By Sue Tiffin
Last week on Tuesday afternoon a procession of cars gathered at the Eagle Lake Country Market the drivers and passengers greeting each other with a smile or wave or kind word at a distance in keeping with current public health recommendations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The windows of many of the cars were decorated with handmade posters and tokens showing symbols of a life well-lived and well-loved: one with a construction paper rainbow leading to a heart one with music notes dancing together on a page one with a quilt featuring angels one with a photo of a rainbow flag and one cut into the shape of a heart that simply said “Lee.”
At about 3 p.m. on April 28 the procession of cars – of which there would be almost 100 in total that afternoon – set out toward Lee Gauthier’s house so that those who gathered could say goodbye to their friend who had a medically assisted death two days later.
“Like one of our members said that very day after we had all kind of slowly went by Lee and she waved and we talked to her one of the people in our group said isn’t it amazing who actually gets to see their own funeral procession?” said Brenda Peddigrew a longtime friend of Gauthier.
Gauthier who was receiving many visitors after sharing her end-of-life decision with friends suggested that everyone come on one day so she could greet a group at one time rather than individually in the days she had left. Friends including those in the Algonquin Highlands Writers’ Circle Soul Sisters women’s group and Outloud Womyn’s Voices group got the word out as quickly as possible to arrange for an end-of-life mobile procession to send Gauthier off with cars stopping so final words could be exchanged.
“We didn’t anticipate doing that” said Peddigrew. “We thought she would be up on her deck standing by the railing waving. But we were all surprised when she came out right to the edge of the road. She was so close that we could speak … she was in tears and of course she’d be in tears … It was very moving.”
Peddigrew said the experience of driving by her friend prior to her death “was like an expanded consciousness or something. It felt like it wasn’t exactly what we would ordinarily feel going to a gathering or a funeral or anything. I felt like I was in two worlds. I was in the real world that this was actually happening and then there was another part of me that was no this can’t be happening.”
Gauthier was prepared for the end of her life – donating her numerous DVDs to the library ensuring her beloved cats had a home filing decades of real estate papers from her long career as a realtor – with Peddigrew saying she was without a lot of suffering or angst instead welcoming of everybody of the community.
“One thing you have to remember also the cars all had signs in their windows so we were communicating our love and support that way” said Peddigrew. “But we all just as far as I can hear put down the window and really told her how much we loved her how much we appreciated her and go with God go in peace.”
Linda Baumgartner remembers meeting Gauthier just more than 30 years ago when Baumgartner was starting her career as a realtor in the area. Gauthier was one realtor who Baumgartner said embraced her kept in touch with her and offered help in answering questions as she was working her way into the industry showing the strong connection between realtors in what can be a competitive business. When Baumgartner heard Gauthier’s news the week before she knew local realtors would want to gather for her and organized a group of about 50 cars of people.
“It was so emotional” said Baumgartner. “I had tears in my eyes when I saw all the cars at Eagle Lake [Country] Market but then when I saw Lee come out I stopped in front of her driveway and I was just bawling like a baby. I told her how she touched my heart 32 years ago and I’ve always respected her we’ve always had great relations on our real estate dealings together. She just kept holding her hand to her heart kept saying thank you thank you.”
Though the procession happened on Tuesday and Lee had arranged her MAID or medical assistance in dying appointment for Thursday morning at 11 a.m. she took the time on Tuesday evening and on Wednesday to reach out.
“The next day Lee phoned me and thanked me and just said yesterday was absolutely incredible” said Baumgartner. “She really was at peace with all of this. She said all I have to say to you Linda is that my heart is filled with love and gratitude. It wasn’t only me it was our whole realtor community. She said I just kept looking down the road and all I saw were cars and cars and more cars. She said I saw people I haven’t seen in years. And she said it was just overwhelming and very touching.”
“I said oh my gosh how long can Lee stand there but she did and she emailed all of us that night and told us how grateful she was” said Peddigrew. “That night! Some of us had emails from her the next day which was the day before her dying. She was very conscious and focused. The rest of us were kind of operating on shock more than Lee was so she was consoling us that next day and thanking us for this tribute. It was just very jarring for a lot of us for a few days. She had the peace and she was very sure.”
“It’s almost like we held the funeral for her before she left” said Baumgartner noting a feeling of many who were in attendance. “You know they say if you could ever attend your own funeral you’d love to hear what people had to say to you or about you. She got to experience that … Yesterday I kept thinking about her. I’d get a little sad but then I had a little smile on my face because she’s at peace now and she’s where she wants to be.”
Peddigrew said Gauthier’s friends are now exchanging stories of the owls they’ve seen – a sign Gauthier said to look for in her memory – and ensuring her legacy of supporting charities including the Minden Cat Angels and Woodlands Wildlife Sanctuary continues. As she drove away from her friend for the last time she reflected alongside her partner Joan Weir.
“It felt as if there was an ending and not an ending that’s what it felt like as we drove away” said Peddigrew. “We were very silent. We couldn’t find words until we got to the end out back onto 118. We were both just trying to take in what was happening and that we had just seen Lee for the last time. But we were just full of gratitude that it could be done this way. That we didn’t have to watch her suffer and suffer and suffer and die in that agony. That’s what we came to articulate. We were silent though for at least 10 minutes after we passed her each in our own thoughts about her. It was very tender. That’s what it felt like.”
In an email to Peddigrew and Weir the day before she died Gauthier wrote: “What a fullness of heart I have from the vision of never-ending cars with lights on and pictures in windows and drawings and words of love. My gratitude today is profound!”