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.

Ottawa Citizen - - FRONT PAGE - BRUCE DEACHMAN bdeach­man@post­media.com

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.


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