A daughter accepts her father’s wish to die
Sonia Perna couldn’t agree with her father’s wish to medically end his life. But at the end, she says, she came to understand and to accept it.
They held Michael Perna’s wake on Valentine’s Day last year, as some 70 friends and family filled the Kelly funeral home on Woodroffe Avenue to raise a glass and say goodbye to the 77-year-old.
Make sure there’s lots of wine, he’d told his daughter in the days leading up to his death, and don’t spend too much on the cassetta, the box.
You could appreciate his frugality. He’d come to Canada almost 60 years earlier, a teenager arriving from Italy in the late 1950s with little more than a pair of shoes and a loaf of bread. He travelled to Ottawa, where he settled and began to carve a place for himself in his new home. He married Giulia Peca, a fellow parishioner at St. Anthony ’s church, and the pair started a family. He opened his own business, Mike Perna Ceramic Tiles, from their Westboro home, and worked hard to provide for his family.
“I was supposed to be the boy in the family,” jokes his daughter, Sonia, who often worked alongside her father, installing tiles, “and he was my right-hand man.”
The two were again hand-inhand when Perna died at 9 a.m. on Feb. 9, 2017.
Sonia took a final photograph of her and her father’s intertwined hands. His were hollow and bony, void of the mass and musculature she’d always remembered. Toward the end, he would look upon those hands as some sort of Doomsday Clock, watching them wither as disease raced through his body.
It had only been four months since Nonno, as Sonia’s kids, Michael and Claudia, called their grandfather, had returned from a trip to Italy, after which Sonia attributed his uncharacteristic lethargy to age, jet lag or a change in diet. But a couple of incidents that left Nonno bent over in pain drove them to the hospitals, where they would receive an intractable diagnosis: Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
Sonia wept. Her father, however, did not. “He looked at me and said ‘ What’s wrong ? I mean, it’s not like I have cancer,’ ” recalls Sonia.
They both knew how this would play out. Nonno’s wife, Giulia, had only been 60 when she died of cirrhosis of the liver in 2000. She died at home, treated only palliatively.
“My mom was like, ‘If there’s nothing they can do, I don’t want to be connected to tubes and stuff. I’m ready to go to the house of the Lord.’ ”
Nonno had watched his wife’s slow and painful death, its sharp edges smoothed only somewhat by morphine, and did not want that same agony. Following his diagnosis, he contacted his family doctor: “When I can’t make it to the bathroom by myself,” he said, “that’s it.”
The previous June, Parliament passed Bill C-14, which allowed for medical assistance in dying, or MAID. Nonno started the application process.
“He was convinced right away that he did not want to go on like this,” recalls Sonia, who wasn’t initially in favour of the idea. “I was against MAID because we’re Catholic, and I believe that God tells you when it’s time to go. And having him make that decision was against our beliefs.”
Nonno was not to be deterred. Nor would he allow himself to become a burden. He quickly moved from his Skyline-area house to a retirement home, where he revelled in the company of others.
Sonia spent most of her time with Nonno, dropping her son off at school at 8 a.m. before going to the retirement home for breakfast. There they would watch Italian TV, have lunch, visit other residents, enjoy Happy Hour and simply hang out together. While he napped, she taught herself to knit. She shaved him and cut his hair. Sonia’s husband, Andrew, arrived for supper each evening with Michael and Claudia, and after they returned home, Sonia stayed to put her father to bed.
“We just sat around and talked. It was a great time.”
But Nonno’s condition rapidly deteriorated. It was a considerable effort for him to get out to Sonia’s home for Christmas, though once there he enjoyed it immensely, slowing the normally hurried pace to savour what he knew would be his last such holiday. Back in the retirement home later, he went to his room and, except for a short appearance at its New Year’s Eve party, stayed there until his death.
In the meantime, Sonia gradually came around to the idea of MAID.
“From that time we were together and talking for those three or four months, I began to understand and see the man — my dad, who’s strong and powerful, and my left hand — deteriorate before my eyes so quickly, and it’s sad. And you start to think ‘There has to be another way.’
“I didn’t get the whole MAID thing at the beginning, and now I totally understand it, because there was no quality of life. It’s so sad to see people suffer. We don’t treat our pets that way; why would we treat our parents that way?”
Still, acceptance doesn’t neces- sarily make something easy.
One day, toward the end of January, Nonno asked Sonia to “go make the call.”
The request caught her unprepared. “What call?” she asked.
“You know,” he replied, “for the …” He paused. He didn’t know the words in English. Instead, he made a motion as if plunging a hypodermic needle into his arm.
“I went out in the hallway and had a good cry,” she recalls. She returned to the room without making the call. “I thought he was just having a bad day.”
A couple of days later, though, he asked: “So when are they coming ?”
She tried to tell him he was simply having a bad day. “He said, ‘You know, you’re making me suffer.’ ... And it took me by such surprise, because I thought, ‘Holy crap, I am; I’m making you suffer.’ And he said, ‘You go out in that hallway right now and you call.’ ”
Still, she couldn’t bring herself to do it. Instead, she texted her father’s doctor with the request.
Nonno picked the day: the next Thursday at 9 a.m. Sonia spent Wednesday night in his room, watching him sleep. “He was so peaceful.”
Andrew and the grandkids arrived for breakfast, while Nonno’s doctor, as well as the MAID doctor and nurse who would perform the procedure, came later.
Nonno, meanwhile, said goodbye to Andrew, Michael and Claudia, providing counsel to his grandchildren: Stay in school, don’t do drugs, don’t spend too much money, be good. He reminded Sonia that his grey pants were in the closet, and, again, don’t spend too much on the cassetta.
And then it was time. “I held his hand and told him it was OK,” says Sonia, “and to give Mommy a big kiss. “It was so fast. It was joking and kidding around one second, to … gone. It was surreal, but peaceful. And when the doctor said he was gone, the big vein in his nose disappeared, and his eyes were just so soft.
“The selfish part of me wanted to wait another week, but I knew he made the right decision. I knew he was at peace and I knew he wasn’t suffering anymore. ... I’m proud of him. I think it’s beautiful that he allowed me to be there with him going through this, and I think that’s a father’s true love.”
He said ‘You know, you’re making me suffer.’ ... And it took me by such surprise, because I thought, ‘Holy crap, I am; ’
Sonia Perna and her father, Mike, on New Year’s Eve 2016. The two were hand-in-hand when Perna died at 9 a.m. on Feb. 9, 2017.
Sonia Perna holds a photo from her parents’ wedding. Her parents met at St. Anthony’s church. Perna’s mom died at age 60.