This First Person column is written by Mary Gellner, who lives in Ottawa. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

The day before her meticulously scheduled death, my aunt greeted me in her pink tracksuit, which read, “Great things to come.”

She opened the door to my mom and I who arrived in Sutton, Ont., after a nearly four-hour drive from Ottawa, and when I saw her, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so I settled in the middle with a smile and tears. My aunt was blind, and I figured she wouldn’t notice.

“Did you choose the shirt intentionally?” I asked, leaning toward her for a hug.

“Yes,” my aunt said with a smile. “It’s funny.”

It was funny. 

“Are you sniffling?” my aunt asked, finally noticing my tears. “Don’t cry. I only cried once. People keep calling me and crying. I’m not sad,” she said. 

In less than 24 hours, my aunt would be gone.

A woman holds a baby in her arms.
Gellner as an infant with her aunt Bev. (Submitted by Mary Gellner )

My aunt’s sense of humour had helped her cope with the unexpected death of her daughter, a painful ostomy surgery, and managing life with vision loss and a colostomy bag.

My uncle said her severe osteoporosis and arthritis had left her in bed with chronic pain most days. 

Her pain wasn’t terminal, but it consumed her life.

My aunt said she had cycled through every kind of pain management plan — from medications to lifestyle changes, but nothing had eased her suffering. So finally, my aunt told her doctor she wanted a medically assisted death and began the approval process.

She said didn’t want a big crowd on the day of her death, so we planned to say our goodbye the day before. 

My mom and I wanted to support her decision, but selfishly we had hoped she might change her mind. My uncle also told me he was afraid of losing her. They met in their teens, married young, built a business together, had three kids and many grandchildren. 

It was hard to know how to feel. Isn’t death supposed to be a terrible surprise? This was akin to a funeral, with sad cards, photos and loved ones but my soon-to-be-deceased-aunt was alive and in good spirits. 

It was like a strange party for red-eyed people. 

A composite of two photos. The first one is black and white photo of two girls. The picture on the right is a photo of two smiling women together seated at a table.
Gellner’s mother, left, and her aunt, right, were close as sisters from an early age. (Submitted by Mary Geller)

I looked around the dining room table at the faces of my mom, my aunt, her husband, some of their children and their grandchildren. 

My mom had brought homemade fudge, and told us a story about how as a child, she had burned herself on the fudge under the “watchful” care of her big sister.

I listened to my mom and my aunt chat. My heart broke knowing that this was their last conversation.

In between laughter and reminiscing, distress from her illness would flash across my aunt’s face, and she would gasp quietly from pain. 

A smiling woman holds two small black dogs in her arms.
Gellner’s aunt Bev maintained her sense of humour throughout her life and was cracking jokes on the day of her death. (Submitted by Mary Gellner)

While sitting at the table, I thought back to an earlier visit with my aunt. I remembered the sound of her shrieking in bed from horrendous pain. Her bones sounded like they were literally cracking.

After years of surviving, she courageously said, enough.

I could tell today was a better day, because she knew it would be over soon. 

“Are you afraid?” I asked.

“I am not afraid of the procedure,” she said calmly. “They explained it all to me. They will put two needles in each arm — one for backup.”

But then, she added, “I am afraid of what comes next. I am afraid of not existing.”

WATCH | Artist chose medically-assisted death and wanted Canadians to witness the entire process

Artist chose medically-assisted death and wanted Canadians to witness the entire process

Saskatoon artist Jeanette Lodoen was one of more than 10,000 Canadians a year now choosing medical-assisted dying. Lodoen believed that if families, health professionals and lawmakers are going to make good decisions, they need to see exactly what it’s like. That’s why she allowed CBC News to witness her final weeks.

Then, it was time to say our final goodbye.

I had held myself together during the visit, but when it came time for my last hug, my tears welled up fast. 

I wanted to say, “Don’t do it,” but I held back and said instead, “I hope you get your peace tomorrow.” 

“Are you crying?” my aunt demanded with a smile. “I can tell.”

As my mom and I got into my car, my aunt called out, “Do you want some tablecloths, clothes or bathrobes? I won’t need them.”

On the drive back to Ottawa, my mom turned to me and mused, “Maybe she will change her mind?” 

Along our journey we witnessed the biggest and brightest rainbow appear in the sky and then fade away. All those colours on earth for a finite amount of time reminded me to be grateful for the loved ones in your life, even if they cannot stay as long as you would like.

The next day, my aunt died, as she had planned, with humour and with dignity. She had one last pyjama party with her granddaughters before waking up to the last morning of her life.

My uncle said she made jokes right until the end. She even teased the medical professional inserting the IV lines.

“Is this your first time doing this,” she laughed.

Since medically-assisted death is a choice, I naively thought that it would be easier to handle my grief over my aunt’s death. But a loved one dying by choice still leaves the same size hole in your heart. I am grateful that my aunt was at peace by her own choice and in awe of her courage and humour in the face of death, but also felt immense grief that she was gone from my life forever.

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