Lecretia Seales launched a High Court challenge to win the right to an assisted death after being diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour. Lecretia’s Choice, written by her husband Matt Vickers, is a beautifully written love story and compulsory reading for everyone who cares about the dignity we afford terminally ill people who want to die on their own terms. Read an extract below.
I will always remember the sense of surprise and intensity of feeling when I first went out with Lecretia.
I had met her three days earlier. It was a Friday evening. I’d gone to an ex-girlfriend’s farewell party at Hummingbird, a bar on Courtenay Place in Wellington. My ex was moving back to Greece to start a job there. It was 7 July 2003 and I rather hoped she might return my Smiths CDs. I took a friend along with me, a guy named Rodney who drew cartoons.
I remember being immediately drawn to a woman sitting at the long table by the window. It was an hour past sunset, and the last light from behind the horizon was sustained by the glow of the streetlights. She was sitting with a group of girlfriends who were in animated conversation. She would interject now and then, but mostly she smiled and laughed. She wore a stylish leather jacket and her hair was tied in two braids. Her smile was generous and she was extraordinarily beautiful.
A waitress passed by me with a plate of thin fries balanced on a tray, clearly bound for these young women. As she passed, I reached out on a whim and took one, without the waitress noticing, and ate it, smiling at the braided woman as I did so.
This got their attention. They called out to me in indignation and I wandered over, apologising. ‘I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist.’ Bolstered by several beers’ worth of courage, I sat down and introduced myself. I was still about three chairs away from the braided woman, who was clearly amused by me but didn’t say very much. I stole glances at her as I talked to one of her friends. I learned that the women were mostly workmates from a Wellington law firm. They were all drinking champagne.
Now my friend Rodney joined us and we proceeded to banter with the girls. To my annoyance, Rodney sat next to the braided girl and was soon deep in conversation with her. After some time, and feeling envious, I reminded him that we were expected at another bar.
‘I kind of had my eye on her,’ I said, once we were out on the street.
‘All’s fair in love and war, mate. She gave me her card.’
At the new bar I tried to converse with Rodney’s friends, but I couldn’t take my mind off the woman at Hummingbird. After a drink or two, I slipped out unnoticed and headed back to Courtenay Place.
The girls were still there and I joined them, offering some excuse for Rodney’s absence as I sat down next to the braided girl. We started to talk. She was a lawyer from Tauranga, in the Bay of Plenty, and her name was Lecretia. ‘That’s a lovely name,’ I said. She was tipsy, and so was I. And somehow, over several drinks, we ended up kissing there in the bar, in front of her amused friends and colleagues.
My phone beeped. It was a text from Rodney: ‘Where are you?’
‘All’s fair in love and war,’ I texted back.
I was still kissing Lecretia when Rodney arrived back at the bar. At this point Lecretia’s friends had decided it was time to move on. We went around the corner to another bar on the pretext of dancing, but all that happened was I ended up kissing Lecretia some more. Finally Lecretia’s friends decided it was time to call it a night. They piled into a cab, and Rodney and I hopped into a taxi up to Mount Victoria, in search of another party.
I woke the next day with a hangover, and thinking of Lecretia—who was that girl I’d kissed last night? I had enjoyed kissing her so much. I was already smitten.
I didn’t know her last name, so I googled her. ‘Lecretia, lawyer, wellington.’ I found her almost immediately. Lecretia Seales was an associate at Chen Palmer & Partners in Wellington. I looked at her picture. She was as beautiful as I remembered. I needed to see her again. But her contact details weren’t on the website.
I called Rodney, remembering he had her card. ‘I need Lecretia’s contact details.’
‘I’m still upset with you.’
‘Look, I need to ask this girl out. We kissed. If she says no, you can ask her out.’
‘You owe me one,’ he said.
Now I had her work number and her email address. On Sunday, after I had recovered from my hangover, I decided to write to her.
hello lecretia ...
we met on friday, at hummingbird ... we were all very badly behaved and i am sure that if there is an afterlife, we will be called to account for it ... after i left you outside hummingbird, i went to a party in mt. victoria somewhere where i tried to convince the revellers that i was an idiot savant ... it didn’t really work out ... in the morning (or rather, early afternoon), i awoke with a splitting headache and a great deal of moral guilt ... but that’s bohemianism for you ... it’s all about the present, and never the consequences ...
speaking of consequences: the consequence of giving me your business card is this missive ... i would like the chance to meet you in a less bacchanalian environment ... i’m not normally so crass and bold ... i am usually a gentle creature of forethought and passion ... well, maybe ...
do you have a cellular phone by which i could reach you? ... i could call you at work, but i would prefer not to ... in any case, it was a pleasure to meet you ... i hope to hear from you ...
At the time I was halfway through a writing degree, and my supervisor still had some way to go to knock all of the pretentiousness out of me. I thought the use of lower case and ellipses to string fragments of sentences together was very sophisticated—as though I was too nonchalant and freewheeling for the jolt of a full stop. And of course she hadn’t given me her business card—she’d given it to Rodney. I hoped she wouldn’t remember that detail.
A few hours later I called her work number, too, not expecting her to answer it on a Sunday. But she did answer. Lecretia was in her office, perhaps as penance for her Friday night.
‘Hello, is Lecretia there?’
A pause. ‘Speaking.’
‘Hi, it’s Matt. We met on Friday.’
‘Yes, I remember.’
‘How are you? I had a bit of a hangover yesterday.’
‘So did I. I blame you for that.’
‘Well, in my defence, you were well on your way before I arrived.’
‘I sent you an email.’
‘Yes, I saw it.’
‘I would really like to see you again.’
‘I would. How about tomorrow night? Let’s have a quiet drink and see how it goes.’
A pause again. ‘I’m not sure that’s a good idea.’
‘I’m not like this usually, and I’m sure you’re not either. Why don’t we just see? What have you got to lose?’
One more pause. ‘Okay.’
‘Great! I’ll email you tomorrow with details. Looking forward to it!’
I decided to take her to a tapas bar in the centre of Wellington. I couldn’t believe she’d agreed. I wore jeans and a new shirt with hand-painted leaves on it. I was more excited than I had been about any date in a long time.
I was the first to arrive. When Lecretia appeared, I was taken aback at how beautiful she was. She had long brown hair, tan skin, beautiful eyes and the sunniest smile you’d ever seen. She was still dressed in her office clothes, and it being winter she was wearing a long coat. Though she was demurely dressed, her allure was hard to conceal. Her complexion suggested an exotic heritage. Was she Italian, or Spanish, or Maori? I was intrigued.
We sat in the back of the bar, and after some awkward chat about Friday night, we began to talk. It turned out Lecretia was older than me. She had just turned thirty, while I was twenty-six.
Lecretia had grown up in Tauranga, the eldest child born to young parents, Larry and Shirley, with two younger siblings, Jeremy and Kat. They weren’t wealthy, but they were a loving family, and Lecretia’s parents made all the sacrifices they could for their children’s education. Her family came from English and German stock, with a dash of Irish, but there was also Fijian blood, and along the line a Cuban sailor of Spanish extraction.
She excelled at school, and came to Victoria University in Wellington to study law, where she also shone. She specialised in public and constitutional law. She told me about her lecturers, the most formidable being Sir Geoffrey Palmer, the former Labour prime minister. Sir Geoffrey had a seating plan for the lecture theatre and knew exactly where everyone was sitting, so that he could question particular students and reprimand them if they hadn’t done their reading.
After three years as a young solicitor at Kensington Swan, she left for London in early 2000. She worked there for a couple of years, and travelled widely in Europe. Back in New Zealand she secured a role at Chen Palmer & Partners, a boutique public law firm started by Sir Geoffrey and Mai Chen, also a former law lecturer. Sir Geoffrey saw Lecretia’s potential and took her under his wing. She became one of his associates, a role in which she flourished.
I shared her modest beginnings, having grown up in the poorest suburbs of 1970s Gisborne and later on the outskirts of Napier, a few hours’ drive south-east of Tauranga. My father was a joiner, making cabinets and furniture. He was a talented woodworker, and built two of his own houses. He later joined the public service as a property valuer. After my mother had me, she stopped working as an office assistant and became a homemaker, raising me and my younger sister, Natalie.
Where Lecretia had pursued the law, I pursued literature. Though she was only three-and-a-half years older than me, she seemed privy to truths I had yet to encounter, and I found her aura of worldly experience captivating.
Like me, Lecretia wasn’t the sort of person to go on about whatever popped into her head. She was a quiet and considered conversationalist who enjoyed the thoughtful exchange of opinions and ideas. Her taciturn nature made her all the more alluring; getting to know her was like investigating a mystery I would never quite be able to solve, no matter how many questions I asked.
I took a chance and asked her to dinner that night, expecting this intriguing woman who was clearly out of my league to say no, but she said yes. We wandered down the street to a Mexican restaurant, and ate quesadillas and drank mescal. We went from there to Good Luck, one of my favourite bars at the time. I flirted with her in earnest there, teasing her and letting her tease me.
Afterwards we walked down to the waterfront. It was a crisp, cold, clear winter night and the stars were out and shining. She was smiling, snug in her overcoat, and her bright eyes shone in the darkness. I took a chance and kissed her, and to my delight she responded. Then she pulled away, protesting that she had work tomorrow, but thanking me for the evening. I stood and watched her walk away. I was so incredulous that this exceptional woman had let me kiss her again that I began to wonder what was wrong with her. My lips tingled with the touch of hers and my breath steamed in the cold air.
We told the story of our first meeting often, and not without embarrassment. Lecretia was a very light drinker, so the way she behaved that night in Hummingbird was completely unlike her. Similarly, locking lips with a stranger was also a first for her. I must have been especially charismatic that night.
In fact, Lecretia told me much later that she had woken with a sense of shame and regret at her uncharacteristic behaviour and vowed never to see me again. That would have been the end of it, had it not been for my email, which she read out to her sister, Kat, over the phone, for her opinion.
‘You have to go out with him,’ Kat told her. ‘He sounds just like you!’ That wasn’t true, but I am forever grateful to Kat for her urging her big sister to give me a chance.
Lecretia told me she enjoyed our first date. She noticed and liked my shirt with the hand-painted leaves, and she got the impression I was a sharp dresser. ‘How was I supposed to know it was the only nice shirt you owned?’ she said later. She thought I was funny, and cocky, and confident, which was no doubt overcompensation for the nervousness I felt in her company. Lecretia liked to plan things, so the spontaneity of the date was a welcome break from routine. And inexplicably, she didn’t have a boyfriend.
I emailed her the next day:
good morning, gorgeous ... i hope you slept well ...
i had a great time last night ... maybe we could get together again soon? ... i’ll be in touch later in the week ...
have a fantastic day!
I hope the good morning reference is not an indication that you have only just arisen!
Today is a Red Bull day, which means I’m struggling slightly and need assistance with concentration.
Again, I blame you.
I shall look forward to hearing from you.
The last sentence sent my heart skipping. Yes, it was precisely the phrase a lawyer would use in speaking to a client, or to someone they were suing, but concealed beneath its stiff formality was a softening of her attitude towards me. She would look forward to seeing me. She would like to see me again.
I wanted to see her again at once, but I held back. I was afraid of scaring her away. My experience with relationships had taught me how precarious these first few days are, that the slightest hint of desperation or overeagerness might be fatal. But I was absolutely enthralled.
When you meet someone truly special, you cannot think of anyone or anything else. Your mind is flooded with new possibilities, new wonders. What might it be like to have dinner with this person? What might it be like to kiss her neck and shoulders? To undress her, to make love to her? To wake up in the morning with her? To climb a mountain with her or visit a foreign city? To be married to her? To have children with her?
You’re getting ahead of yourself, but you can’t help it— it’s as if you’ve found yourself on the first couple of pages of an exciting new book. Where does the story go from here? You don’t know whether the story will have a happy ending, but right now your heart says: read on, read on.
In Wellington, there was an annual film event called the Incredibly Strange Film Festival, a curated collection of films that ranged from schlock, to cult, to camp. I asked Lecretia along to a 1973 film called Psyched by the 4-D Witch, which had a generous write-up in the festival program. I thought it might make me look sophisticated.
As the lights dimmed and the film started, I put my arms around Lecretia’s shoulders. But the film was terrible. In Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s Easy Rider, there is a famously confronting scene where the protagonists trip out on LSD in a graveyard. Psyched by the 4-D Witch was like an extended parody of this, using only voiceovers and stock footage. It dragged on forever.
We were both relieved when the film ended. I was scared to look at Lecretia because I knew she must have hated it.
‘Do you want to get a cocktail?’ I asked.
‘Sure,’ she said.
We found a bar and ordered.
‘Sorry about that,’ I said.
‘It was horrible,’ agreed Lecretia. ‘It might be the worst film I’ve ever seen.’
‘I enjoyed your company, though. I’ll have to choose something much better next time.’
That Friday I met Lecretia for a drink and we talked about our week. We drank a few glasses of wine, ate tapas and talked. This turned out to be a much better plan for a date than attempting to impress her with my esoteric taste in films.
A few dates later Lecretia and I sat in her car outside my place. She was dropping me home. It was dark and the street was clear of traffic. The house loomed up beside me. I kissed her and thanked her for the evening. In the dim light her eyes looked all the brighter.
‘Do you want to come in?’ I asked.
‘I’m not sure,’ she said.
‘We don’t have to rush anything.’
‘I know that.’
‘I really like you. I’m entranced by you.’
‘I like you too. I don’t like that you’re a smoker, though. I don’t date smokers.’
It was true—I had foolishly picked up the habit at university and had yet to shake it.
‘I’m flattered that you broke your rules for me,’ I said.
‘I’m surprised I broke my rules for you.’
‘Come in and have a cup of tea,’ I said.
She paused. ‘Do you have green tea?’
I had my doubts.
‘I’m sure we do,’ I said.
We walked to my gate and up the stairs. Above the streetlights, the moon was waxing towards full in the sky above Mount Victoria. Lecretia stayed the night. In the morning, I left her asleep in bed, dressed as quietly as I could, and walked down the road to buy croissants and bacon and flowers. I stood on the deck of my flat, overlooking the city, and smoked a cigarette. I made croissants with bacon and brought them in to Lecretia, along with the flowers, and sat with her as we ate them.
‘Thank you for staying,’ I said. ‘I...’
Being with Lecretia felt natural and inevitable, like destiny. I wanted to spend every night of my life with this girl. I was in heaven.
Lecretia flatted on the other side of town, in Glenmore Street, up in the hills behind Victoria University, where I was doing my writing degree. She lived in a flat with three other early-thirties professionals. After that first night together, our dates frequently ended with us staying at her flat or mine, and the two of us walking together to work in the morning.
Lecretia’s flat was behind the botanical gardens. I remember walking through those gardens with her, in late winter, the bare branches of the trees gleaming from the rains that swept through every few days. She showed me her favourite spot, which quickly became mine. There was a point where you descended from a hilly, narrow path into the lower part of the garden, and the path would open out into a clearing, where it forked. A single lamppost, ornate and painted black-green, the sort you would see on an affluent boulevard in a European city, marked the fork. In the early morning you could round the corner of the path and come across this lamppost. Its light would still be on, but the effect would be subtle, washed out by the dawn breaking behind it.
It brought to mind The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where Lucy finds a lamppost and meets Mr Tumnus, the umbrella-bearing faun. Every time we passed that lamppost, it felt like Lecretia and I were embarking on our own adventure. On those walks we’d talk about our plans for the day, and the things we would do to further the projects and challenges in front of us. And then we’d descend into the city, where we parted ways until the stars started coming out.
Lecretia invited me over one night for a dinner party to meet her good friend Tim Clarke and his girlfriend, Sam. Tim was a brilliant young lawyer who was a partner at the leading law firm Russell McVeagh. He’d grown up with modest beginnings in Tauranga too. He was an incredibly polite and considerate man and I was enormously impressed by him.
Not long after, I met Lecretia’s parents at her flat. Larry and Shirley were younger than I’d expected—far younger than my parents—and I learned that Shirley had been barely sixteen when she fell pregnant with Lecretia, and Larry not much older. Shirley had come from a tough background, and was responsible for her siblings from a very young age. When her mother died, at just forty-three, Shirley and her sister Lorraine went to a foster home, where they were much better cared for. She was living there when she met Larry, who came from a much bigger family of five brothers and sisters.
They hadn’t planned on starting their own family at such an early age, and it could have been a disaster, but Shirley had somehow emerged from her difficult childhood with a vast capacity for love. It may have helped that Larry’s family was stable and close-knit. Shirley was adopted as something of a sister to Larry’s siblings, and the whole family supported them when their first child, Lecretia, was born in 1973.
Shirley had her daughter’s good looks, and she and Lecretia interacted more like sisters than a parent and child. Shirley was quiet but intelligent. Although she had been a bright student, she’d been forced out of school after getting pregnant. A few years later she had gone back to study and graduated with an accounting degree. She was now a director of a significant Tauranga accountancy firm.
Larry, on the other hand, I found slightly intimidating. He was bald, with a greying moustache, and had the physique of a man twenty years his junior. He kept fit by running and playing tennis, and would frequently win championships in his age division at regional and national levels. As someone who found sport almost entirely uninteresting, I must have completely confused him. And yet Lecretia had the same attitude to sport as I did, so perhaps he wasn’t all that worried.
Kat, Lecretia’s sister, was there too. She struck me as a bit of a wild child. She and her boyfriend were flatting in Wellington and threw a lot of parties. She was almost eight years younger than Lecretia, and she loved and looked up to her big sister.
I didn’t get to meet Lecretia’s younger brother, Jeremy, that night, but he clearly had a lot in common with Larry. Jeremy was a star footballer until a knee injury had forced him to retire. It would be a few more months until I met him.
The six of us—Lecretia and I, Larry and Shirley, and Kat and her boyfriend—walked from Lecretia’s house to a local bistro, where we had dinner and got to know each other. It was clear that Lecretia was something of a golden child—the daughter who had pushed herself to achieve and had found her way in the world with her parents’ encouragement and support. She had taken on three jobs simultaneously at high school to pay for her education. She had also entered into a dollar-for-dollar saving scheme with her father to pay for her first year of university. Whatever she saved, he would match. The sum she managed to save caused Larry to spit out his coffee in despair when he heard it, and he never made another deal like that with her again. Instead, Lecretia worked all through her university years, washing dishes and waiting on tables, minimising her student loan borrowings.
After dinner we wandered home. Emboldened by the wine we’d shared, I lit a cigarette.
‘He smokes!’ called out Shirley, in shock.
Not the best way to endear yourself to your girlfriend’s parents.
As much as Lecretia didn’t like my smoking she didn’t demand that I stop. She did have expectations and standards, however. One night a friend invited me out to her flat-warming. Lecretia was working and couldn’t go.
‘But come over and stay afterwards. I’m looking forward to seeing you,’ she told me.
I went to the flat-warming and ended up drinking too much. Feeling I’d hit my limit, I called a taxi and went home to my flat, without contacting Lecretia at all.
The next morning I got a call from her. ‘Where were you last night?’
‘I’m sorry, babe. I drank too much, so I came home and crashed. I’m so hung-over.’
‘Why didn’t you call?’
‘I didn’t want to talk to you in the state I was in.’
‘I waited up for you.’ She hung up.
She showed up at my house an hour or two later. We sat on the front porch.
‘I’m really disappointed. You don’t seem to care about me.’
‘I do, of course I do. I just drank too much, I came home and crashed. That’s it. I was too tired to call.’
‘But you knew I was waiting to hear from you.’
It was our first real fight, and I was to blame. At the time I didn’t quite see how. I’d spent so many years being accountable only to myself. And fights usually signalled the end of a relationship. Once it got to fighting, I assumed there was nowhere else for things to go.
After several exchanges, with me saying I’d done nothing wrong, and Lecretia saying that I’d been selfish and inconsiderate, I said, ‘So are you saying you want to break up with me?’
She looked shocked. ‘No,’ she said. ‘Why would I want to do that?’
‘Well, you’re angry that I didn’t call you. I can’t change that. So do you want to end things?’
‘We’re having an argument,’ she said. ‘I’m disappointed in you. I’m telling you why I’m upset. I just want you to listen and understand, and apologise. I don’t want to break up with you.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I should have called you. I was rude not to.’
‘Matt, you let me down.’
My parents had kept a quiet peace throughout their marriage—until they didn’t. Shortly after the fighting started, the marriage ended. Perhaps I thought marriage wasn’t possible when there was disagreement. Perhaps total harmony was the thing I was looking for. But Lecretia taught me that fighting can be constructive and healing. I had wronged her, apologised, and she had forgiven me. We had other fights and disagreements, but I never asked her again if she wanted to end our relationship.
In October 2003, Lecretia found a new flat in Mount Victoria, a short walk from my place. We spent most nights at her house or mine, and in the morning would walk together along the waterfront, past Te Papa and the Civic Square, on the way to work. It was a wonderful time. I was coming towards the end of my masters year, and was working on my folio for hand-in, when my Canadian flatmate suggested we have a Thanksgiving party, since Thanksgiving occurs in October for Canadians. I invited Lecretia, and her first question was what she could bring.
I told her not to worry and just to bring herself.
On the night of the party, I got a text from her. ‘I’m downstairs, can you come and help me?’
Lecretia was parked two spaces away from our front door. She was standing beside the car. She greeted me with a hug and a kiss.
‘Help me with these, please.’
In the back seat were two enormous platters, piled high with lightly toasted baguette slices, topped with roasted red peppers, basil and feta.
I took one platter, she took the other, and we climbed the stairs back to the flat. I remember being so proud of this gorgeous woman. That night someone took a photo of us both—the earliest photo of the two of us together. We are in armchairs, leaning over the armrests towards each other to fit into the photograph. I wish I had more photos of Lecretia.
Lecretia’s Choice is published on 29 August. Order online or at your favourite bookshop now.