The event was billed as a conversation between two long-time friends: Best-selling crime novelist Louise Penny and the CBC’s Shelagh Rogers, host of The Next Chapter, and the title, Life, Death, and the Whole Damn Thing, had
particular significance for Penny.
It’s a topic that Penny lived, first as a palliative-care volunteer some 25 years ago and then sharing the last years of her late husband, Dr. Michael Whitehead. He had been living with dementia and died at home in 2016.
As the last in a weeklong series on End of Life issues – a first for Montreal, sponsored by the McGill Council on Palliative Care – it attracted a crowd of more than 300 to the Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Westmount.
Rogers joked that that both had worked at CBC – Penny was for many years the host of Radio Noon in Montreal – and “it proceeds to murder and mental health issues.”
It was that kind of session — a lot of banter, reflections, and personal reminiscences that dipped into issues related to the overall theme. It was disappointing for those expecting to hear advice about planning with a partner that is ill for the kind of care they might need, and the challenges of caring for them at home.
Penny reflected that living life to the end is all about “love and belonging. That’s what I write about. I don’t write about death, I write about belonging, about friendship, about love and at the end of life, that’s all I want.”
Noting she has no children, Penny said she often wonders who will look after her when her final days approach and joked that she tells a lot of her friends that “they’re already in the will, be nice to me.”
Penny recalled the time at 17 when her father was terminally ill with pancreatic cancer and his doctor advised her not to go see him because it would be “too traumatic.” She disagreed, and prepared herself by looking up photos of emaciated concentration victims and survivors, and went to see her dad at home and found that “he didn’t look as bad as I was prepared for.”
Penny agreed with Rogers that even in moments of great solemnity, there can be touches of whimsy and “we can hold two very different dimensions in our hearts and our lives at the same time.”
After talking about the need to forgive, including oneself for errors, she was asked about her time with husband Michael Whitehead in his last years.
Then there was the irony, that in spite of all she was doing to provide a safe and loving environment for her husband, “I wasn’t with him at the very last moment when he died. I don’t think I was more than three or four feet away from him for 25 years!”
Penny was on a book tour for about ten days, then returned in early September, the doctor came by and they were talking in the living room about running out of drugs, and when she returned to his room “he had died in the meantime.”
“When he walked, he was very thoughtful, he noticed things. We crossed the street together, holding hands. And at the very end he rushes,” Penny reflected, with a smile.
When it comes to the grieving process, Penny noted that many of us feel we can’t talk about it.
“It’s not that we don’t want to, we just don’t want to impose on others. We’ve all seen that look of fear in others when they ask ‘how are you?’ … You stop talking about it, you internalize. Yet it’s such a relief when you can talk about it.”
Rogers closed with lines from Leonard Cohen’s Boogie Street:
“So come, my friends, be not afraid/
We are so lightly here/
It is in love that we are made/
In Love we disappear.”
When the session ended, Penny signed copies of A Better Man, the latest in her Inspector Armand Gamache mysteries.