In his book, How, Then, Shall We Live the theologian and psychotherapist Wayne Muller poses four questions that guide readers to consider what makes for a meaningful life. The questions are designed to “reveal the true nature of our love and our strength, our courage and our wisdom.”
Of the four questions, it is the third, “How shall I live, knowing I will die” that resonated most for me as I finalized this series, The Leave-taking. Whereas the concept of death is understood by all, few of us really consider our own demise unless faced with illness or the death of a loved one. For most of us there is always a limitless tomorrow. However for my friend and neighbour Alma, tomorrow was contained within five months, from the time she decided to avail herself to the services of Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) to her passing in early November 2020. The Leave-taking offers a glimpse into how Alma spent those final five months, living with the intimacy of her death hovering on the periphery.
To be sure, The Leave-taking is a project about Alma, death, and MAID. It is also, at its most fundamental, a meditation on Time: how it is measured in the small, homely activities that make up a day; how we note its passing in the changing seasons; how we shuttle between past and future while rooted in the present. We are sometimes caught by surprise by the elasticity of time, how it can go from stretching out luxuriously to suddenly compressing to a tight deadline. For Alma, the endless and languorous summer yielded to autumn almost without notice, and she found herself running “out of time” to settle her affairs as she would have liked.
Alma chose the autumn as the season for her death. She lived the weeks that preceded MAID joyfully and simply, deriving pleasure from the quotidian of neighbourhood walks, phone calls and visits, bakery treats with coffee, and afternoon naps. Time moved gently and slowly, until there was no more time.