I have read that when men are dying they call for their mothers. I can’t swear that’s true, but I can say that some women call for their mothers. At least my mother called for hers when she was dying, not caring that her mother had been dead 50 years.

After my mother died I distributed a dozen copies of her death certificate to interested parties like bankers, and claims adjusters, and government bureaucrats. Each time I picked up a copy I saw her cause of death, which was “necrosis.” That means her body tissue died, which seems a little obvious, I suppose. It’s something a doctor can write on a death certificate that sounds better than, “I have no fucking idea.”

In the days before my mother died, her doctors talked about transferring her to another hospital, and they almost came right out and said it was because they weren’t as smart as the doctors over there. I’d have been impressed by their near-honesty if they’d suggested it a month earlier, when it might have done some good.

But they didn’t transfer her. Instead they brought in a carnival of specialists who each said the problem wasn’t in his specialty and then handed things over to the next specialist. That went on for several weeks while parts of her body proceeded to die. I probably don’t need to explain that it hurt. Her doctor dangled her deeper and deeper into the ocean of painkillers, until she was taking enough morphine to vaporize a spider monkey.

The day at last came when morphine was no more effective than Mountain Dew. The doctor decided to tie a heavier weight onto her, one that would drag her deeper into painlessness, and the nurse brought the pill to make it happen. It transformed pain from a shark that was biting her in half into a shark that was rolling her around in its jaws to savor her. That was about as good as it was going to get.

My mother fell unconscious that night. On the continuum of becoming unconscious, she didn’t slip into it, nor did she drop into it. She did the equivalent of falling on her face into unconsciousness. The new painkiller had been a poor choice. My mother lacked the full complement of working kidneys, and this drug considered dialysis nothing more than a veiled suggestion to leave her body in a timely way. As the nurses gave her more doses, the stuff packed her body like it was Labor Day at the beach. Instead of just reprimanding the shark it started draining the ocean.

The doctor employed some vigorous and red-faced medical gymnastics, which brought her back to consciousness a day or so later. That should have been a good thing. But since the doctor had almost killed the shit out of her with the better-than-morphine medication, he was afraid that any other painkillers would shove her right into unconsciousness, breathlessness, and lifelessness. So, he refused to give her any painkillers. Not even aspirin. It was the ultimate cold turkey.

Over the next two days my mother rarely responded to anything we said. Maybe she wasn’t too aware of us. If so, I hope she wasn’t too aware of herself, either. She cried for help throughout the sleepless days and nights, which is worth remaining unaware of, if you ask me. She called for her mother a lot, who was dead and couldn’t help her. She often called for my father, who was there holding her hand, but he couldn’t help her either. A little hand holding isn’t much help when your body is dying and you have to participate in such an intimate way.

I guarantee that two days can seem like a long time. I feel silly now bitching about weekends being too short.

At the end of two days we could see that things were not going to get better. My father insisted that the doctor at least give her morphine, and he did. She went to sleep. She died the next day.

Looking back, I recall sitting there when the nurses first brought in the ill-behaved painkiller. I looked it up online before they gave it to her. I looked up every medication because I’d learned not to trust doctors any farther than I can fling a chimpanzee that’s flinging its own poop. I didn’t see anything that concerned me, other than the usual giant list of horrific side effects, so I didn’t object.

After my mother died, I looked that drug up again for some reason. At the very bottom of the page, under pharmacokinetics, an unambiguous statement warned never to give the stuff to renal patients or people on dialysis. I hadn’t checked that far. I’d allowed my vigilance to wander away.

It’s crazy that it falls to the vigilance of an untrained dope like me to catch unruly medications, but it does, and I knew it. Growing up with my mother encouraged vigilance. You didn’t want to get caught not paying attention at the wrong time. I find it ironic that the quality she unintentionally ground into me is the quality that failed at the end.

The biggest problem I have with death is that there aren’t enough laughs. Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t find death itself particularly amusing. I have lost some people quite dear to me, which was painful—and which still delivers the occasional icicle to the heart, even after a lot of years.

The silly thing isn’t death, but rather how we think and talk about death. And especially how we behave because of death. For example, look at what I said a moment ago: “I have lost some people…” It’s as if we were at the mall and they wandered over to Taco Bell without telling me, or as if they unobtrusively slipped between the couch cushions. No—they died.

Now I’m perfectly aware that our euphemisms about death are really armor against the grief of loss. If your friend Charlie died yesterday and you’re a reasonably sensitive person, you might tell his other friends, “Charlie passed away suddenly last night,” rather than, “Charlie’s dead. Dibs on his plasma TV.”

Of course, if Charlie drank enough tequila to strike the entire populace of Juarez blind, swam naked in a public fountain, and choked to death on a quarter tossed in by a little girl wishing for her very own collagen lip injections, then no euphemisms are necessary. I defy anyone to hear that truth and not giggle.

When grief is new and armed with claws and spines and scorpion tails, it makes sense to look at death only from the corner of your eye. But after a time—maybe years—the grief loses its killer instinct. Yet even then we often maintain the soft sell when talking about death.

And is that the wisest thing? It diminishes the honesty with which we remember how our loved one’s life ended—and by extension their life in general. Whether or not we like it, a person’s death is an important part of their life, and shying away from their death makes it tough to fully appreciate them.

I recognize that looking frankly at the death of someone you love and accepting that loss is a cast iron bitch. And there are different kinds of loss associated with it, such as the loss of things we spent time doing together:

“We’ll never again hang out at Wal-Mart propositioning strangers and get thrown in jail with guys named Lug-nut and Iguana Bob.”

There’s the loss of the things you shared:

“We won’t ever sit around again arguing over whether Kirk or Picard is the best starship captain.” (I’m a Kirk fan because he doesn’t have meetings and sweet talk the bad guys. He SHOOTS the god damn aliens with his phaser and then screws their women.)

And there’s the loss of how you felt:

“He was my friend, and he never made me feel like a creepy old fart for wanting beautiful young women to want me.”

Obviously that was all a bit facetious. But hey, a little humor at the expense of the Grim Reaper isn’t amiss. Anybody who wears that much black in the day time has got to be a pretentious asshole.

When someone I love has died then a part of me indeed died too—the part of me that could only exist when I was with them, that was brought into being because of them, and that has now vanished forever because they will never come back. When I grieve for the loss of someone I love, I am also grieving for the part of me that they brought to life—and that they killed by dying themselves.

And when that happens, you sure as hell better laugh all you can.

IMG_0827 - For Blog
This photo doesn’t really have much to do with death, but I thought it was neat. Although it was sitting over a dead person in a cemetery, so I guess it has something to do with death. Heck, I’ll use it anyway. Some days death can just kiss our asses.