The Man from New West

I’m a prairie kid. I’ve lived on the west coast for half my life now, but my shoulders still relax when I hit the flat land. Sometimes I pretend I am there when I drive the 17 to Tsawwassen . . .

I came to Vancouver for grad school, and landed a federal job as I was finishing my thesis. I used to say I got stuck. Used to say I don’t get this rain thing; you get wet. But after 24 years I can now maneuver an umbrella with the best of them.

My first husband used to say that if you are going to live in Vancouver, live in Vancouver. Then we moved to Burnaby. We purchased a brand new townhouse. Got a dog. Had a kid. Then we ended.

Leap forward ten years. Ten soul searching, demon releasing, voice finding years. I can hear the rain as I write this – the cars on Columbia – and perhaps catch a glimpse of a tug on the Fraser if I get up from my chair and look out the living room window of my high rise apartment.

I was still living in Burnaby when I met the Man from New West. I want to use geography and weather analogies to describe him but that feels trite. He was a force. A big, huge, rolling personality. His dog is mine now, and the aging Boston Terrier can get some air when he greets you. With all four paws off the ground and a teethy grin, I am always reminded of his first owner.

My second husband lived in New West for most of his time on the West Coast. He was a Toronto boy, but you couldn’t hear it in his intonation. When I met him he had been a bus driver for over five years and so he knew parts of the Lower Mainland in great detail, but he most especially knew New West. And when I – out of a very old habit – wanted to drive into Vancouver for something, he would always suggest that we could find the same closer to the Fraser.

It’s thanks to the Man from New West that the pier boardwalk became a regular part of my life, and that 3rd Avenue hill. Angelina’s and Amelia’s. The Neil Douglas Guitar Shop and Royal City Jewellers were part of our regular routines, as we went down an ever refreshing, stringed rabbit hole.

It was on the day Donald Trump was elected that we became uncomfortably familiar with Royal Columbian Hospital. A month before we hopped on an aquabus near Granville Island and tied the knot, the Man from New West received a diagnosis of stage four colon cancer. We walked the blue line on the floor of RC many times until we shifted treatment to BC Cancer in Surrey, at which point we crossed back and forth on the Pattullo Bridge. Back and forth. Back and forth.

Chris arranged a solo photo shoot in Gastown shortly after he and Jana were married. Photo credit: Sarah Eshpeter

We received support from Polo Health + Longevity Centre as that New West man struggled to manage his cancer. And eventually we took over the back room of Heritage Grill, for a living wake.

Visiting with old and cherished friends at Chris’ living wake. Photo credit: Gillian Taradash

On 25 September 2017, my husband was the recipient of Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) in the home we boldly purchased together during a year of disease, near the Fraser. His was the first assisted death in New Westminster. And thanks to the New West Hospice Society’s efforts to have New Westminster declared a Compassionate City, I don’t have to fear speaking about this end of life choice.

Being a Compassionate City will change how we act and what we we believe to be true by encouraging people and organizations to talk about dying, death and loss. Everyone becomes a compassionate neighbour, knowing what to do and what to say to those that are experiencing end-of-life. We envision a city with open dialogue in coffee shops & schools and caring for our neighbours when they need it.

MAID has been a legal right in Canada for over two years, but there are still so many – horrific – obstacles to its access. Since my husband died I have been learning about these obstacles, and raising my voice to bring change. Our experience was such a blessed one. The Fraser Health New West Palliative Team had never supported a MAID until they began to work with us, but they did not show the fear and judgement that some health care professionals are expressing. Instead they showed us the most beautiful mix of humanity and professionalism. And thank goodness for that, because the Man from New West released a lot of anger and fear in his dying. Perhaps you read about the elderly couple in Toronto who had simultaneous assisted deaths? They are somewhat the poster children for the peace that can come with this choice. And so I will continue to speak as I am to you right now, of what is most simply a choice. Just as in grief, there are no norms in death beyond the ones we make for ourselves.

The rain has stopped outside my window as I round these words out. The days are getting shorter and for each one of late, I hold a singular passage of the earth around the sun. Hold my year old heart. Hear the echo of an angry, insular man as he let go. But it’s not his anger I hear when I descend the wooden steps to Front St and Rain City Juicery, Hive Cafe, Old Crow, Fridays on Front. I hear the taunt of a broad shouldered, bearded man brimming with life, slipping his hand into the back pocket of my jeans and saying, “See?”

The day before Chris’ assisted death, his 41st birthday. Photo credit: Jana Buhlmann


Photo credit for feature image: Ellie Ericson Photography 

6 Replies to “The Man from New West”

  1. Thanks Jana. You have a wonderful way with words. I agree that everyone makes a choice. It is very hard to help with that choice and to be the one left behind. I am glad you shared this with us. I am happy that our shared city is helping you heal. Sending you an angel

  2. Thank you for this. So sorry for your loss. 41 is way too young to be robbed of a future.

    BTW as far as providing MAiD to patients, Fraser Health is among the lowest among health authorities at 1.5% for 3 months ending JUN 2018 vs. 4% for Island Health and 2.8% for VCH.

    1. My words were specifically focused on the New West Palliative Team, and the quality of their care. This piece is a personal narrative.

  3. Very beautifully said. I have not seen Chris in person since I was 16 however through social media I was able to bare witness to the journey that the two of you took. I am happy and proud to have considered Chris a friend and to know that he found you in his life.

  4. An extraordinary story. So well written. So very sorry for your loss.Far too young to go, thank you for sharing.

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