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A time to live

more: Personal stories, Opinion, Personal stories/Opinion

2nd February 2012

George Pitcher: "I shiver when I think of what I could have lost, had a medical professional not saved me from myself."

I tried to kill my mother in 1993. I didn't attempt the act myself, you understand, but I asked a nurse to increase her morphine dosage to a lethal level, so that she might be washed away on an opiate tide. At seventy-five, Mum had been operated on for a brain tumour, but the cancer had spread uncontrollably and they had stiched her up and told us she hadn't hot long left. My sister made her comfortable in her house, and when her condition nosedived, I took the train to the West country and found my sister taking a break in the garden. It was easy to see why. Mum was unconscious, but taking great, rattling last gasps of breath, her body clearly staging one last, hopeless rage against the dark.

When the nurse came that afternoon to change her morphine drip, I begged her, in tears, to bring this pointless suffering to an end. The nurse was lovely: patient and kind, but firm. No, she said, she couldn't do that, but she held my hand and said that all would be well soon. Given all the fuss recently about nurses offering prayer for their patients, I recall that she also assured me that Mum would be "better" soon. It was an act of excellent and professional pastoral care.

She was right, of course - about the morphine dosage, I mean. That evening, the morphine faded and Mum regained consciousness for a few minutes. We could talk to her, hold her, say goodbye, tell her we loved her. She couldn't speak, but she struggled to communicate with my sister and me, with her eyes and her smile. And I realized in awe that, in a final, selfless act of motherhood, she was comforting us, rather than the other way round.

I wouldn't have missed that last exchange for the world and, of course, I will carry it with me, as a comfort and a revelation of the meaning of death, for the rest of my own life. But had the nurse been able to respond to my earlier pleas for release, we would have been denied those precious fifteen minutes. I shiver when I think of what I could have lost, had a medical professional not saved me from myself.

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