This article was originally published in The Chronicle Herald on June 1, 2019. Ally Garber is the daughter of Judith MacLellan. Hospice Halifax had the honour of caring for Judith at the end of her life. Judith, Ally, and their family are one of the first families to receive care at Hospice Halifax.
Photo credits: Carla Adams (header), Ryan Taplin (photo 1), MacLellan family (photo 2)
ALLY GARBER: The first fond farewell at Hospice Halifax
On May 28, at 3:40 a.m., my mother, Judy MacLellan, became the first person to pass away at the new Hospice Halifax.
In terms of firsts, I think she’d agree that it’s probably not one you’d necessarily strive for at any point, but I believe that it is one befitting her character — and one that provides the perfect locale for her final chapter.
That chapter started almost 13 years ago when Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, just one week before my wedding. In typical Mom fashion, she kept the news to herself, never wanting to disclose bad news until she had a “plan” to address the challenge. She took the same approach when she was diagnosed with endometrial cancer five years later, then when cancer was found in her lymph nodes a few years after that, and finally, when the cancer metastasized to her brain last June.
This time, though, we knew the only thing we would be planning was our family’s ultimate, devastatingly searing, heartbreak.
The dream for Hospice Halifax began back in 2001, then known as the Hospice Society of Greater Halifax. After 18 years of planning, consulting and the collective efforts of countless passionate and dedicated individuals, the dream of creating a “compassionate and supportive community of staff members, volunteers, donors dedicated to making dying and living as comfortable and as meaningful as possible at the end of life,” came to fruition.
A little over a month ago, my mother led our family on a trip to the Hospice for its open house. For a woman who prided herself on creating tranquil and beautiful living spaces — whether at her home in Halifax or our special summer cottage in Smiths Cove — it was impressive when she turned to us and declared it to be “perfect.”
Mom knew she was dying. When? Well, we had ceased trying to predict when we’d say our final goodbyes. Here was a woman who defeated all expectations in terms of when cancer would have the final say. What was easier for her to establish was the desire to not end her life at home. For her, it was important that her condo not be remembered by her grandchildren as “the place Nanny died.”
Over the last four weeks, it became increasingly clear that Mom’s time here was limited. We clung to the hope that the hospice would be opened in time so we could give Mom a final gift of choosing at least some of the circumstances surrounding her death.
My nine-year-old son recently exclaimed apropos of nothing that sometimes “mistakes can lead to beautiful things.” In Mom’s case, that “mistake” was taking a fall in her room, leading to a rushed ride to the QEII and the determination that the time for inpatient palliative care had come. After a short stint at the VG’s palliative care unit under the care of kind doctors and nursing staff, Mom and I made our final journey together by ambulance over to Hospice Halifax to meet the rest of our family, where she had been selected to be their third admitted resident.
The hospice, it turns out, was indeed a “beautiful thing.”
There are enough adjectives about the décor and landscape that grace the interior and exterior of the hospice that could fill endless pages of architecture and design magazines. It’s a space that has thoughtfully and meticulously created a way to provide calm, companionship and even solitude when you need it.
More importantly, the physical space allows for the energy within those four walls — energy exuded from a nursing staff and care team whose sole focus is to treat not just the patient, but the “entire room,” meaning the family who often surround the bedside.
For our family, that meant coming to find us when we were falling apart in stairwells, creating a makeshift bed beside my mother so that in her final hours we could lie beside her, our foreheads pressed against hers, our hands clasping her hands. It meant getting to know us deeply in the shortest span of time, and meeting each of us where we individually were in experiencing our heartbreak and grief.
For our mother, this meant delivering not just the highest quality of palliative care, but giving her respect and protecting her dignity in the final stages of a disease that is best known for its thievery of one’s poise and pride.
My Mom was breathtakingly beautiful, known by all who knew her for her quiet kindness and empathy, and she was the first person to pass away at Hospice Halifax.
“You should write about this someday,” my Mom said to me as we rode together in the back of an ambulance on May 8 towards the QEII emergency room. “It’s quite a story.”
It is, Mom.
And it ends with the legacy you leave behind, not only with your children and grandchildren, but as the standard-bearer for a team of dedicated, passionate individuals who oversee Halifax’s first hospice — an organization that absolutely meets its vision to provide the best end of life possible.