Fighting for the right to die - Matt Vickers campaigns in the name of his late wife Lecretia Seales
Lecretia Seales lost her battle for life but a year after her death, her husband Matt Vickers continues the fight for the right to die, writes Bess Manson.
A year on from his wife Lecretia Seales' very public death, Matt Vickers will celebrate her life doing something they used to love.
"Lecretia and I used to like going to restaurants and eating good food. That's exactly what I'll be doing. Having dinner somewhere in New York and thinking about her."
New York is where Vickers, 39, calls home these days after taking up an opportunity to transfer through his work at Xero.
Life in Manhattan - it's a long way from the streets of Wellington.
It was an opportunity to start again.
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* Tributes for Lacretia Seales
* Lobby groups role in assisted dying debate
"There are a whole lot of memories and things that remind me of Lecretia back in Wellington and coming to a new place seemed like an easier thing to do.
"I love it here. It's a dynamic city. There's plenty going on. Plenty of distractions."
Vickers may be starting a new life Stateside, but he is still fighting the fight Seales, a highly successful lawyer, started last year.
Diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2011, she challenged the Crown in the High Court in the months and even days before her death, on her right to choose how and when she died.
She asked a judge to give her the option of having her doctor help her to die if life became intolerable. Justice David Collins ruled that it was up to Parliament to debate the issue. Seales received the news just hours before she died. She was 42.
Vickers said at the time that his wife's reaction was heartbreaking.
"She was hurt and disappointed. She fixed me with a stare with her good eye as if to say "Isn't this my body? My life?" Her breath slowed and she turned her head away. Her reaction utterly broke my heart."
Despite the High Court's decision, the issue gained momentum just weeks after Seales' death when a voluntary euthanasia petition with 8974 signatures was presented to Parliament. It gained further traction when the health select committee began its inquiry into assisted death. At last count more than 19,000 submissions had been lodged, one of the highest responses in the select committee submission process.
MAKING PROGRESS IN THE FIGHT
She would have been pleased with his progress, that they had some political action on the issue, says Vickers. She would have been glad that people had a chance to have their say and that the democratic process has been engaged.
Those having their say on the issue include people like former President of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions Helen Kelly who has lung cancer and motor neurone sufferer David Stephens.
"It's been a public conversation and that's been fantastic."
The Human Rights Commission, which intervened in Seales' case providing expertise on the interpretation of the Bill of Rights for Justice Collins, gave a constructive submission, Vickers says.
"They said this was not an unreasonable idea, there is possibly a human rights issue here that we do need to deal with."
Globally, the issue is hotting up. Last October California became the fifth state in the US to allow physician-assisted suicide. Canada is working through legislation on assisted dying. The Parliament in the State of Victoria in Australia have their own inquiry under way.
And now the spotlight is on New Zealand. Polls have shown almost 75 per cent of us are ready for a change in the law on assisted dying.
"I think New Zealanders are wanting to do this carefully and responsibly and not in a broad way that might put people at risk. That's the right approach to take. This is a life and death issue and if are going to make changes we need to make changes that are responsible and careful.
"In the first instance I think the changes should be quite conservative and targeted at terminally ill New Zealanders and as a result of that we can look at how the legislation is working and if it needs to be tweaked or changed after a period of time."
Vickers continues to be frustrated with the anti-euthanasia movement which he says makes broad sweeping and hysterical arguments about assisted dying.
It's disappointing more than anything because it's speculative, he says.
"It's not supported by evidence and it's hypothetical. It's painting a nightmare scenario that we haven't seen play out anywhere else. I think it's disingenuous and it would be far more useful if people were to engage with this issue constructively.
"We are talking about terminally ill New Zealanders who are suffering who have made a choice to want to end their lives and we need to ask ourselves, is there a safe way to make that happen and how do we make that happen, rather than just dismissing it out of hand?"
TELLING THE STORY
There were some who misunderstood Seales' motives for a change in the law on assisted dying, which has prompted Vickers to write a book, not just about the case she took to the High Court but a background to her life in the hope it would show how she came to fight for the right to die.
"Reading some comments online, people thought she was suicidal, which she wasn't. People thought she wanted to die, which she didn't. It was important to me that people understood that this was a decision about how she died, not about her wanting to die."
Seales was a private person for almost her entire life, but from January 2015 she made the decision to share more of her life publicly than she ever had to draw attention to the issue of assisted dying, Vickers says.
Her very public death was in contrast to the private life she had guarded.
But the issue of voluntary euthanasia became important to her. The prospect of losing her very sound mind and enduring uncontrollable pain were terrifying.
"It was against her nature to put herself out there. If she'd been in Belgium or one of those countries that allowed assisted dying she would have been able to access that and it wouldn't have been controversial. This wasn't about getting attention. But she understood that not having this choice was an injustice to her and the only way to shine a light on that injustice was to go public. Although it was against her nature, I think she felt a duty and a responsibility to do it.
"The case was about her and her circumstances, and I think the book, provides a wider context of who Lecretia was and why that choice was important to her and I think the book is in service to that same issue and that same fundamental question of whether someone in her circumstances should be able to be assisted to die."
Seales died naturally on the morning of June 5 last year, but her final hours were not pleasant or pain-free.
"Lecretia, had she been able to have the choice, might have chosen to depart earlier... but she didn't have that choice so she suffered through it. It wasn't long, but none of us saw the point to it," Vickers said at the time.
Writing this book, which will be on the shelves by the end of August, has not been easy. For starters, writing is a chore, he says.
"It's been tough because it's meant going through our entire relationship and looking at things under a microscope and trying to get to the essence of who Lecretia was. When you do that you are really engaging with that person again and that's tough.
"I haven't found it easy but it's been helpful in terms of closure.
A MEETING OF MINDS
Vickers met Seales at a bar in Courtenay Place in 2003. He was 26, she was 30.
They hit it off immediately.
He was struck by her beauty and quiet confidence, he says.
"She was alluring, mysterious and kind of an enigma. I just found her completely captivating and wanted to get to know her. Luckily she gave me that opportunity."
Seales was a highly successful lawyer who had worked for former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer and more recently as a law reformer at the Law Commission.
They married in 2006.
"She made me grow up. She made me want to be responsible. She gave me a reason to want to do something with my life. She was a successful lawyer and achieving well in her career and I wanted to live up to that, to be worthy of her time and attention and her love. I think she improved me as a person and perhaps in some small way I made her better, I don't know but it was a marriage that strengthened both of us"
Their struggle to have children tested that relationship. Several failed IVF attempts took their toll, but ultimately it made them stronger, he says.
They were on the verge of trying to get pregnant through a donor egg when Seales got sick making that dream impossible.
Vickers is amazed by how she dealt with her illness.
"Everything - all those dreams you have had for your life - suddenly they are ripped away from you and you are delivered this death sentence but she approached that with hope and decided she would live as long as she possibly could and enjoy life as much as she possibly could."
TAKING A JOY IN LIFE
She kept working through her illness right up to just a few months before the end. Her work, using her good mind, gave her a purpose.
They travelled to places she'd always wanted to see. They tangoed in Argentina, visited Morocco, saw the Iguazu Falls, sunned themselves in the Cook Islands.
"She didn't let her illness slow her down or take the joy of life from her. It was important for her that she keep hold of those things.
"An illness like that puts everything into perspective and makes you focus on what's really important and she did that."
Continuing the campaign keeps her close, he says.
It keeps her memory alive.
"Every time a story comes up about Lecretia I get pinged by friends and family who will tell me about it and talk to me about her. Knowing there are people who still think about her and care about her and miss her means a lot to me.
"She was a huge part of my life and she always will be. Her loss is not something I'll ever get over."