- Byliner Original
Two Augusts ago my mother, Millie Kirn, a seventy-one-year-old retired nurse who’d worked in ERs and ICUs and showed little nostalgia for the experience, collapsed without warning at her boyfriend’s house after joining him for a weeklong visit to the Iowa State Fair. She died within thirty-six hours, comatose that entire time, from what was later diagnosed as a strep infection of the brain. She hadn’t known that she was gravely ill or that her long, moody summer of chills and headaches was caused by an abscess growing behind her eyes, but thanks to a document tucked inside her purse that addressed such dire contingencies, her doctors spared her their cruelest interventions and allowed her to expire naturally, her passage hastened by IV morphine.
It wasn’t an easy thing to watch. It’s harder to think back on. Memory is a cruel editor sometimes, stripping out the merciful diversions—a car alarm blaring outside the window, the smell of sanitizer on my hands—that help us bear catastrophes while they’re happening. What’s left is the poetic core of horror. The pale, half-shaved scalp oddly puckered by black sutures from a surgeon’s attempt to grab the abscess. The digital readouts on the monitors whose numbers tick down as the morphine is administered—and then, so terribly, start to rise again as my mother’s stubborn soul fights back, seemingly contradicting her written wishes. The frown of the nurse in charge as she starts a new drip, upping the dose and boosting it with a sedati...