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At His Own Wake, Celebrating Life and the Gift of Death

Dr. Green has neither of those problems. She was well rested and happy heading to the hospice that morning. If she felt jittery, it was only because she was double- and triple-checking the procedure in her mind and making sure she was ready.

She took the elevator to the third floor and walked down the hospice’s beige hall to Mr. Shields’s room. They talked intimately for a few minutes. She asked him if he still wanted to go ahead. He did.

She was convinced that he was of sound enough mind to make this decision. He signed the last page of official paperwork, confirming that he had been given the chance to change his mind and that he still wanted to go through with this.

Dr. Green instructed a nurse to set up his intravenous line while she slipped down the hall to go over the procedure with his friends and family.

She assured them that his death would be peaceful. He would simply go into a deep sleep and might even snore. But, if at any time it got too hard, they should leave the room. “There are no medals for staying,” she said. “There’s no judgment for leaving.”

Mr. Shields had asked five people to be there: his wife, his stepdaughter, Mr. Skovgaard, Ms. Fox and Ms. Allport, who was overseeing his death ceremony. When they entered his room, Mr. Shields greeted them with a smile. His blue eyes twinkled, matching a fresh aqua T-shirt. The quilt of unexpected kindness was spread over his legs.

The room was dark and cool. The overhead lights were off and one of the windows was open. Across its sill, an altar had been fashioned with cedar boughs, smooth stones, eagle feathers, a small red candle and a tiny bell. The emerald moss coating the limbs of a giant Garry oak tree outside glowed into the room.

Since Mr. Shields could not die in his garden, his garden had been brought to him.

A large white candle flickered on the night stand beside him. The hospital tray that had held his meals for the past two weeks was pushed to the side. Upon it was one of Dr. Green’s blue boxes, and eight syringes lined up neatly in a row.

The group formed a circle around Mr. Shields, with his wife at his head, touching his shoulder. He asked her what was happening, and she recounted what Dr. Green had said about the procedure, adding that he should go toward the light.

“Sounds perfect,” he said, giving a thumbs up.

It didn’t sound so perfect to her, she replied. It was as good as it was going to get, he said.

Ms. Allport began the ceremony she had designed with input from Mr. Shields and inspirations from a mix of cultural traditions.

She opened her arms wide, turned to each direction of the room and related it to Mr. Shields’s life. The east was the wind on which his beloved eagles fly. The south was fire and the snake shedding its skin, as he soon would. The west was water, filled with whales that passed his house. The north was the trees, like the thousands he had protected.

She had taken the bell from the windowsill and rang it between each turn, its tone bouncing lightly from the walls.

She called up to the sky and the heavens, and crouched down on the floor, thanking the earth for carrying his body for 78 years.

When she finished, she paused. There was not a sound in the room.

Mr. Shields, she said, would need ancestors to help guide his journey. They needed to be summoned. She asked everyone to mimic a movement she noticed Mr. Shields making recently: two hands placed on the heart and then swung open like saloon doors. If the names of ancestors came to their minds, they should call them out.

Ms. Hood whispered the names of his father, mother and former wife, Madeleine.

Mr. Shields opened his eyes and quietly said Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet.

Ms. Sanchez held his right hand in hers, sobbing. Her nails were painted metal green, accentuating how pale his numb fingers had become. One of his regrets was that he could no longer feel a touch like this.

His wife leaned over and told him his love had been radiant. When she finished, he said, “Thank you, my darling.”

Mr. Shields then began singing a refrain from an old Gershwin Broadway tune: “Who could ask for anything more?”

The others joined in. “I got daisies, in green pastures. I’ve got my man. Who could ask for anything more?

The singing came like intermission during a heartbreaking movie. Mr. Shields was delighting in life, right to the end. The ritual held the moment’s solemn structure; he was adding some human lightness. He did not seem afraid.

The day before, when Ms. Allport asked him if there was a poem he would like read, he asked for a Catholic one: The Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi.

Standing at his feet, Ms. Fox unfolded a copy. “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace,” she began. Mr. Shields mouthed the words silently. He had left Catholicism almost five decades before, but Catholicism had not entirely left him. It was as if all the disparate strands of his life were being woven into this final moment.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope.

“I think I’ve learned that lesson,” he said, when she finished.

For all of his openness and shared emotions, Mr. Shields was a stoic man. But when his wife told him that fires were burning for him on different islands, and that native elders were playing drums for him farther north on Vancouver Island, he closed his eyes and wept.

He talked about his father and his mother. In his life, he said, he had come to believe that everyone shared the same cosmic energy.

“We are all one,” he said.

He thanked everyone for their kindness. The sound of cars passing in the street below echoed up faintly through the window. Hands touched shoulders and hands.

Dr. Green leaned over and quietly asked him if he was ready.

By then, Ms. Allport had laid the white khata from the night before across Mr. Shields’s neck. His eyes were closed. He opened them and slowly scanned the faces around him, taking in each one.

“Are we ready, friends?” he asked. He turned his head to look at the doctor. “Yes, Stefanie,” he said. “I am ready.”

She took the first syringe from the table and screwed its tip into the IV catheter on the tender side of Mr. Shields’s left arm, then pressed its plunger down.

He closed his eyes. His face relaxed. He appeared to go into a deep sleep.

The only sound in the room was his stepdaughter’s crying.

One after the other, Dr. Green went through the syringes until none were left on the table. Mr. Shields’s body remained still. He made no grimaces. The only change was a slight yellowing of his face.

Dr. Green pulled her stethoscope from around her neck and listened to his heart. It was still beating.

A few minutes later, she did it again. And then, a third time.

Finally, 13 minutes after she had administered the first medication, she nodded to Ms. Hood. Mr. Shields was gone.

Photo

A bowl of rose petals at Mr. Shields’s home. His friends and family gathered at the house for one more farewell. Credit Leslye Davis/The New York Times

Going Home to His Garden

That evening, Mr. Shields’s body lay on a stretcher in his backyard. A large purple sheet was draped over his face and body, followed by a thick brown blanket — as though he had been tucked into bed.

His favorite black hat with the skipper’s brim had been pulled over his concealed brow, and a thin book of poetry slipped beneath his pillow: “The Subject Tonight Is Love” by Hafiz, a 14th-century Persian.

A beige canvas shelter protected him from the sprinkling rain. Boughs of cedar, white currant and flowering plum hung in bouquets from its corners, and its lip was decorated with prayer flags.

A candle flickered on a nearby table. Friends sat in chairs that were placed around him.

For Ms. Hood, the best part of this new way of dying in Canada was also the worst part. The scheduling tormented her and organized her. While her husband was intentional about his death, she was intentional about his final rites. They would be administered at home, by his loved ones, and not by the funeral industry.

She believed that her husband’s spirit would stay with his body for two days before journeying on. So someone was always in the garden with him — reading poetry, recounting stories or just sitting silently, keeping him company until he was taken to the crematory.

Neighbors dropped off food, wine and cords of wood for the fire, which burned continuously. At night, Mr. Shields’s friends stood around it and serenaded his still body and memory. It was spiritual and poignant, ritualistic and community-based.

“He would have loved it,” his wife said.

Those two days, the weather was fickle — the rain gave way to sun, the wind to calm, and then it rained again. Flocks of birds arrived. Deer and raccoons visited.

The majestic Douglas firs swayed above Mr. Shields. His garden was wild and beautiful, just as he had loved it.

Photo

The backyard of Mr. Shields’s home in Victoria, where his body rested for two days after his death. Credit Leslye Davis/The New York Times

Source: NYT > World

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