It’s been eight years since the hardest day of my life. Eight years since my mother died in a hospital in northern Italy, sedated and lonely, with only myself and a nun present, who had just happened to walk in to see how I was doing. My siblings were still in the Netherlands, but were on their way to the airport when I called them. I was so happy to hear that they would come anyway.
Her dying was rather peaceful compared to much of the morning and night, where she was upset and confused, likely due to a delirium. The doctor in charge had gone home for the night, and I couldn’t speak to the nurses properly because they only spoke Italian. When my aunt, who worked as a senior nurse at the hospital, came to check up on my mother after her shift, she was visibly upset that the doctor hadn’t been called by the other nurses. Within an hour the doctor was present and told me he would make sure she wasn’t going to feel any more pain.
He knew my mother had documented wishes on how she wanted to have her life ended, but couldn’t oblige her. Italy doesn’t allow euthanasia, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have options to help her. When he told me that he would take away her pain, he gave me a look that said, “do you understand what I’m saying?” He couldn’t say it, but I knew what he was doing, and when she started to calm down, stopped moaning in pain, and fell asleep, her breathing rhythmic, I immediately felt better. I sometimes wonder if I was happy for her or happy for me.
Hours later, her breathing had become weak, but still rhythmic. The machine that helped her breathe was equally rhythmic, but strong, giving the impression that nothing had changed with her. But when I checked her pulse, it was barely noticeable. I also saw that blood was pooling around her joints, unable to push towards her extremities because her blood pressure had plummeted.
She died at 15:00, exactly, while I was talking to the nun. The nun gave me a hug. When she embraced me, I was a child. When she let go, I had to learn how to be a man.
I think about that nun quite often. See, because when I asked the staff at the hospital about her, because I wanted to thank her, they weren’t sure who I was talking about. Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting anything spooky, spiritual or religious. It just makes her presence at the moment of my mother’s death even more special.