This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on March 13, 1995
Woman Sentenced in Mercy Killing
Friends and neighbors recall them as one of the happiest couples they had ever met. Even after nearly six decades of marriage, Jean and Cecil Brush still held hands, more like love-struck teenagers than a husband and wife in their twilight years. Together they spent long summer evenings tending the well-manicured garden behind their modest redbrick bungalow in Stoney Creek, Ont., just east of Hamilton. And every weekday, they drove to one of their favorite restaurants for a leisurely lunch. They had worked hard to get where they were, and their retirement years seemed to be unfolding as the best of their lives.
Then, the hallucinations began. Jean Brush says she will never forget the day in early 1994 when her husband, then 80, got out the vacuum cleaner and began trying to suck up imaginary insects he saw crawling across the living-room floor. In the months that followed, Cecil Brush's behavior became ever more erratic. Outside, he saw threatening armies marching down the street. To him, neighbors' cars violently shook back and forth; electrical wires lay strewn around the house; water gushed from holes in the bedroom ceiling, drenching his bed. When his wife tried to reassure him that he was only seeing things, Cecil Brush accused her of being part of a conspiracy. "He got angry with me because he thought I was responsible and that I had a contract with somebody," Jean Brush says now, her eyes filling with tears. "This was not Cec. This was not the way he was. He was a wonderful man."
In a suicide pact gone horribly awry, Jean Brush helped her husband of 58 years to end his life last August, but failed in her bid to join him in death. And last week, looking frail and resigned, she appeared in a Hamilton courtroom to be sentenced for manslaughter. Dressed in blue slacks, a yellow blouse and a floral-print jacket, the grey-haired grandmother listened nervously as Judge Bernd Zabel called her actions "a desperate attempt to end her husband's life with some dignity." But while the judge acknowledged that she had acted out of mercy, he pointed out that the controversial issue of euthanasia cannot be settled by the courts. Instead, he said, it "must be left in Parliament's hands."
Still, to the relief of Jean Brush, who told Maclean's two days before she was sentenced that she could not believe that her "foul act" would go unpunished, the judge gave her a suspended sentence with 18 months' probation, meaning that she will not serve any time in jail for Cecil's death. "She has already suffered a harsher sentence than could ever be imposed on her life, the loss of her loving husband," Zabel said. After the judgment, Jean Brush bowed her head and quietly said: "Thank you, your Honor."
Cecil Brush suffered from Alzheimer's disease, a degenerative and eventually fatal neurological disorder that transforms its victims into shadows of their former selves. By the time of his death, his hearing and vision had almost completely failed, leaving him in a state of near-total sensory deprivation. He was incontinent and, like many Alzheimer's patients, was apt to wander off. At times, he did not even recognize his wife. But in moments of lucidity, Cecil Brush could recognize that something was profoundly wrong. He also knew, his wife says, that he had lost the will to live.
So Jean Brush - exhausted, overwhelmed and motivated, she says, by mercy and love - decided to help her 81-year-old husband fulfil his wish to end his life. The first attempt came last July, after he told her that he wanted "to go to sleep and not wake up." Frightened, Jean Brush asked him to write down what he had said on a piece of paper - and to sign it. Because Cecil could barely see, she had to help him guide the pen. She then poured several sleeping pills onto a plate and offered them to her husband. He took eight pills, said, "I don't want any more," and pushed the plate away. After that, she washed down 28 pills herself with some whisky. "I was very calm," she remembers. "I was resigned to it. I took him by the hand and I said, 'C'mon, go to bed.' I got him to his bed, on top of the spread, and I lay down beside him and held his hand."
She has no memory of what happened next. But at 2 a.m., she phoned her only child, 56-year-old Joan Myers, who lived nearby, saying: "Joan, I need you." Myers rushed to her parents' home to find her mother unconscious on the dining-room floor. Her father, who had not taken enough pills to cause serious harm, was fine. When Jean later woke up in hospital, her first thought was of Cecil. "When I regained consciousness, I asked if my husband was all right and [the staff] said, 'Yes,' " she remembers. "And I thought, 'Thank goodness I didn't go and leave Cec alone. ' "
Cecil's condition, however, continued to decline, and Jean says she sought desperately to get him long-term nursing-home care. None could be found immediately: he was fifth on a waiting list for a permanent placement when on Aug. 3 he was admitted to the Clarion Nursing Home in Stoney Creek to give his wife a much-needed temporary respite. At the home, Cecil grew frustrated, refused meals and began to wander the hallways, often acting aggressively towards the staff.
On the morning of Aug. 18, Jean Brush came to the Clarion for a visit. Concerned about Cecil's refusal to eat and his inability even to find a bathroom that was only feet from his bed, she signed him out to take him home for lunch. He was to return by 2 p.m. But once she got him home, Cecil refused to eat. "He put his head down on the table and he said to me, 'I'm not going back there," Jean Brush told Maclean's. "And I had my arms around him and I said, 'No darling, you're not going back there.' And then he said, 'Jean, do something, please do something. ' And I said, 'If I do anything to you, then I have to do it to myself, too. ' And he said, 'I want you and me to be together. ' "
Jean Brush led Cecil into the dining-room and laid him on some blankets she had draped across the floor. She then got a five-inch long hunting knife from the basement, held it to his hands and guided the blade to his chest. But he was too weak to use the knife. Her hand on the weapon along with his, Jean Brush stabbed him twice below the sternum, severing the main artery to his spleen and pancreas. Then, she turned the blade on herself, plunging it five times into her abdomen.
About five hours later, her daughter, who had moved into the house to provide support, returned home from work to find them lying side by side. Her father was already dead. Her mother, barely alive, was holding Cecil's hand. Myers presumed both her parents were dead until she heard her mother stir - and rushed over to hug her. The elderly woman whispered that she was sorry she was "unable to finish it."
Jean Brush never intended to survive. Her gashes extended from her breasts down to her navel. But surgeons at Hamilton General Hospital saved her life, leaving her alone in a world without Cecil - and facing a charge of first-degree murder. Three weeks later, Brush was discharged from hospital. After a brief court appearance the same day, she was released on $5,000 bail, to recuperate at home, provided that she follow her doctors' orders and have someone with her at all times. On the advice of physicians, who felt that the 81-year-old woman might not be able to withstand the strain of a murder trial, Jean Brush instructed her lawyer, Frank Genesee, to plead guilty to manslaughter.
There is a deep sadness in Jean Brush's eyes as she sits at her dining-room table, only feet from the spot where she took her husband's life. The first sign of trouble, she says, came in June, 1993, when he began to ask her to drive the car on their noontime outings. "He didn't tell me what was wrong," she says. "I just thought he wanted a break." But as his 80th birthday approached that July, she urged him to send in his driver's licence renewal - something he had been putting off. "He said, 'No, they won't pass me, ' " she remembers. "I asked, 'Cec, what do you mean? ' And he answered, 'I can't drive any more. ' " It was the first she knew of his visual impairment.
Soon, in addition to his glasses, Cecil Brush was using a magnifying glass and a flashlight to read. One day in January, 1994, he got up from the breakfast table and started pacing back and forth. "I looked at him and said, 'What's the matter?" Jean Brush recalls. "And he answered, 'I've got to see the doctor, I've got to see the doctor. ' " But when she told him to call and make an appointment, he replied helplessly: "You have to dial the telephone. I can't see, Jean."
Cecil was declared legally blind. It was about that time the hallucinations began - and his behavior changed dramatically. One day, Jean was working at the kitchen sink and turned around to see him lunging at her with his arms outstretched as if he wanted to strangle her. "I turned and I faced him and he stopped, maybe two feet in front of me," she recalls. "And I looked at him and he looked at me, and his hands were still up, so I took one step towards him and said, 'Go ahead. Go ahead, Cec. ' He said, 'No, ' and turned around and walked away." Fighting back tears, her lips trembling, she continues: "I wouldn't have minded if he had killed me. I loved him and he loved me. But this was not him."
She first noticed Cecil Brush when she was 15, as he rode past her on his bicycle while she walked to a nearby beach. Jean had never had a boyfriend before; in fact, she recalls, she "had never bothered with boys at all." But when Cecil glanced back at her, she knew right away that she liked him. "Gradually, as summer went on, we got talking," she says. "We'd go for a walk once in a while, maybe on a Sunday or something, and gradually he'd ask me to go to the show and he'd buy me some chocolates in a bag." She smiles gently, then recalls her 22nd birthday, when Cecil arrived at her family's house with a gift. "I undid the parcel and it was a little velvet box with a ring in it," she remembers. "He said, 'That's an engagement ring. We're engaged.' He never really proposed." Less than five months later, on June 6, 1936, they were married.
The Brushes' first and only child, Joan, was born in 1938. But the next year, tragedy struck. First, Jean had a miscarriage, losing twin boys. Then, in October, Cecil, who worked in the hot mill at Dominion Foundries and Steel (later Dofasco), became listless and started losing weight. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, he was sent to a sanitorium in Hamilton, leaving Jean Brush to provide for herself and her daughter. The couple had no savings, so Jean had to store their furniture and go to live with her parents, who looked after Joan while her mother took a menial job at her husband's mill. The next year, Jean, too, contracted TB. She spent two years in the sanitorium, and remembers that during that time she could only wave to her daughter from her third-floor window as the toddler stood with her grandparents on the lawn below. Later in life, she now says, she and her husband were philosophical about their early illness. "We often said that maybe it was a good thing that we did have TB," she says, "because after that we knew that we were not indestructible."
In 1941, Cecil Brush was released and went back to Dofasco, where he stayed until his retirement in 1973, after nearly 44 years' service. But, weakened by tuberculosis, he had to take a job working in the production office, a move that thrilled his wife because he was able to work regular hours. In the years that followed, the Brushes were preoccupied with saving enough money to buy a simple house. In 1948, they bought a lot backing onto a ravine to build their dream home. Cecil drew up the plans himself, and on June 27, 1951, Jean and Cecil Brush moved into the house that they would live in together for 43 years - until his death.
In the months leading up to Cecil's death, Jean Brush kept detailed notes of her husband's rapid decline in scribbler pads. Many of the entries from last year highlight their increasing desperation:
1) July 1: It tears me apart to watch him. I have to watch him eat ... watch him when he goes to the bathroom to see he doesn't drop his underwear and wash his clothes in the toilet Dad and I are dying a slow, torturous death. There is no future for us. Dad wants to let go.
2) July 21: Cec up all night from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. House ablaze with lights. Front and side doors open, his two bedroom windows open. Our house is air-conditioned. I wanted to close the windows and doors and he said while advancing at me he would paddle my ass if I tried. He said robbers were outside waiting to rob the house and he wanted them to come in and he would capture them.
3) Aug. 2: I am stressed out. No longer can I administer Cec's medication. I need respite. Deteriorating. Cec needs nursing-home care urgently. I cannot feed him. I am too tired.
Jean Brush's last entry is dated Aug. 18, 1994. It is a suicide note:
Cec's and my situation is getting worse day by day and will not get better. Cec being blind and with Alzheimer's disease is like being in a nightmarish hell. We have lived our lifetime and it must end before we both become vegetables People in nursing homes, the people in psychiatric wards, mentally and physically dead but breathing and they are kept alive as long as possible. Why? Why? Do the medical profession and governments care what effect this has on families? Doesn't seem like it. Cec as he was, young, vibrant, full of life, is no more. He is a shell, dead, but not buried because he still breathes.
Outside the courtroom after sentencing last week, Brush's daughter told Maclean's that she was very relieved her mother had escaped a harsher sentence. "She was really scared that they would decide to make an example of her because of the controversy on euthanasia," explained Joan Myers. And she said she was confident that her mother, who has been left deeply depressed by her experience, will now be able to put the nightmare behind her and get on with her life. Crown attorney David Carr, meanwhile, told reporters that the Brush case was "very sad and tragic." But he was careful to add that he did not view it as precedent setting. "Each case has to be looked at on its own facts," he said.
Still, Brush's lawyer, Frank Genesee, said that if there was ever a case that illustrates the need for amending the Criminal Code to deal with euthanasia, it is the story of Jean Brush. He called on the federal government to create a panel of experts before which people could plead euthanasia cases. Such a board, he said, might actually discourage the practice because it could become a "911 call to the community" to help those in need. He added that he hopes the Brush sentencing might help others facing similar circumstances, including Saskatchewan farmer Robert Latimer, convicted of second-degree murder last November in the mercy killing of his 12-year-old daughter, Tracy, who was suffering from cerebral palsy. Latimer is appealing that conviction.
After winning her freedom, Brush said it was never her intention to try to change the law. "It was just between my husband and me," she said. "I had no thought whatsoever about making a statement to the government." At first, she says, her only regret was that she was unable to join her husband in death. She now claims she is prepared to wait for "God's will." But when asked if she is happy to be alive, she replies softly: "Not really."
On the wall of the dining-room where Cecil Brush died, there is a copy of a well-known verse called the "Desiderata." Jean Brush reads it every now and then to help boost her spirits. It reads, in part:
[Do not] be cynical about love; for it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should Strive to be happy.
Maclean's March 13, 1995