The last words Penny Yake’s husband uttered were on their wedding day.
Just 36 hours after exchanging vows, Derek Werner died, claimed by cancer that had returned months earlier.
“He said ‘I love you’ a few times the day of our wedding. He was very weak,” says Penny. “He didn’t say anything else. What’s better than someone saying I love you?”
Their wedding was the first at Medicine Hat’s Carmel Hospice in St. Joseph’s Home. And with less than 24 hours to plan the event, staff, family and friends pitched in to make the day a reality. It was a beautiful, sunny Feb. 1 as the joyous sounds of a wedding—complete with cake, champagne and flowers—offered a pause in the couple’s grief.
“Just everybody came together,” says Penny. “The nurses were beaming. Everybody helped.”
It was important to help make Derek’s last wish a reality, says Dawn Verge, Unit Manager for the hospice.
“We want to be able to fulfil people’s last dying wishes. And this was a huge wish of his and hers, so we were able to work together to make it happen,” says Dawn.
Friends, family and staff filled Derek’s room.
“We had a celebration during a time of grief,” says Ryan Wiest, Site Administrator of St. Joseph’s Home. “There was laughter in the room. You would not have thought you were in a room where someone was passing.”
The couple hadn’t planned on marrying, but then Derek’s colon cancer returned, says Penny. Though he’d successfully beaten colon cancer five years earlier, the advanced stage when it was diagnosed the second time left the 67-year-old with just a few months. The recently retired chiropractor broached the idea soon after they learned their remaining time together was short, and he decided on Jan. 31 that they should marry the next day, says Penny. By then he was too weak to stand for the ceremony.
“I think he knew it was close, for him to say, ‘We’re getting married tomorrow.’“
Penny says the couple, who’d been together for eight years, joked about having the “honeymoon suite”—the only room with a double bed, which arrived at the hospice in November, a gift from Covenant Foundation. The request for the bed came from the family of a woman who died at the hospice, who had asked for people to provide donations for its purchase in lieu of flowers. The family saw a need for a bigger space so loved ones could lie side by side during their final days together.
“I spent every night there. That meant so much, having that bed, to be able to lie beside him all the time,” says Penny, 63. “To be able to lie next to each other, instead of being separated, it was so soothing. I could hear him breathing. I could hang on to him. I can’t express enough what calmness that gave us.”
Ryan says the bed allows people to be together, noting how difficult it can be for couples married for decades to be separated. The bed also provides ample room for families, such as a mother wanting to cuddle with her children or read bedtime stories in her final days.
“I see how it affects people,” says Ryan. “These are their last days, last hours. For couples who have been together all those years or families with their children, it just gives them more comfort. Touch is very important.”
For Penny, being able to marry Derek and be at his side in his final days and nights was a comfort.
“I can’t find the words to tell you how much it meant to me.”
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