibility, but the CCU nurse (who was allergic to cats herself) said that could be done, and Steve and his brother were dispatched to get them. They brought them in their carrying cases Sunday afternoon, and Maggie's cubicle in CCU was closed off, and she had a time with each of them individually on her bed. Wish # 2 - granted! Late Sunday night, she was able to move up to the palliative care ward - at first in a semi-private room, and a day or two later into a private room. I think when they started to see how many visitors she was having; they thought they had better put her in a separate room.
On Monday, October 11 (Thanksgiving Day) we gathered in her room, and shared a toast with a wee dram of Scotch for each of us, including Maggie. Wish #3 - granted! She said it really stung as it went through the naso-gastric tube.
I can't say enough good things about the staff in the palliative care ward. They said we could stay at the hospital as long as we wanted. They designated two lounges for our use with reclining chairs and pull-out couches, and the use of the kitchen across the hall. So we set up camp so to speak for the next week. From the time we arrived on that Saturday night emergency run, I didn't leave the hospital building until Maggie passed a week later. During that week there were between 8 and 12 people sleeping over in our lounge area, and others would come in whenever they could. Maggie was never alone, as we took turns being with her through the nights.
What a week that was! We had phoned a few people, but the grapevine went into overdrive (there's a mixed metaphor if ever there was one). Maggie's room was "Party Central'. Friends from the theatre community, friends from various Complementary Therapy connections, friends from school, members of her Circle of Friends group, relatives all flocked to her bedside, and it was she who was comforting them, giving each one some words of wisdom as they left.
One friend from high school would go to his job in Toronto during the day, pick up some food after work and bring it to us in the hospital to give us a change from cafeteria food, and he would stay with Maggie on the first of the night shifts till about 2 a.m., drive back to Toronto, and go to work the next day. I don't know how he did it. Cousins from Vancouver Island came, and stayed over with us at the hospital. A former student from our Hong Kong days, who now lives in California, flew up for a couple of days to spend time with Maggie. As she knew each of these folks were coming, she perked up. It seemed like she had to wait until she had seen each of them. Her best friend was with her most of the week, and they had some grand discussions.
Most importantly though, she wanted to see Pamela and Robert, Steve's parents. They had gone to Florida for a wedding on the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend. We didn't have a contact number for them. Finally Steve spoke to his aunt, who said she thought she could get in touch with them. She did, but unfortunately the message that reached them was that Maggie had already passed. They called Steve, of course, and received the good news / bad news that she was alive, but it was probably only for a short time. They flew home on Thursday, so were able to have time with her for the rest of the week. That was one of the tragedies of the situation, because they so wanted to be with her. She was already in hospital when they left the previous week, but at that point no one realized how serious her situation was.
The night of October 14th, she said she wanted to write a letter to everyone, so the laptop was set up on her bed table, and through the night, with frequent rest stops, she composed a letter which she asked Steve to send to everyone after her passing.
We and the staff did everything we could to make her comfortable and satisfy her every whim, if we could. One day she said that she would have loved to have another meal of lobster. We checked with the staff, and they said if it was cut up very fine and she chewed it thoroughly, that was OK, so someone went off to a local Red Lobster. The look of bliss on her face as she swallowed it was a rich reward. It did look funny to see these little pink specks traveling through the naso-gastric tube though.
Complementary therapists came and gave her treatments - massage, aromatherapy, Therapeutic Touch, Reiki - all brought their own element of healing to her and to everyone who was there. We got into the habit of gathering around her bed every few hours and having a healing time. I don't know what else to call it, because it was just that. Whoever happened to be there, we gathered around and touched her wherever we were standing or sitting, and spent some quiet time sending her and each other peace and wholeness and strength. Those were such powerful times. Sometimes we would do it just because we could see that Maggie was getting tired and needed some rest time. Each time when she opened her eyes again, she would say that it had seemed like a couple of hours, not just five minutes, and she would have a story or a poem that had come to her during the time.
On the evening of Saturday, October 16 she had mainly family visitors. We had started to curtail some of her visitors, because she was getting very weak and tired. That afternoon she had had the naso-gastric tube removed. What a relief that was to her! It had been irritating her, and it was wonderful for us to see her just as herself without this appendage. At 2:00 a.m. when the shift changed from David (Steve's brother) and Colette (friend and photographer) to Doug's cousins, Maggie was cheerful and joking as they left. Shortly afterwards she fell asleep. About 4:00 a.m. they came to wake Steve, Doug and me to say that they couldn't rouse her and they thought she was going. We stayed with her, telling her we loved her so much, and that it was all right for her to go, and at 5:00 a.m. she passed very quietly.
We held a Service of Celebration the following Friday at St. Matthew's United Church in Richmond Hill, which had been Maggie's home church until she moved away. About 350 people gathered to honour her and remember what an important part she had played in so many lives. She had asked to be buried in the small cemetery at the church which I attended as a child, so she rests with many of her ancestors, dating back to the 1830's.
The journey continues. There have been many living memorials to this remarkable young woman who was and is our daughter. A school friend from Hong Kong who now lives in England is raising money to have a well built in Africa (through OxFam), to be known as Maggie's Well. One of the theatre companies in which she was active has planted a tree on their property in her honour. Another theatre company dedicated the Best Supporting Actress Award at the 2005 Awards ceremony to her. The most far-reaching memorial has been Pamela's painting of a Celtic faerie, entitled "?Ceilidh'. It is a beautiful painting, and she has dedicated it to Maggie, and is donating all the profits from its sale to the "?Stephen Lewis Foundation' for AIDS relief in Africa.