Going gentle into that good night ~ A conversation with Gareth Hedges

Facebook photo Gareth Hedges, ticking the items off his bucket list.

*Editor’s Note ~ Last week, I had the absolute pleasure, and heartbreak, of meeting Gareth Hedges, a 55-year-old St. Stephen resident who has, due to his failed physical health, opted to utilize the option available to him via Bill C-14, the medical assistance in dying bill. Hedges graciously invited me into his home, and we chatted for an afternoon about his life, and why he has chosen to bring it to an end. This is the result of that afternoon, and that conversation.

St. Stephen – I’m nervous. No, trepidatious. No, nervous.
Oh no. I think I’ve forgotten what the difference between them is. I’m going up there and I no longer have a comprehensive understanding or grasp of how to use basic English language.

I stand at the elevator waiting anxiously for it to reach me. What if I’m the last new person he is ever introduced to? I can see it now – “thank goodness I’m going, if this Marples chic is who is left out there to meet.”

I chastise myself. Not a joking situation. Not remotely. My only solace is the knowledge it’s this very same, distinctive sense of humour that made him want to meet, and talk with me, in the first place.

And suddenly, I’m acutely aware all I’ve ingested today is coffee, and PopTarts, and I’ve been at the office since 7 a.m., and it’s now after lunch, and I haven’t been able to brush my teeth.

He’s blind. He’ll have heightened senses. I’ve lost the power of the English language, and I have coffee/Jolly Rancher PopTart breath.
It’s then I glimpse my reflection.
I’ve just realized today of all days, I’ve chosen to wear all black.
Fantastic.

It would be impossible to fathom, as I approached the apartment door, I could feel less prepared. And then I heard laughter. Big, full, all-encompassing laughter, and when I knocked, I heard something which will likely stay with me forever.
A loud, and somehow undeniably welcome, “Uh-Huh!”
And the door was opened.

Gareth Hedges, just 55, can no longer speak but he remains, without question, uniquely communicative, and having already had a conversation with him via Messenger on Facebook, I’ve been given a brief glimpse into who this man is.
Intelligent and funny – laugh out loud funny, but with a dry, sarcastic wit – so dry, you could almost call it brittle.

So, I knew before arriving, if nothing else, Hedges approached life with consideration and reverence, obvious when you see the care he takes with others and the openness he is offering me today, but most importantly, with an irrefutable sense of humour.
The apartment is bright, with everything carefully and intentionally in its place. Hedges’ former life as a graphic designer is evident in the prints on the walls, as colourful and unique as the man himself.

As I make my way across the room Hedges stands and outstretches his hand to me. And my previous fear slips away.
He’s warm. And gregarious. We’ve already established this is a conversation, not an ‘interview’, and we’re simply going to see where it takes us. Admittedly, I was concerned and curious about how we would communicate. But a close family member is with us, to whom Hedges can sign, and she translates for us.

I put my phone on the desk, and start recording.

Why am I here? Hedges is scheduled to be one of the few Canadians who will utilize Bill C-14, the medically assisted dying bill, passed in June of 2016. As of Dec. 31, 2016, nine New Brunswickers had opted for the choice, and as far as Hedges is aware (up to date and accurate statistics are tough to find on this topic), he will be number 11.

As of April of this year, just over 1,300 Canadians overall have opted for Medical Assistance in Dying, or MAID.
Hedges is officially scheduled to breathe his last breath at 12:00 p.m., on Tuesday, July 18.
“I want you all to know that I’ve cherished getting to know each and every one of you,” said Hedges in a Facebook post, “and you’ve all made my life better by having you in it.”
Five years ago, the previously healthy Hedges suffered two strokes. The most prominent impact of the two was his loss of speech, and more devastatingly, the impact on his heart left it working at a mere 12 per cent, leaving Hedges with a pacemaker, and a limited lifespan.
As we sit here today, Hedges’ organs are not-so-slowly shutting down. I ask him if he’s in pain, and in response comes an emphatic “Oh-UH-HUH.”
Although unable to actually speak any longer, Hedges remains verbal and can respond using ‘oh’, ‘uh-huh’, and ‘nuh-uh’, and I am amazed how expressive he is via these simple sounds. And most delightful is his tremendous laugh, which is ever present.

And really, finding himself where he is today has only happened in the last few weeks, as Hedges’ pain has become nothing short of acute, a result of the full organ shutdown in progress. He has additionally lost his sight, “I see with my ears now,” he says through his interpreter, and the loss felt like a final blow.

The decision to opt for MAID is not a simple process, and has a litany of requirements, and assessments, that must be met. Doctors, mental health assessments, all external from the patient’s existing healthcare team.

In Canada, two types of MAID are allowed:
1. A physician or nurse practitioner can directly administer a substance that causes the death of the person who has requested it, and
2. A physician or nurse practitioner can give or prescribe to a patient a substance that they can self-administer to cause their own death.

Under Bill C-14, two independent health care professionals need to evaluate an individual in order to determine whether he/she qualifies for MAID. To qualify, an individual must be 18 years or older and meet the following four eligibility criteria:
1. Have a serious and incurable illness, disease, or disability;
2. Be in an advanced state of irreversible decline in capability;
3. Endure physical and psychological suffering that is intolerable to them; and
4. Their natural death has become reasonably foreseeable.

Patients must also be capable of providing informed consent at the time that MAID is provided.

Once the original consent form is signed by the patient, there is a waiting period of 10 days, and they must sign the consent form again. Only then can the final arrangements be made.

And Hedges isn’t despondent or depressed. Almost the opposite. Although his body is failing him, Hedges fills the room. Expressive and engaging, he hasn’t made this choice based on sadness or anger.

“There is only so much pain a person can endure,” he signs. For him, Tuesday’s scheduled appointment is a ray of relief in an otherwise overwhelming world of agony.
His pacemaker repeatedly shocks him, indicating repeated stoppages of his heart. In fact, Hedges may not make it to Tuesday at noon.

Monday evening, doctors will have to turn his defibrillator off, for obvious reasons, and the knock-on-effect may be he suffers a heart attack before Tuesday at noon ever arrives.
But for Hedges, it’s a calculated risk, and his bucket list will be finished by then.
The bucket list is simple, and impressively heavy on the food-related side. Hedges also wants to pet a horse for the first time, something he will accomplish shortly after our afternoon together.

Add that to our sharp, witty and engaging banter on Facebook, and I am sadly aware Hedges and I have met far too late in the proverbial game.
From riding his motorcycle, to corn boils, and sweet and sour meatballs, to petting the horse, Hedges’ desires in his last days are simple, and seemingly unintentionally revolve around requiring the assistance and face time of those closest to him.

The other aspect, although not written down, is to say goodbye to those he loves, who are cherished, and many.
By the time Monday evening rolls around, the only loved ones he won’t have said goodbye to are the ones no longer here to do so.

“Friends have come out of the woodwork,” Hedges signs. “I have had an outpouring of love.
“I’ve done more living in the last two weeks than in the last five years. I have no regrets.
“I am loved.”

Although less than a handful of friends and family will be in Hedges apartment on Tuesday, where the MAID is taking place, as he has “had more than enough time in hospitals,” he has chosen to be alone in his final moments.

“I was born at home, and I’ll die at home.
“I want to be remembered like this,” Hedges lays his hands on his chest. “This is what I want their last memory to be.”

As of yet, there are no plans for a funeral, or memorial, as the family will wait to make a decision. Their only focus today is meeting each aspiration and craving Hedges has, and to make as many memories with him as possible.
Hedges, who will be cremated, thinks that being added to some gunpowder, and then to some shotgun shells sounds like a fine idea.

Does he believe in the afterlife? He doesn’t hesitate. “I have no preconceived notions.”
I know my time with Hedges is drawing to a close and I, unexpectedly, and uncharacteristically, feel a strange sense of loss forming for this man, with whom I have only spent a few hours.

I ask him if there is anything he feels he wants to say, or if he has words of wisdom he wants to share.

“I have had an awesome life. I met so many good people.
“Tell people you love them. Reach out to your friends. It’s better to tell them now, while they can know it.”

Hedges stands up, and outstretches his arms to me, and I am swallowed in something I would normally run from – an all-embracing hug.

When this story is printed Tuesday, Hedges will be gone.

And will I miss him? Uh-Huh.