I drove to the church on a chilly February afternoon 21 years ago, just a little nervous about my impending performance at the service. I knew this wasn’t going to be an ordinary occasion by any means, but I wasn’t quite prepared for what I saw when I got out of my car in the church parking lot.
Along with the expected media, there were plain-clothed RCMP everywhere. One of them was videotaping as we all walked in the front doors of the church. Someone said they were looking for the doctor, but I was convinced that he or she would never have dared to show up for this. There had also been a bomb scare, so as I walked inside I noticed more officers walking the halls and standing near all of the entrances, scrutinizing everyone.
A few months earlier I had been asked by singer/songwriter Dennis Lakusta to sing back up on his latest album. We had recorded it in Surrey BC and afterwards, Dennis had sent a copy of it to Sue Rodriguez, who was at this point pretty much bed-ridden with ALS. There was a particular song that he had written for her and it turned out she liked it very much and had her caretakers play over and over. It was called Wounded Eagle.
For those of you who don’t know, it was 22 years ago that Sue Rodriguez had gone all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada advocating for medically assisted dying. They dismissed her appeal by a vote of 5-4. A year later she ended her own life with the help of a physician and the support of her family and friends. As it turned out, after she passed away her caregivers contacted Dennis and told him how much she had loved that song. They asked him if he would perform it at her service, and because I had recorded it with him, he asked me to accompany him.
I don’t remember much about the service itself. I do remember that it was very emotionally charged, and in spite of the strangeness of so many officers surrounding the congregation, it was all about Sue. When Dennis and I stood up to sing, I remember looking into tear-stained faces in the first few rows and trying to sing right to them. The right song at the right moment can go a long way in giving great comfort.
After the service we were invited to Sue’s home, where we met her son and other members of her family. It was an ordinary home in an ordinary suburb, but the extraordinary person who once lived there still filled it completely. I remember driving home, feeling the significance of that day, the sorrow, but also the satisfaction that she ended her life the way she wanted to. They never did figure out who the doctor was who assisted her.
Yesterday, Sue’s quest for a person’s right to die was finally granted by the Supreme Court. There are many out there who disagree with this ruling, and I understand their doubt and fear. All I can think about is the question she brought to the Supreme Court when she faced them: “If I cannot consent to my own death, whose body is this? Who owns my life?”
As it turns out, you do, Sue.