I have some sad news. You've been with us from the beginning. Supporting us, cheering us on. Sharing your own sadnesses, so that we felt less alone. And we did. And I am forever grateful.
As you might have heard, Michael passed away on Sunday, September 18th, at 8:20pm. He was 82.
He was at home, and in the end, for a man so measured in his pace and thoughts, he seemed to race for the finish line. At least, if felt like that for me.
He'd been failing, growing ever more fragile, in the proceeding week. Sometimes eating, sometimes not. We were pureeing his meals, and getting liquids into him by a sort of large syringe into his mouth, which he actually seemed to enjoy.
He had his regular massage on Thursday. I held him up in a sitting position while Daniel, one of our caregivers and a massage therapist, went over his back. Michael had his eyes closed and a huge smile on his face. Bliss.
Vivaldi's Four Seasons was playing in the background.
We laid him down and while Daniel massaged the rest of him, I called Dr. Dominique Giannangelo and asked if she could come over the next day.
She was here by 11am, and after examining Michael, she said we were now looking at weeks, not months. I was, to be truthful, shocked. I knew he was failing, but not quite that quickly.
On Saturday, Kim, who has been with us for years and coordinates the caregivers, was over. He didn't eat or drink, but we did manage to give him a shower. Me in a bathing suit, and Michael on the special chair. He again smiled all the way through it, loving the warm water over his body.
Then into bed.
That night was rough. I won't go into it, but I sat next to him, and held his hand and reassured him. Bishop lay beside the bed, as always. His vigil.
I thought Michael was going to go that night.
Early Sunday morning I called Dr. Giannangelo at home, waking her up. She never scolded, she didn't sound upset or censorious. All she said was that she'd be right there. And she was. It was her first day off in 2 weeks. And she came right over without complaint.
We got Michael comfortable, then she and I went into the living room. Bishop never left Michael's side. Dr Giannangelo told me it would now be 48 hours, perhaps more. Some people, she said, could survive seven days without food or water.
We'd already made the decision not to resuscitate, if it came to that. Not to prologue his life, just because we could. We would let nature take its course.
I was terrified that I would hold onto him, keep him alive - for my sake. Because I couldn't stand the thought of Michael dying.
But in the end the decision was so simple, if not easy. He needed to go. To be at rest and at peace.
I asked when I should call his sons Michael and Victor (I'd already warned them after the Friday conversation) and she said, call now.
Dr. Giannangelo then wrote out all sorts of prescriptions for congestion, for morphine, for anti-anxiety, in case. And something called a 'protocol'. As she said, in case all hell breaks loose, and the other drugs were not helping.
Then she arranged for a home care nurse to come and make up the syringes for me, and to put in stents.
She left, and the nurse came. By now, Michael's son Victor had arrived from Montreal. He spent quiet time, alone, with his Dad. And was there when the nurse came, and helped me make sure I was clear about the medications.
Then the nurse left. And Victor went back home. Thinking we had more time. By now Michael was calm, asleep. Resting completely comfortably.
Victor offered to spend the night. Kim, whom I'd called, offered to come. Lise, who was in constant communication, offered to stay. But I wanted, I longed, to be alone with Michael. Kim would come the next night, and Vic, and then we'd begin the vigil.
But that night was mine. Just the three of us. Michael and Bishop and me.
I set up an easy chair by his hospital bed, and a little table, and sat there while he slept, Bishop at my feet.
Later that evening it was clear something had changed. His breathing was more laboured.
I called Dr. Giannagelo (again) and interrupted her dinner. Again, absolutely no complaint, just: I'll be right there.
And she was.
As she prepared the medications, I held Michael and whispered prayers. All the prayers I could think of. Serenity Prayer, Third Step Prayer, Lord's Prayer. Now I lay me down to sleep…. And the Prayer of St Francis. Michael's favourite prayer. The one he recited from memory at a candlelight vigil as we held hands with neighbours, after 9/11.
It seemed to calm him. I know for sure it calmed me.
Then Dr. Giannangelo and I administered the syringes.
I whispered to Michael, over and over: God loves you. I love you. You are kind and brave and handsome and loved. We are all so proud of you. I'm so happy to be your wife. God loves you. I love you. You can let go.
Over and over.
Dr. Giannangelo had to go back to her office, briefly, for something. I walked her to the door.
And when I returned to the bedroom, Michael was gone. In the twinkling of an eye.
He was so peaceful, so serene, so relaxed. His eyes closed, his body at rest. I think I just sighed.
He was across the finish line.
I called the doctor (again). And Lise. And Kim. I called Victor and Michael. Then I returned to the bedroom, and kissed Michael's head. Then sat beside him, and cried.
A running joke with a friend, Susan, and Michael, and I was that she used to say, 'Between you, me and the lamppost….'
And Michael became 'the lamppost'. He loved it. It was said with such complete affection. And it was strangely perfect. He was that…luminous. A light in the dark. Not a saint, not a perfect man. But, I'll tell you, pretty darn close.
He chose to spend his medical career treating children with cancer. Trying desperately to cure them. He was a Lead Investigator in North American into childhood leukemia medications, making breakthroughs that eventually would lead to cures.
Michael used to tell me that when he started medicine, in the 1960s, 80 percent of children with leukemia would die. It gave him untold joy that by the time he retired, 80 percent lived. No small thanks to the work of Dr. V. Michael Whitehead, McGill professor of Medicine and the chief of Hematology at the Montreal Children's Hospital.
In his honour, because of his extraordinary contribution to medicine and children worldwide, McGill University will lower its flag to half mast on October 24th.
Here is a tribute on CBC.ca
The first Christmas we were together, he took me to a party for the children and their families at the Children's Hospital. I was chatting with some parents and the kids were all playing on the mats, when I looked across the room and saw Michael slowly turn his back, until he was facing the wall. Facing away.
I walked around the room and came up to him, and saw that he was crying. When I asked why he said that he, uniquely in the room, knew which children would see another Christmas.
I already loved him, but that moment I completely lost my heart to him.
Every Christmas day, for years, he would dress up as Santa and spend the day handing out gifts to the children and their families. I was lucky to get to go with him for a number of years.
Michael lived his beliefs. The Prayer of St Francis was not simply comforting words for him, they were a map. A call to action. A way through this life.
And when his time came, he was surrounded by love. Mine, his family's, his friends. God's love. And the love of all those children he loved and helped. And wept for.
It is not so much that Michael's heart stopped, but that he had finally given it all away.
Today, October 1, 2016 is his funeral, led by our friend, the minister Tim Smart. Friends, including Danny and Lucy, have formed a choir in Michael's honour. His son Michael will be reading from The Velveteen Rabbit and singing a Gilles Vigneault song. His best friend David Rosenblatt will do the eulogy. And his son Victor will read the Prayer of St Francis.
And we will remember, and celebrate, a great man. The love of my life.
And the lamp remains lit. The way forward clear.