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The Final Wish

by Darrell Hookey

    Tears streamed down a big man's face as his special guest danced to the northern lights.

    Meanwhile, 150 kilometers away, Yukon Hospice's Barb Evans-Ehricht threw a coat on and rushed outside to "say a little prayer and a little thank you" on behalf of the Japanese lady who visited the Yukon that day.

    "That is just super," said Kathryn Secord, an administrative assistant with the Yukon Emergency Medical Services, as the aurora hit her eye as she left a Whitehorse restaurant. She had just finished telling friends why it was so important to have a good show that night. The pilot of Alkan Air's King Air 200 medivac plane, Ron Limoges, had kept his fingers crossed all day. His wife came into the house and gave him the happy news of the brilliant display in the northern sky. He wondered if a final wish was coming true that night for someone he hoped he would not have to meet. It was.

    "Dancing curtains, dancing curtains," Sanae Nakai said over and over as she swayed to the green pulsing streaks. Red streaks shot down from the left and a swirl of magical light appeared overhead cascading down to form a heavenly tent. Then, small, quiet and weak from the colon cancer that will soon take her life, Nakai picked through the few English words she knows and looked up to her host, "Thank you for making my dream come true."

    It was a powerful moment for Carson Schiffkorn. He had made available his entire six-suite Inn On The River just for her. Just for this moment.

Sanae Nakai     It was Nakai's final wish to see the northern lights. A documentary film crew from Japan's NTVV network made the necessary arrangements to bring her and her daughter, Miki, to the iced surface of Teslin River.

    Coming from the large city of Osaka, she rarely even saw stars. But here in the dark of the Yukon wilderness they were bright and plentiful for her that Friday evening, Feb. 1, 2002. And the northern lights were as spectacular as Yukon-born Schiffkorn had ever seen them. "Dancing curtains, dancing curtains."

    Schiffkorn and Nakai's daughter stood on either side of her as they swayed back and forth. Even though he had just met her the day before, he was allowed to share in this "incredibly intimate moment".

    "Incredible" is a word Schiffkorn uses often to describe this experience. He knew he was embarking on a journey that would put him through an "emotional wringer" when he first received e-mails from a person writing on behalf of "a friend".

    Their friend was dying and wanted to see the northern lights to fulfill a final wish. Schiffkorn learned later that the friend would be followed by an entourage that included a film crew, producer, co-ordinator, doctor and the woman's daughter. Nine in total. He was also told that the Canadian Tourism Commission in Tokyo helped with the decision on Whitehorse over Fairbanks and Fort Smith, Northwest Territories. Besides his impressive website, his lodge is close to an airport and hospital and all the rooms face the north.

    But he was nervous. Schiffkorn could ensure the rooms were ready and meals would be favorable, but he could not flick a switch to turn on the northern lights. A couple of days before Nakai was to arrive, he found himself feeling relieved that his guests from a German tire company were burdened with cloudy weather. "This will clear up for Mrs. Nakai," he told himself.

    He already knew the trip was scheduled for a time the moon was not full, which was another good sign. But he had to prepare himself: "Stay true. Stay who I am. Do not pity her. I am not her rescuer. Do not treat her like a victim. Treat her like a guest."

    Schiffkorn met his special guest Jan. 31 at the airport. He found her to be like most Japanese, very respectful, very thoughtful, very kind. "Very much a mother," he said, noting she was already accustomed to the fuss around her as the film crew recorded their meeting.

    The 54-year-old house wife won this trip in a contest sponsored by Toyota. Her daughter wrote a letter and was chosen from 5,000 entries to have a wish fulfilled. As the winner, her story was told in a documentary aired Feb. 23 on Japan's largest network. This time slot is called "Golden Hour" because it has the highest viewership of any other time during the week.

    Nakai was diagnosed in August and was told to expect three more months to live. So the crew that met Schiffkorn at the airport was sparked with urgency. But the subject of the documentary was ill and had endured a long journey. Her doctor took her to the Westmark where she rested while Schiffkorn took her daughter and the film crew on a tour.

    This tour wasn't the usual. They visited Hospice Yukon where she was presented with a framed photo of the northern lights ... just in case. They also visited Alkan Air to see the plane that would rush her to Vancouver if necessary. And the emergency department of Whitehorse General Hospital and the Thomson Centre, an extended care facility, and the ambulance crew at Yukon Emergency Medical Services. Partly these visits were for the documentary. But they were also meant to reassure Nakai's daughter that the Yukon can take care of her mother.

    The next day, the entourage drove to Inn On The River, near Johnson's Crossing. While Nakai was being tended to in her room, Schiffkorn was outside and happened to see the start of the northern lights.

    He rushed in, but was stopped by the film crew who wanted to capture the moment of him rushing up the stairs to tell her. "The aurora is out," he finally exclaimed. Nakai was excited and rushed to the window to see. It became crazy. Then she bundled up and headed to the river for the best view.

    She stood on the river for 90 minutes, until 9:30, and then came in to phone her husband, a real estate agent, back in Japan. It was a radiophone, and she had trouble with the microphone for some awkward, yet funny, moments.

    But then the dialogue became heavy as husband and wife shared her last truly joyous moment on this earth. Although Japanese couples tend not to be outwardly intimate, there were code words that the film crew picked up on as the passion between these two were intuited over the airwaves. Those who weren't holding a camera or microphone left the room sobbing. The rest did the best they could.

    Schiffkorn had detected a shadow descending on the "incredibly peaceful and beautiful experience" they had shared. Her final wish was granted ... and now her life would become final. All he wanted now was for her to go home to her husband and family and friends.

    All the next day, Nakai rested in bed, too sick to enjoy the activities Schiffkorn had lined up. On Sunday, he drove her to the hospital. Only her daughter and doctor joined them. The film crew drew a line and would not impose on such a serious and personal moment. Schiffkorn said the emergency department staff were tremendous. Yet they could do nothing for her as her kidneys had shut down.

    She was welcome to stay at the hospital until her plane left the next day, but instead Nakai chose to go to the High Country Inn.

    Schiffkorn drove back alone. He broke the news to a stunned film crew. "Oh yeah," they pondered in silence. "That's why we are here."

    The stress of getting the equipment to the Yukon and recording Nakai's story, that was so dependent on the fickle northern lights, was over. Now it was all about Nakai. Now it was serious. At dinner that night, each hoped the northern lights would not appear again. It just wouldn't be right.

    Before leaving the next day, Nakai was well enough to go shopping for souvenirs for her family and friends. They went to the Country House, a local furniture store, because Schiffkorn knew his sister's business had plenty of places to sit or lie down. Then they went to the liquor store because Nakai wanted to see what it looked like. At Food Fair they bought 10 bags of maple leaf shaped cookies and Canadian-made honey.

    But now it was time to say "good bye". At the airport, Schiffkorn wished nobody would start crying. But they all did. Nakai did not want to let go of his hand, but when she did and was wheeled through security, she would not stop waving to him.

    "Sir, are you a passenger on this flight?" the security guard demanded to know. "No," Schiffkorn managed to mumble as he stood there waving. He would keep waving until she stopped waving.

    "Sir, I'm talking to you." Schiffkorn ignored her, waving, refusing to stop giving to his guest as long as he was needed.

    "Sir, you must stay behind that yellow line." Floating though his daze was the thought that the security guard was just doing her job during a tense time in air travel. But there are some things more important in life than yellow lines.

    Nakai was wheeled to the ramp and yet she continued to wave to him. And he continued to wave back.

    There are more important things in life ... like dancing curtains.