Auntie Win, Mum’s older sister, was active in the Dying with Dignity movement over twenty years ago, after she retired as a healthcare educator in a local college in Vancouver. A week ago I went to visit her in the care home she has been living in for the last five years. She is in the end stages of dementia, hasn’t spoken for a year, and not surprisingly, didn’t know me, as Janie. As we gazed at one another though, in the quiet, I knew Win knew me as a stranger who cared about her. I sensed she could feel my care.
Win missed the “window,” the span of time between knowing dementia was setting in, and choosing to enact her advanced directive, to make plans for when she’d be unable to make her own decisions about living and dying.
During that visit, my ideas and concepts about what was right and wrong about Win’s living and dying situation got tossed in the air by one conversation with a care aide who had known “Winnie,” as she called her, for a year.
She said, “Winnie’s son came to visit a few weeks ago, all the way from Nova Scotia, and she knew him. He stayed for four days and cuddled her, and talked to her and she knew him.” I noticed her eyes filled up with tears as she told me the story of Brian’s visit and I realized in that moment that she loved Winnie. It mattered to her that Winnie was held and comforted by her son.
After that visit when I found myself wondering about the meaning of Win’s life living in a care facility for five years, in spite of her expressed wishes before dementia, I thought of the care aide, and I realized that Win’s life mattered to her. Win’s presence gave meaning to that young woman’s work. Win helped her to care, to love, to feel kinship, and family. Win’s last five years of life mattered to someone who a year before had been a stranger. Perhaps life isn’t always about autonomy, about what we want or what we think is the purpose or meaning of our lives. Perhaps life is more often about interdependence, and the connection with people we may not even know we matter to. Perhaps Win’s life these last five years helped cultivate more loving on the planet. And that has to be a good thing.
Thanks to Auntie Win who looked into my eyes a month ago and offered me this precious teaching. And thanks to all the people, especially to my Auntie Dib, and Win’s family at the care home who took especially good care of her these past five years.