Twelve Questions with Shirley Seales

By Jennifer Dann

Lecretia Seales was the Herald's New Zealander of the Year in 2015 for her campaign to legalise assisted dying. Her mother Shirley Seales talks about nursing Lecretia through the last few months of her life.
Shirley Seales says Lecretia's organisational skills helped her accountancy career. Photo / Alan Gibson
Shirley Seales says Lecretia's organisational skills helped her accountancy career. Photo / Alan Gibson

1 How old were you and your husband Larry when your first child Lecretia was born?

I was 16 and Larry was 19. Everyone said Lecretia was the most beautiful baby they had ever seen - and she was. Larry was an apprentice TV technician. We got by on his wages by living rent-free in an old vermin-infested farmhouse in exchange for boarding a sharemilker.

READ MORE: Lecretia Seales - a courageous campaign

2 Were your families supportive?

My mum died when I was 15. She'd been in and out of the mental ward at hospital. She'd had a terrible life - brought up in an orphanage, raped and abused. My father used to cheat on her and when he left we had nothing. Mum walked for miles to work at the hospital as a cleaner. One day I came home from school and she'd taken an overdose. My sister and I were put in a foster home until my best friend's mother stepped in and we went to live with her.

I spent a lot of time round at Larry's place. He's from a big, supportive family, so Lecretia was brought up in that wider family context which she loved.

3 When did it become apparent that Lecretia was bright?

She was always bright. By 9 she wanted to be a lawyer but she was incredibly shy. Sending her to speech lessons was the best thing I did. She was a really hard worker. At college she held down three jobs and she was the greatest planner you ever did see. She used to organise all of us. When she was 12 I began doing my accounting degree. She said, "Mum, all of us should be doing more to help around the house so that you can study. I've made a roster." I got a job at a local accounting firm and worked my way up to partnership. In those days the glass ceiling was very hard to break but with my competitive nature, that made it more desirable.

4 Are you religious?

Larry and I believe in God. We didn't go to church but I like to think we lived our lives treating people along Christian principles, as did Lecretia. She always stood up for people who weren't treated fairly and she was very caring of friends. Lecretia maintained all her friendships long before Facebook was invented. She always made the effort. She loved cooking for people. If people were sick, she'd bake for them even right up until she was nearly dying.

5 Were you and Lecretia close?

Creesh wasn't just a daughter to me. She was my best friend. We had the same interests. We used to talk on the phone all the time for hours on end. She was so wise. Not just intellectual, she had real practical common sense as well.

6 How did Lecretia break the news to you in 2011 that she had a brain tumour?

She said, "Mum and Dad, I'm really sorry but you know how I promised I was going to look after you when you get old? I'm not going to be able to." And then Matt told us how bad it was. The tumour was so big it occupied the whole top half of her head and was pushing on her spinal cord. They couldn't remove it because it had tentacles but they were able to de-bulk it a bit.

7 Lecretia underwent surgery, radiation and chemotherapy treatments. Why did she keep going to work at the Law Commission?

Because it made her feel needed and normal. I don't think anybody knew how hard it was for her. She could no longer see out of her left eye. In her good eye, the background was constantly moving which was exhausting for her. She progressively lost the use of the left side of her body, her spatial awareness. She would work a five-day week and then spend her weekends getting up enough energy to go back and do it again.

8 Was there a point at which Lecretia decided to stop medical treatment?

This time last year the chemo stopped working. The doctors told her, "We can't do anything else for you," and she was like, "Find me something!" So they referred her for another kind of chemo. The oncologist told her all the side effects and she said, "I don't care, I want to try it." And it had terrible side effects. We ended up in A&E on her birthday and she was going downhill really fast. I flew back to Wellington to be with her in April and didn't leave until she died in June.

9 Did you ever discuss dying with her?

At Christmas, she said she was looking at burial versus cremation but in those last few months, when she was obviously going to die, I didn't have the heart to ask what she'd decided because she didn't think she was dying.

10 Did you discuss palliative care?

The oncologist introduced the idea but there was absolutely no way she'd entertain it - that would be giving up. Hospice was for people who were dying and that wasn't her. Hospice came and talked to Matt and I and we were able to care for her at home until the end. Hospice gives you the means to do that. I wish we'd had them earlier. We had a hospital bed in the lounge and Lecretia had a line in so we could administer her morphine and anti-seizure drugs. She wouldn't let the community nurse shower her - I had to. I was so scared I was going to drop her but I had to be strong. She was my precious girl.

11 What aspect of dying was Lecretia afraid of?

She was never afraid of dying. She wasn't afraid of pain either. Lecretia is really tough and could handle a huge amount of pain. Lecretia's brain was incredibly important to her. She wanted to be able to recognise her loved ones. Food was also really important to her. She stopped eating and drinking three days before she died. I don't know if that was a conscious choice. The end was not nice. I rang hospice and they said, "Has anybody explained to you how it's going to end?" I said, "No" so they talked me through what to expect. They were on their way, but didn't actually make it in time. The three of us sat with Lecretia and by 12.30am she was dead. The doctor came at 7am and signed the death certificate.

12 Do you support legislation to enable assisted dying?

I was initially concerned about the "slippery slope" but the evidence in Lecretia's case was that you can put enough legislative safeguards in place to protect the vulnerable. We're not talking about suicide. We're talking about how the final stages are played out for people who are already dying. New Zealand led the way with women's votes. I hope we have the courage to do this too.

- NZ Herald

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