When Carol Taylor ended her life with medical assistance last week, the Kelowna woman spent her last moments surrounded by her dearest friends. But closest to her, holding her hand until she passed, was a young man from Syria she lovingly called her grandson, Anas Qartoumeh.
Theirs was an unlikely friendship, and one that will endure in Qartoumeh’s heart for a long time.
“She was my all in Canada, and I lost her,” he said, his voice breaking.
The 80-year-old, whose two-year battle with cancer had taken a turn for the worse, chose death in the way she had lived her life — with courage and conviction.
“I’ve had a most wonderful life. It’s time to move on, and I’m on my way happily,” she told CBC a few days before she died.
Taylor, who hailed from a family of “lefties” from the San Francisco area, initially came to Canada to protest the Vietnam War, and activism remained the crux of her life. She protested against nuclear proliferation in the 1980s, against homophobia in the 1990s, and in her later years, co-founded the Dying with Dignity chapter in Kelowna.
One fuzzy photo of Taylor shows her at one of the first pride marches in Kelowna in the late ’90s, surrounded by her friends from the Kelowna Women’s Book Club.
“We were on the front lines 20 years ago [and] the mayor refused to sign the proclamation [in support of the LGBTQ community],” she said.
“We were vilified … they were saying terrible things to us.”
In 2015, Taylor, whose common-law husband had died a few years earlier, was looking for a way to help the influx of Syrian refugees arriving in Canada. Living alone, she figured she could host a family in the extra rooms in her house.
“And Anas came into my life … with a 22 kilogram suitcase.”
Qartoumeh, now 36, came to Canada as a refugee to escape the Syrian civil war and a conservative culture that forced him to keep his homosexuality a secret.
When he arrived in Kelowna, he found in Taylor not just a roommate, but a kindred spirit, mentor, and someone he could confide in.
“She was there to support me since the day I arrived,” he said. “She stood up for me when I was vulnerable.”
Taylor introduced Qartoumeh to her wide circle of friends, and she watched closely as he blossomed in his adopted home.
“He was invited to his first gay New Year’s party and I drove him to it,” she recalled. “Up in Glenmore, somewhere snowing.”
The following morning, Taylor said she listened carefully as Qartoumeh recounted every detail of the party, especially because, she joked, she hadn’t been invited.
“Anas said, ‘Carol! I have had my first gay kiss!’ And he told me about what it was like and [how] this man kissed him.”
With Taylor’s encouragement, Qartoumeh got a job, moved out, and took on a prominent, vocal role in Kelowna’s LGBTQ community. Qartoumeh was named the Grand Marshal of the 2018 Kelowna Pride March.
“I knew he could speak well. He looks good, and he’s proud and out as a gay man,” she said, beaming. “He’s the poster man for inclusion in Canada.”
But to Taylor, who has no children of her own, he was more.
“He’s the grandson I would have wished for.”
When Taylor decided to have a medically assisted death, she told Qartoumeh. He immediately moved in to the house to be with her in the weeks leading up to the day she had chosen to die.
The night before her death, Taylor held a living wake for her close friends. She insisted on happy music and no tears.
Qartoumeh said the event, complete with a riotous appearance from Kelowna drag queen Freida Whales, was joyful. But he admitted to escaping to his own room to cry.
“I do not want to disappoint her — I’ve never disappointed her — and show her my sadness, but when I am in my room and on my own, I just do it,” he said.
When he insisted on being there for her final moments, Taylor hesitated. She said it would be too emotional.
“Then she changed her mind and she said, ‘Yeah I’d like you to stay with me,'” he said.
“I held her hand to the very end.”
As Qartoumeh moves on in his own life, Taylor will always remain close to him — like an old fuzzy photograph of a determined woman, marching with a hand-written sign at one of Kelowna’s first pride parades, that sits framed in his home.
When Taylor was shown the photograph before her death, she laughed.
“I had said, ‘Anas, take anything you want because I’m getting rid of stuff here.’ And he took it. I kind of forgot he took it,” she said.
“I was so honoured that he would do that.”