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Spirit Story

Lessons from a friend

By Denise Davy

When my friend Eric McGuinness was diagnosed with cancer, he fought back with chemo. That was 2010. When it reappeared a few years later, he bravely fought again, even though the chemo had left him numb in his fingers and toes. When it came back the third time, Eric made a bold decision.

As I sat across from him at a small café in Hamilton, he told me of his plans to fly to Zurich, Switzerland, where assisted suicide has been legal since 1942, and end his life.

I was stunned.

Looking into his face and seeing how healthy he looked, I struggled to reconcile his words with the person before me. My gut instinct was to talk him out of it. Didn’t he want to squeeze every last minute out of life?  

But Eric was a head-over-heart guy. I knew that better than most. When my teenage son died years earlier, many people sat in my living room and sobbed inconsolably. Eric, on the other hand, was the essence of calm. He brought me the book The Little Prince and, in doing so, reminded me that my son’s name, Ryan, meant little prince. In my grief-stricken state, I had completely forgotten it was one of the reasons I’d chosen it 18 years earlier.

During one of Eric’s visits, a FedEx truck delivered a letter from columnist Barbara Amiel. She’d sent her condolences for my loss. Eric didn’t say much, but when he returned to the newsroom where we both worked, he faxed off a thank you to Amiel.

Eric was never known for being short on words. But during his visits, he always let me do the talking, and it gave me moments of peace as I worked through my grief. Now, as I sat across from him in that café, I realized it was my turn to return the favour.

I listened as he talked about how he didn’t want to be a burden on his family and friends, how he didn’t want to die a slow and painful death, and why he felt his decision was being forced on him: Canada’s Criminal Code prohibited physician-assisted dying. (The Supreme Court has since struck down that law.)

I gave him a small Guatemalan worry doll and told him to tuck it under his pillow at night to take away his worries. I hoped it offered some comfort.

On our last visit, we sat in a booth at the Mulberry Street Coffeehouse and chatted for three hours. He asked about my two daughters, whom I’d adopted from China after my son died, and he brought tears to my eyes when he told me he would miss not being able to watch them grow up.

When I shared a funny story about a woman we both knew, he let out a hearty laugh. It is the moment I cherish most. A few weeks after our visit, Eric boarded a plane for Switzerland and ended his life. He was 69.

My last few visits with him taught me that in a world where we so often search for connections through words and actions, sometimes the best thing we can give someone is our silence.

Denise Davy is a journalist in Hamilton.

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