September 2020

29 Sep Dying Wish – NZ Woman’s Weekly Column

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly, 5 October 2020…

I have been a close witness to five deaths – two very special friends who died of cancer in the 1980s, and then family members in recent years, including my father who died in January 2017, and my mother who died in June last year.

I’ve also been present for several births – I was very involved in my daughter’s birth 27 years ago (I’m still tired when I think about it) and I was holding her hand when each of my grandchildren were born.

What I’ve learnt from those experiences is that the beginning and the end of life are similarly significant events. There’s nothing simple about arriving on the planet, or about leaving it and, no matter your role, being in the room when those things happen changes you forever. My mother, Donna, and I talked about it a lot over the years – how these twin events are the bookends of life.

We spend a lot of time planning for a birth – talking about it, preparing ourselves, writing a “birth plan”, doing everything we can to make it as healthy and comfortable as possible for the mother and baby. We will also intervene to make a birth happen days or weeks sooner than it might otherwise to make it safe and bearable, with the least trauma and suffering. My daughter, for example, was induced six weeks early because getting her out of the womb and into the world was better than letting nature take its course.

It seems right to think about death the same way – talk about it, make a plan, be prepared to intervene to make it as free of pain and as full of kindness possible.

When my mother, Donna, was given a terminal diagnosis in 2018, she said with her typical courage and clarity that she was not afraid of dying, but she was afraid of pain. We knew from other deaths – particularly my father’s the year before – that no amount of palliative care is a guarantee there won’t be suffering. We have known friends and family who have taken their death into their own hands by refusing food and water because they felt they had no other choice. Donna said she didn’t want that. She wanted a final chapter that reflected the rest of her story which was a life lived with elegance and dignity.

Our conversation about end-of-life choice had started years before, and we owe a debt of gratitude to Lucretia Seales for getting us talking so openly. In 2015, Lucretia mounted a legal challenge seeking the right for a doctor to help her die without being at risk of criminal prosecution. I think everyone’s heart broke a little when the courts didn’t allow this, but Lucretia did a remarkable thing in allowing her death to be part of our national conversation. I will be thinking of her as well as my mother when I vote “Yes” on the End of Life Choice referendum next month.

Where you put your tick will depend largely on how robust you think the safeguards are. There are doctors and palliative care specialists in both camps, plus people with terminal diagnoses or vulnerabilities because of race, disability and socio-economics who do and don’t support it.

In a nutshell, you must be terminally ill with less than six months to live and experiencing “unbearable suffering” that cannot be relieved to even begin to be eligible. The law is intended to put the patient at the centre – patient-led and with the option to change your mind at any time. Very few of us – perhaps only five percent – will ever need this law or be able to use it, so it’s about giving those people a choice. The government’s website will be your most trustworthy source for clear and unbiased information:

We did manage to give Donna what she would call “a good death”, though we could never be certain and there were moments when it was a close run thing. There was a tension at times between what health professionals needed to be seen to do in terms of medications and protocols, and what the patient would choose to be eased off the planet. Donna would have had a different death if she hadn’t had a constant advocate, and not everyone can arrange that.

We need to talk about death more – especially the good deaths, and what it is that makes them good. Think of the people you love, and what you would want their last days to be like. Most of all, think of the things you most like about your life – being independent, making your own choices, living with integrity and dignity, being able to leave the party when you have had enough – and how good it would be to have a final chapter that reflects the best of your life’s story.


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23 Sep Silver Linings – NZ Woman’s Weekly Column

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 28 September 2020…

Somewhere during those 102 Covid-free days, I expressed nostalgia for our Level 4 Lockdown. So yeah, it was probably me that jinxed it – though I met more than one person with a similarly rose-tinted backwards view.

We talked fondly of those five weeks in early autumn when we had sat very still while birds took over our gardens, or took government-mandated walks down the middle of our streets and spotted bears in other people’s windows. Shout-chats over the fence with neighbours, and finding time to sort through forgotten boxes. I found a recipe I’d been meaning to try ever since I clipped it out of the Listener in 1996 and used it so often it became a staple.

It is possible I also went a bit mad – my underwear drawer was as neatly arranged as a museum catalogue cabinet, and one day I vacuumed the dust off the top of the living room curtains. (There is a special brush for this, so don’t tell me it’s not a thing.) Insanity aside, as a secret introvert I relished not having to go out, and only putting my game-face on for the odd Zoom.

Thrown back into Level 3 last month, I worked hard at remembering those silver linings. The Lockdown I’d hankered for – and it was only a mild hanker – came with caveats: we’d know when it would start and finish, maybe a month tops once a year, and there’d be a guaranteed basic income to ease the fiscal terror. A kind of “paid annual leave” plus “enforced staycation” scenario.

That’s not, of course, how a viral pandemic works. A lot of us found this second round harder – a repeat disappointment that forces you to grasp that if a bad thing can happen more than once, it might happen any number of times, like the particular tragedy of a second failed marriage.

We are all in this together, but our lockdowns are different depending on whether you have kids to educate and entertain, a job you’re trying to do remotely, a business you’re trying to keep afloat, how full your pantry or bank account is when each alert level is announced, how far you live from the people you love, or how vulnerable you might be to the worst this virus can do.

As a freelance creative, I used to say – possibly with a fair bit of smug, sorry if you heard it – that the wide range of things I did gave me “income security”. Turns out – ha! – almost everything I do relies on large numbers of people being able to gather in a room, which is – ta da! – the very thing we cannot do. So for the second time this year, I watched the work vanish from my diary. Not just for this month, but for many months ahead – an August lockdown makes clients pretty leery of making plans for November, lest the gods laugh. I’ve made a spreadsheet (lord knows I have time) called “Lost to Covid” detailing cancelled and postponed gigs, with a running total of what they were worth. Keeping it updated is the financial equivalent of obsessively poking my tongue into a broken tooth.

So I do other things in between, finding the things that make me happy and calm my mind. As someone who was time-poor before I am trying to see myself as time-rich, and recalling all the things I wished I could do back when I was busy being busy. I bought stamps (yes, stamps!) at Level 2.5 so that when I think about someone I miss, or someone I should have said thank you to for some kindness, I can send them a letter (yes, a letter!) or a card.

Old-school in that respect but less of a Luddite in others. I have fallen madly in love with my kindle – bought for the overseas trip we couldn’t take in April – treasured now as a magic portal for every book in the world (or the ones available as e-books, anyway). I am really getting my money’s worth out of the cheap leggings I bought for no good reason in a sale three years ago, pulling them on in the morning on the off chance I might be moved to ride my bike before it’s time to put my pyjamas back on at night. And attempting to embrace the new normal with a modicum of flair by buying a range of face masks from a similarly underemployed but vastly more crafty friend so I can get all matchy-matchy with my outfits.

Most of all, though, I am promising myself never to take it for granted when we get the moments I am properly nostalgic for – being in a room with friends, or grandchildren, or total strangers. And yeah, trying not to descend into the kind of madness where it feels normal to vacuum the curtains.

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23 Sep NZ Woman’s Weekly – New Column

This week marks the return of the NZ Woman’s Weekly, rising phoenix-like from the ashes after it was shut down during Lockdown back in March. I am delighted to have a page of my own in a magazine that has been part of our lives for 88 years. Each week after the magazine hits the shelves I will be republishing my little part of it here. Hit the “Writing” tab to have a read.

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