Thankful to the very end

‘Do you know you’re dying?’ ‘Now?’ she replied, in surprise. Don McKellar on Tracy Wright’s final hours.

Guntar Kravis

Toronto actress Tracy Wright died on June 22, almost seven months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She was 50. Known for gem-like character parts in film, TV and theatre, Wright worked with directors such as Bruce McDonald, Daniel MacIvor, Daniel Brooks—and her long-time partner, actor and filmmaker Don McKellar. Four weeks after her diagnosis last December, McKellar married Wright. And in her final months, MacIvor wrote a starring role for her in a feature film called Trigger, which McDonald directed. (Inspired by My Dinner With André, and co-starring Molly Parker, it unfolds as a dialogue between two old friends who cross paths at a rock concert.) The morning after Wright’s death, Mc­Kellar sent out a group email to those close to her. In response to a request from Maclean’s, he agreed that it be published.

Dear friends and family,
On Tuesday morning at 7:30, my beautiful wife, our beautiful Tracy, died. She was at home, as she wanted to be. She was lucid and free of pain and fear. She was surrounded by love. She knew she was loved, and she echoed the love back. If it hadn’t have been for her shocking young age, it would have been an enviable death.

On Monday it became clear her body was closing down. Her breathing was laboured and her feet and hands were cold. Speech was difficult, so every word she worked for was memorable.

“Do you know you’re dying?” I asked her
“Now?” she replied, in surprise.

“No. When you’re ready.”

Hours later we had all gathered around her bed. She asked me who was there and I told her.
“It’s time to start,” she said.

“Start what?”

“The proceedings.”

“For what?” I asked.

“For my dying. I have to go. It’s too hard. But I’ll be here. I’ll be watching.”

She let this sink in for a moment, and then—“Okay. Now I feel really lousy.”

We all laughed. And she said, “No. I’m serious.”

A friend came to give her a massage and when it was over she said, “Take it all away. Take the bowl away . . . ”

I’m still not sure what bowl she was referring to exactly, but I assured her everything was cleared and ready. She went to sleep, seemingly content. Her sister was beside her, curled on the couch. Her brother slept in the spare bedroom (Pinky’s room) and a personal care worker sat watch. [Pinky is the cat.]

In the morning at around 5:30, I woke, put on my housecoat and went down to see her. She took her regular long-term painkiller at six every day, so I was used to waking then. I gave her her pill and she drank it down with water. Then I asked Fay, the care worker, to leave the room and I slipped into bed with her. I held her. The feel of our skin touching again was sublime. I rested my head on her shoulder. She rested her head against my forehead and we lay for a long time feeling our breath against each other.
Then I told her that I loved her.

She said, “I know,” almost cursorily, as if disappointed that I felt I had to say it again.

I said, “Thank you.”

She said, “For what?”

“For everything,” I said.

She said, “Hold my hand.” And then, “Thank you, Honey.”

She seemed to relax and then started to move her head from side to side. I got up and tried to prop it against a pillow, then asked her sister Gloria to help me readjust her in the bed. She calmed again and I went upstairs to dress. At around 7:15, Gloria knocked on my door and said I should come down. Paul, Tracy’s brother, was already up and at the bedside. And then, as we held her, she gradually stopped breathing. There were no death moans, no signs of struggle.

A pain pump had been sent the night before, and I am so grateful we never had to use it. In the last couple of days she took less pain killers than she had for months. She knew exactly where she was going, and it occurred to me that none of us will die as well as she did.

The support we received in these last months was heartbreaking and magnificent. Tracy was thankful to the very end. She loved her family and friends and her capacity for love was immense. When I see you all in person, I hope I can convey at least a remnant of that love. She tried to show me how. I hope I can do her memory justice.

With gratitude, Don

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