On Valentine’s Day, Mindemoya couple ended their lives together

Together in life—forever together. Donna and Jim Nevills of Mindemoya chose to take their last journey together on Valentine’s Day. The couple was experiencing serious health issues and could not bear to leave the other behind alone. They spent their last “coffee break” in each others’s company, then held hands as they took advantage of medical assistance in dying.

MINDEMOYA—Jim Nevills wasn’t going to go into the dance at the Sandfield Hall, he was only dropping off a few friends and then planned to drive back home. He changed his mind and crossed the threshold into a lifelong romance that ended this Valentine’s Day following a family coffee break tradition—together in life, forever together.

Mr. Nevills met his future wife, Donna McDougall, in the spring of 1948. A pretty 16-year-old licenced hairdresser caught the eye of the 21-year-old veteran when he entered the hall. Ms. McDougall had travelled from her home in Providence Bay for the dance. Couples from across the area gathered for what, in those pre-online dating days, was the apex of the Manitoulin social scene. Mr. Nevills described his future wife to Petra Wall in a 2009 Now and Then column as “a good dancer and she seemed to think I was talented in this area too.” The couple would go on to enjoy many more dances over the ensuing months where they discovered they had a lot in common and going on to meet each other’s family.

Ms. McDougall’s family moved briefly to Little Current after her parents, Donald and Grace McDougall, purchased a hotel there.

The two young people moved to Toronto where each found jobs, but the lure of the Island remained strong. By December 1949 they had returned to the Island to tie the knot that would bind them for the next 73 years. The wedding was blessed with an absence of snow. Jim’s brother Harry served as best man and Doris Hutchinson attended to the bride. Their reception was held in the Providence Bay Hall before going on to a honeymoon in Sault Ste. Marie where they visited relatives.

The Nevills settled into their first home, a farmhouse across from where Community Living is today in Mindemoya. After renting another house behind St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Mindemoya they built a home on Nevill’s property and went on to have five children together.

Mr. Nevills worked for the Ontario Department of Transportation and Communication (which became the Ministry of Transportation) and Ms. Nevills did hairdressing in the family home. In 1969 they took a big leap, purchasing Stanley Park and moved to the site. Both kept up their day jobs.

“The park was smaller then,” said Mr. Nevills’ son Brent, who agreed to sit down with The Expositor to talk about his parents’ life and their decision to leave life as they had lived it, on their own terms—together.

The younger Mr. Nevills, like his father and his father’s father before him, is a mechanic and a veteran, having served for 33 years in the Canadian Forces (first in the army and then moving on to the air force).

“My father was very proud of the (Royal Canadian) Legion (his father belonged to Little Current Branch 177). He didn’t get involved in the running of the Legion, but he was at every Legion event,” said Mr. Nevills. The Nevills’ Island roots run deep, descending on the maternal side from Humphrey May, the first male “Haweater” (settler born on Manitoulin).

The couple settled into retirement.

“Even after retiring, my father always had a fondness for his coffee break,” relayed his son. “They would each sit in their chairs here (in a sunroom with glassed doors overlooking the back yard of Mindemoya’s Sparrows’ Nest apartments) and have their coffee and cake.”

“If there were people over, then they pulled out all the stops,” laughed daughter-in-law Tami. The Nevills delighted in company and entertaining their friends and family.

Mr. Nevills was a man of few (and carefully considered) words, taking time to think things through before answering a question. That was a characteristic that only increased after being afflicted with a series of mini strokes since the fall of 2019. The cascading implications of those strokes would eventually see Mr. Nevills move from the couple’s ground floor apartment in the Sparrows’ Nest to the Wikwemikong Nursing Home. It was the first time the couple had been separated for any long length of time in nearly seven decades of marriage and proved terrifying for both of them.

“That was their biggest fear,” said their son, “that one of them would be left alone.”

It was certainly a rational concern. In addition to Mr. Nevills’ strokes and intermittent bouts of dementia, his mother had battled cancer twice and was dealing with immense pain from osteoporosis, a debilitating condition that an operation might have helped alleviate, but Ms. Nevills resisted. “She was afraid she would die on the operating table and then who would look after her husband?” said her daughter-in-law.

Mr. Nevills move to the nursing home, while a wonderful atmosphere and supported by a caring staff, added to the challenge. The couple still managed to reunite regularly in spite of their separation, but the advent of the pandemic made everything a thousand times worse.

“Up until the pandemic, I was able to be the miracle guy,” said their son. “Whatever came up, I was able to find a way.”

“We could order something online, we could take mom to see him,” said their daughter-in-law.

But then the pandemic shut down access to the nursing home.

“It was to keep everyone safe, we get that,” said Mr. Nevills. “But it was really hard on mom. I couldn’t explain to her why I couldn’t make it better, why I couldn’t fix things.”

The idea of medical assistance in dying (MAID) actually came to the couple well before the advent of the pandemic, however, through a friend. Ms. Nevills was in the habit of visiting friends who were laid up in hospital and one day, while visiting one of her closest friends, she stopped in to see a 100-year-old neighbour who was also in the hospital.

“As she was leaving the room, she said ‘well, I will see you next week’,” recalled Ms. Nevills. “The lady replied, ‘oh, I won’t be here, I am leaving tomorrow’.” In the ensuing conversation, Ms. Nevills discovered that her neighbour was to be among the first people on Manitoulin to access MAID.

She went home and told her husband what she had discovered. The couple decided to further explore the potential solution to their mutual fear of one of them dying first and leaving the other to face life alone after their long journey through a life they had shared together.

The couple had always been “take charge” kind of people, noted their son. A fact graphically illustrated when he hauled out a large bin filled to the brim with cards and favours, each lovingly hand crafted by Ms. Nevills.

“Mom had been a quilter,” said her daughter-in-law. “When she got older her arthritis got too bad to do that, so she took up making cards.” The hundreds of cards were each adorned with meticulously cut out decorations and customized for his and her side of the family, with others destined for the grandchildren. Ms. Nevills’ family favours sit in a white wicker basket, bookmarks and pins, handcrafted.

“They had all of the funeral arrangements made out beforehand,” said Tami Nevills. “Everything was worked out to the very last detail.”

But as the day for their departure grew closer, many issues arose to put their plans in jeopardy.

Mr. Nevills’ intermittent bouts of dementia and the resulting hallucinations might have called his competence into question. Not only do you have to prove you want to engage in MAID when you set the plans in motion, but you also have to confirm your wish as the day draws near.

Added to that, Mr. Nevills was in a locked down nursing home due to an outbreak of COVID-19.

“Things had been so good there until then,” said Mr. Nevills. “Then COVID happened.”

They tried phone calls, but Mr. Nevills had always been suspicious of talking on the phone, so that fell through. “We even tried Zoom,” recalled Mr. Nevills. “I set that up, but it didn’t work out either.” It was all beginning to look like another pandemic-lost cause.

Suddenly the solution became relatively simple—bring Mr. Nevills home to where the doctor could visit and interview him in person. Although the regular doctor could not attend, a second option came to the fore.

“Dr. Jeffery was so good,” said Mr. Nevills. “So kind, so patient. Even talking on the phone to mom. She got off the phone and said how nice he was.”

The doctor came bearing a clipboard and a paper with a series of checkboxes. He asked Mr. Nevills the questions, but the answers did not come immediately, and the tension became palpable for the family.

“He just asked his questions and calmly went on to each of them down the list when dad didn’t answer right away,” said Mr. Nevills.

It seems Dr. Jeffery had carefully examined his patient’s file and knew what to expect.

“He was at the end of the checkboxes when dad suddenly looked at him and said, ‘I’m ready to go now’,” recalled Mr. Nevills. The last box was checked.

The end was anything but a sombre event. It took place on Valentine’s Day, during the 3 pm “coffee break.” The conversation around the room was lively and filled with stories and reminiscence. The coffee was great and the cake, cookies and cheese laid out.

“Mom stood up, clapped her hands and said ‘time to go’,” Ms. Nevills recalled.

The couple then went into the bedroom together and laid down on the bed, holding hands as they so often did during their lifetime together. They were given a sedative designed to put them to sleep.

“The nurse thought they were both asleep and she went to the side of the bed,” said Ms. Nevills. “Mom opened her eye and looked at the nurse (a family friend) and said, ‘talk to my sister for me.’ Then she closed her eye and went to sleep.”

The couple’s son and daughter-in-law were reluctant to go into the room after death had taken place. “I’m glad I did,” said Mr. Nevills.

“I didn’t want to go either,” said Ms. Nevills. “But I am glad I did.”

The sight that greeted the couple when they entered the room was of two people whose faces were at peace.

“They looked like they were sleeping,” said Ms. Nevills. “There was no more pain. They both looked calm and at rest.”

While most people in the community have been supportive and respectful toward the couple’s children following the MAID, some still have difficulty with the couple’s decision. MAID brings with it religious and cultural baggage that some individuals simply cannot relinquish—but the biggest challenge for those left behind was the couple’s wish to keep their plans close until after the day.

“A lot of people were upset they did not know about it sooner,” said Mr. Nevills, who admits a burden of having known early of his parents’ plans and having to honour their wishes. But close family and friends were apprised in time to be able to say goodbye, and that they see as being a blessing not afforded to many.

In the end, James and Donna Nevills, after having lived 73 years of wonderful life together, chose to leave a life that had become filled with great pain and even greater stress—and like just about everything else in their long and fruitful lives, they did so on their own terms.

“Together in life—forever together.”

The Nevills are survived by their five children, Norris (Rossanne), Brad (Susan), Tim (Marion, predeceased), Joanne (Bill Armstrong) and Brent (Tami). Ms. Nevill’s siblings include Margaret Arnold (Harold, predeceased), Glen (predeceased) (Beth), Norris (predeceased), Doris (predeceased) (Jim Strain predeceased) and Phyliss Poth (predeceased). Mr. Nevill’s siblings include Irene (Bill Montgomery predeceased), Charlie (Faye), Harry (predeceased) (Jean), Helen (predeceased) (Rod McLean predeceased), Robert (predeceased) (Lois predeceased), Florence (predeceased) (Keith Callaghan predeceased) and Ronnie (predeceased).

This article has been edited to remove the phrase “essentially suicide” as medical assistance in dying (MAID) has been legal since 2018, it is incorrect to reference MAID as suicide.