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.

15 thoughts on “That Stuff That’s Better Than Morphine

  1. My mother died the same way: A slow and painful death. It is a truly horrific thing to behold and sometimes I feel like it damaged me to see it. I know it hurts you, Bill and I’m sorry for it. I hope that the freinds that surround you are a salve for your soul. It is terrible to see you suffer this way and I hope that it passes soon.

  2. Oh, Bill. you mustn’t carry that weight. The illness, however ill-defined, killed her. Nothing you did or didn’t do had any bearing on that eventual outcome. Just know that she loved you, warts and all, and knew that you loved her. I wish you peace

  3. Additionally, this is perhaps the most moving exposition I have ever read. It brought to mind the helplessness I felt at the illness and inevitable deaths of each of my parents. Each time I wish I had something better than morphine.

  4. I was incredibly moved reading this and extend my sympathies for your loss and the pain you are feeling. Like sreneau above, I feel you should not blame yourself for not catching a warning the medical profession are trained to catch. You have captured here how death can be a long and painful process and I am relieved your mother is now at peace. I sincerely hope you and your family will find comfort in that over time.

    • Thank you, Kayla, for your sympathies and kind wishes. As medical care has gotten more robust it seems that these kinds of lengthy, painful deaths are becoming the norm. It certainly changes everyone involved.

  5. You can add my name to the growing list of readers who experienced the same thing and understand how you feel. My mother also died a long, slow, ugly death, another victim of medical stupidity. It’s something that should never happen in a civilized country. I learned the hard way never to trust anyone in the medical profession.

    • I’m sorry that you’re among the many (many!) who’ve experienced this. It’s sad that overwork, inattention, and sometimes incompetence have become commonplace among doctors, and it’s blinded me a bit to those who serve us well despite all that.

  6. Both my mother and father passed in a similarly arduous fashion where minutes dragged on into the hours and days, leading into their ultimate passing. Mourning is so much more draining than anyone ever realizes until they themselves experience it.

    • I’m sorry that you went through something similar to this with your parents. I think the most ignoble part of all is the guilty relief you experience when the experience is at last over.

    • Thank you for the kind words. I’m glad if it touched you in a good way. I think that everybody who’s sat with a loved one during their long, painful slide to death speaks the same language underneath the skin.

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