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It just felt like she was sleeping

I’m so proud of my mum for so many things. I’m proud that she chose this option of a peaceful, dignified death. If I end up with a terminal illness, I’ll be going the same way, writes Dana Lewis.

Dana's mum, Maya, a few months after her diagnosis

You don't often hear someone say a death is uneventful, but that’s how I describe my mother’s. This is her story as told by me - her middle child.

My mum, Maya, was a strong force. She was direct and somewhat blunt. She said it how it was. I’m not saying she was cold or heartless, she was in fact the opposite. She was warm, loving, affectionate, giving, welcoming, a very patient mother to her three children growing up.

Mum knew what she wanted and when she made her mind up about something, that was how it stood.

In 2012, while living in Brisbane, mum was diagnosed with breast cancer. She moved to Melbourne in 2014 to be where her three children and two grandchildren were. She always had time for her family, it’s what made her happy.

In December 2018, after an emergency visit to the hospital, she was diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer, which had spread to her liver, ovaries, and lungs. I was with mum when the oncologist told her the cancer was terminal and she had approximately two years left. It was like the sound around me got sucked into a vortex. I looked at her face and there was no reaction. She said, “It is what it is, I’m a realist I knew it was going to happen”. 

Not long after, mum raised the topic of voluntary assisted dying (VAD). She investigated and we went to meet Dr Nick Carr. What a wonderfully warm man. He made mum and myself so comfortable. 

All other options exhausted

At that stage, mum’s treatment was working so she couldn’t progress further through the VAD process. But as time went on and all the treatment options were exhausted, mum was given a maximum of six months to live.

We used the time we had to our full advantage, we knew our time with mum was short. I sat with her over a few days, set my phone to record and got her talking about her life growing up. On one occasion we were all together and mum was watching her three grandchildren - Oliver, Willow and Bailey - play. I asked her if it made her sad to watch them knowing that she’s leaving them behind. She said no, the two weren’t connected. She was looking forward to not being in pain anymore so she didn’t think about what she was leaving behind. 

Unfortunately, Mum headed downhill quite quickly. She couldn’t move without screaming in pain, she had no appetite, her stomach had grown huge, but the rest of her was gaunt, pale and yellow. She wasn’t the vibrant mum we were used to.

Maya with her children: Elinor, Dana, and Elahn, and grandchildren: Oliver, Bailey, and Willow

Setting the date

She told us she needed to set the date as she couldn’t take it any more. For her this wasn’t living. I called Melanie, a woman who had agreed to help mum while Dr Carr was away, and asked if she could come the morning of the 23rd December 2020. 

"I had a good life and don’t feel I missed out on anything"

Mum didn’t want a big send off, she didn’t want people coming over to say their goodbyes and making a big deal of it. This was mum. She allowed us to ask family to come to just sit and say hi -- no goodbyes, no crying, just a visit. 

That was that, and then we waited, counting down the days and hours until the chosen time.

The night before, the three of us were at mum’s and she was in so much pain. We had to give her so much pain medication that it knocked her out. When she was awake she was so confused, angry,  and frustrated. 

On the morning of the 23rd of December, we all met at mum’s. I lay in bed with her and listened to her talk. 

When Melanie arrived, she sat and talked with us, asked mum about her life, there was no rush. She kept reminding mum that this was on her terms, she could change her mind if she wanted. But mum’s mind was made up. We asked if she had anything left to say, her response was “I’ve said everything, I had a good life and don’t feel I missed out on anything”. I think mum was afraid to cry, that if she started she would never stop.

We tried to reflect her demeanour, to behave like she was, for her sake, to make it easier for her. 

Like falling asleep

When Melanie gave the medication to mum, she drank it quickly, then tipped some water into the glass and drank that. She didn’t want to miss a drop. Within minutes? Seconds? (Time wasn’t making sense), she fell asleep and Eli (my sister) held onto her. 

"Mum snored away, so it just felt like she was sleeping, nothing unusual."

We then lay her down, it was the first time in a long time that we could move her without her screaming in pain. We all lay on the bed with her, Elahn (my brother) stroking her head and telling her it was ok that she could go. Eli next to her holding her hand, and me by her legs. We had her loyal dog Prada there too so she could feel what was happening. Mum snored away, so it really just felt like she was sleeping, nothing unusual. Then she did one extra loud snore and then silence. Eli commented that her hand was instantly cold. I didn’t look up at her face, I didn’t want my last vision of her to be of no life.

We had been told the approximate time it takes a person to pass away after drinking the medication was 1-2 hours. Mum took 10 minutes. She had made her mind up that she’d had enough and she was out of here and broke a record in the process. 

Maya with her three children on her 75th birthday

No regrets

I have replayed that morning in my head so many times over the past two years. Do I wish I had said some things that I didn’t? Yes. Do I wish I had asked mum more questions? Yes. Do I wish I had asked for one more hug? 100 more hugs? Yes. 

But I didn’t because I did it the way mum wanted and I did it her way to make it easier for her. I’m so proud of my mum for so many things. I’m proud that she chose this option of a dignified death. Everyone I tell says the same thing - how brave she was. I know she didn’t do it to be brave. She did it because she didn’t want a slow painful death, to be aware of her body's failing, she didn’t want to lose her dignity and to have us wash her, toilet her. 

She is fortunate she had moved to Melbourne all those years ago as it was the only state at the time of her passing where VAD was legal. She’s passed on many traits, beliefs, strengths and weaknesses to me but one thing I know for sure is that if I end up with a terminal illness and have the choice, I’ll be going the same way. 

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