This past week I lost a long time friend and colleague. But this time it was different. She told me in advance. While I have known others who have exercised their option to have MAID (medical assistance in dying) they tended to be somewhat removed from my immediate circle. When I was the CEO of a Child & Family Services organization in Alberta I had to authorize the removal of life support from a new born child; but again the case, while tragic, was relatively straightforward as the young person, barely one day old was so severely brain damaged that life was projected to be at the most a couple of days. So, unfortunately the decision was neither different nor close to my circle.
But Jennifer was different. I have known her for about thirty years. I met her when I was working in association with the accounting & consulting firm BDO Dunwoody. She was a very astute member of the Insolvency Team and taught me a great deal about how that world worked and how difficult it could be, as well as even those times when it was somewhat humorous. Later in my corporate life, all the learning became much closer to home when, due to a major breach of contract on the part of a client, my financial world imploded. Jennifer would not take my case as there was a possibility of a conflict of interest as BDO might be implicated in the Arbitration process; however, she did give me some very sound and thoughtful advice that helped my lawyer pick the best possible insolvency professional in Edmonton to help me get through this very difficult experience. Jennifer continued to provide reflective analysis whenever I found things particularly onerous. In the end, the world did right itself and I recovered.
Jennifer was also a friend. The first time she exhibited this side of her being (most people in accounting and finance roles are not necessarily the more gregarious types and the ones dealing with insolvency can be characterized as tough & focussed) was at the initial Christmas party I was invited to at BDO. The colleague who had invited me was late showing up and I didn’t know anyone. Moreover my introverted nature was encouraging me to simply slip out a side entrance and return home. As I was about to do this, Jennifer came over and introduced herself. She thought that maybe I wasn’t feeling very comfortable and wanted to make sure I didn’t come to the conclusion that everyone at BDO was insular. We had a good visit and later when the dancing started she even came back and asked me for a dance. Her visit also seemed to spark several others into coming over and welcoming me into the group. By making that first move, Jennifer managed to keep me at the party and actually feel like the connection with BDO could be a reasonable one.
Jennifer discovered from our conversation that among other things I had some expertise in applied ethics – that I actually taught seminars and workshops on the subject. So she then organized a noon-hour group at BDO and for six weeks I took a small band of professionals through an introduction to ethical reasoning in the moment of critical choice. It was a fun moment and everyone seemed to learn. Moreover it then indirectly led to my being asked by the Certified Management Accountants of BC (CMA’s) to teach/moderate courses in ethics &/or leadership in their professional program. That arrangement lasted for twelve years and provided me with some really neat learning moments along with several special professional colleagues.
Jennifer and I also became friends throughout the BDO time. She complained one day that there was no one that ever wanted to go biking, so one Saturday I phoned her up and we cycled the sea-wall at Stanley Park. We also went to a couple of movies when we discovered we both enjoyed the cinema. After my firm and BDO parted, Jennifer and I continued to stay in touch. We would get together once-in-a-while to share a meal and get caught up on the worlds each of us were living/working in. Eventually she left BDO for a firm that had its offices closer to where she lived in suburban Vancouver. The conversations were always thoughtful and at times spiced with her British wit. Because of her profession, she had real empathy for those who for one reason or another had lost their ability to keep their financial world intact – she was seldom critical, and while always analytical she could be compassionate. This characteristic was particularly appreciated after I had returned to Alberta and my own confrontation with financial collapse.
After leaving BC our communications did lessen a bit and much of it was conducted by e-mail. Nevertheless whenever I was at the coast and our schedules would permit, we did try to have lunch and re-connect. When I subsequently moved farther east the face-to-face occasions were more infrequent, but when she announced her battle with cancer this did inspire me to call regularly to get up-dates on how things were progressing. And when I was on the coast for teaching gigs we would definitely try to find time to have lunch or dinner. She seemed to be winning the health challenge and her thoughts about it actually helped me deal with similar situations with other colleagues stricken with life-threatening moments. In particular when I lost the three good friends who were originally going to help me with my book, it was Jennifer who gave me supportive advice before before and after their passing.
Then things began to change. Whenever I was at the coast it became more difficult to find a time in our schedules when both would be free for a meal. Even phone calls became more complicated and e-mails seemed to become more infrequent. Whenever we did connect, Jennifer was always cheerful but regretted our inability to meet. Over a year ago we did find time for dinner at a restaurant we had eaten at before – this particular evening the place was full, they had even added extra tables, and for the first time I realized how uncomfortable Jennifer was. It was too noisy, it was too crowded and the food was not up to the usual standards of the place. She ate quickly, and before finishing everything, she asked to be taken home. I agreed and we left – the next day or so she called to apologize (I said there was no need, that these things happen) and suggested that we try for lunch the next time at another place nearby that is always quiet around 11:00 a.m. I agreed – but that meal never happened. Whenever I managed to contact her she was either off to another appointment, involved in another drug trial, trying to get some rest, or simply needing the time to gain more strength back. The inconveniences and disruptions she had mentioned at the meal to explain the difficulties for meeting, now had become the daily life-style.
Through all this, Jennifer never complained except for the fact she was missing a free meal!! This past Christmas I didn’t hear from her so I figured I should drop a follow-up note to my card. That’s when I received the e-mail that told me she was opting for MAID. The pain had become too severe, the schedule of tests and trials never-ending, the lack of any semblance of life too overwhelming. She had talked this over with her family and they had come to concur with her decision. She hoped that I would too. I replied that while I did respect her choice, I would like to have one more phone conversation.
Jennifer and I had a wonderful conversation on the Monday afternoon preceding her Thursday passing. There was some laughter, there was some sadness, but mostly it was an exchange of reflective thankfulness that our paths had crossed three decades before. Her only request was that I not write this memorial until at least a week after she was gone. She didn’t want to read it, nor did she want it to come out in the first few days of grief that her family and close friends would likely be going through. She thanked me in advance that I would think enough of her to include her on my Editorialog. And then she said good-bye.
As I said when I remembered my daughter’s good friend Pete: Now go and hug someone. MAID can be a helpful and positive thing: for a moment, celebrate the life of a person brave enough to ask for a peaceful ending on her terms.