Bethany was a young Jehovah Witness — 16 when I met her — 17 when she died. Blood transfusions were imposed upon her pursuant to a court order, which made her feel physically, emotionally and spiritually violated. I was one of two lawyers that tried to take her case to the Supreme Court of Canada.
The following are some personal thoughts about Bethany that I wrote down on the plane on the way to Calgary for the funeral and also on the plane back (it was a red-eye flight so I had plenty of time).
My professional relationship with Bethany Hughes moved quickly from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms & courts to Star Wars videos, Shakira v. Shania Twain, my family, her family, the challenges of my family, the challenges of hers. We talked about what she wanted to be when she grew up — I reminded her that she already was. I said I would help her do whatever she wanted to be, whatever she wanted to do. "There's a summer job for you in the law firm I work in — all you have to do is call, Bethany. My home is your home, my family is your family".
Bethany's fight reminds me of something that happened when Giovanna and I took our children to the desert in Arizona, a small town called Cave Creek, for March Break. An hour north of Phoenix, far out in the desert, no taxis; but the local newspaper still gets delivered and I always like to read the local paper. In the paper one morning, from what I remember, a young mother walks out of a hospital from a meeting with a cancer specialist. Her seven-year-old son has three months left to live. The boy's at home. You can imagine how she feels inside.
She asks the doctor, "Should I tell him?"
"Don't know, your call", says the doctor.
She speaks to her boy: "Son, we have to take you to the hospital. We can't take care of you properly at home. We won't be together you and I forever, as I wanted. We will have three special months together you and I, and I'll sleep on the floor beside you every night. But I do have one question for you, and that is: "Did you have a dream, something you wanted to do, or wanted to be, when you grew up? Something you wanted to achieve?"
Her seven-year-old boy said, "Yeah" — "What?"
— "A firefighter, I want to be a firefighter."
— "A firefighter, huh", she replies.
She calls the Phoenix Fire Department and says he son isn't well and asks if she and her son could have a ride on a fire truck. Receptionist puts her though to the Fire Chief. Fire Chief asks questions and gets the full story. — "Ma'am", he says, "This is the Phoenix Fire Department, we'll do better than that. You give me your boy's measurements. We get our uniforms, protective gear and helmets made right here in Phoenix and I'll get him a full outfit. Not toy stuff, a real firefighting outfit. 6:30 a.m. Wednesday, we'll pick'm up."
Wednesday, 6:30 a.m. fire truck.
Three emergency calls that day.
Her son went on all three and held the Chief's hand, gave advice.
Kept the outfit.
Three months later, vital signs dropping below critical. Mother calls Chief on his direct line.
— "He's fading, but still fully conscious. He probably won't make it through the night. The hospital believes in the hospice movement, that no one should die alone, and not without memories. Could someone come over and say hi?"
— "Ma'am, this is the Phoenix Fire Department. We'll do better. I can tell on my computer screen you're at the hospital on the third floor. What room number? Be there in six and a half minutes or less. Have him look out the window."
At four minutes you can hear the sirens.
At six minutes, two sets of ladders go up to the third floor.
Fourteen fully dressed and equipped firemen — and with fourteen fire women — and the Chief — crawl up the ladders and through the window.
They hug him and love him, and talk to him, and Josh with him.
He says to the Chief: "Does this mean I'm a real firefighter now?"
Chief says, "Boy, you always were because it was your dream, in your heart and you lived it out."
He died that night.
Inside every one of us is that child.
Inside every one of is that Fire Chief too.
Inside every one of us is Bethany.
That little boy, as tough as it was.
For his mother.
Did live — and die — with his dream.
The Fire Chief too lived his dream.
— he's pride in the profession he'd chosen;
— he'd become the best firefighter he possibly could be;
— he gave his own community beyond the call of duty.
A true professional.
Inside all of us is that dream. Bethany clearly had that dream, and for her it was real. A dream of what she wanted to be, what she wanted to do, how she wanted to make a difference.
We can all have that dream as well. We have the opportunity to do what we can to make that difference in a practical way every day, to those around us — to ourselves, to our loved ones, and yes, perhaps particularly to those we do not.
I am proud of what Bethany did, proud of who she was, who she was inside.
Her passing was far too brief, her passing with me personally was far too brief as well.
Life is for the living. Life is about the Fire Chief, about Ariliss, about Cassie, about Athalia, and also about Bethany's dad, Larry, too.
Life is about remembering the past while living the future, driving the car forward, looking out the front windshield, but still looking in the rearview mirror to see where you've come from. As I drive that car in my practice as a lawyer, I will never forget Bethany the gladiator for justice. A gladiator who gave her life to the fight — but a strong yet vulnerable gladiator. A real gladiator for herself, for young people in Canada, for all of us.
I was witness to what Bethany was, and is. For her and for all young people in Canada, for far-to-short a time Bethany's friend, but more important I will always be Bethany's witness.