A woman lies in her bed, dying of cancer. Several family members have gathered in the room around her, including her son Bruno. From the age of 11 Bruno had wanted to be an artist, but had become a doctor instead because it was easier to make a living. "And medicine at one point--when he was nineteen or twenty--had seemed more humane than the humanities, more artful than art." Yet four years earlier, Bruno gave up his medical practice in Rome to devote his life to painting. But now he is back to medicine, helping to coordinate the efforts of his mother's physicians.

The dying woman sips an opium solution to ease her pain. She teases Bruno about the many times she had embarrassed him as a child, by acting funny or assertive or eccentric, behaving very differently from the other children's mothers. She would always make people laugh. Likewise, she was never confused about what she wanted. Even now, tipsy with opium, she remains in charge, a rock among the gathered family members, deflecting their sadness with her good humor.


Vivante himself was a physician who gave up medicine for art, in his case to become a writer. His mother was a painter and his father, a philosopher. He and his family fled to England as refugees in 1938. He subsequently studied medicine at McGill University in Montreal, and then returned to Italy after the war to practice. After a few years, he gave up medicine to devote himself fulltime to writing, emigrating to the U.S. in 1958. Thus, Bruno's story very much parallels his creator's.

This story depicts a "good death, " in the hospice sense of the term. The patient knows she is dying, she remains in control, her family gathers around, and they express their love for each another and resolve painful issues of the past. This is depicted, both in this story and in hospice literature, as a leisurely process. Last Rites, another Vivante story about his mother's death (see annotation in this database), greatly foreshortens the perspective. In "Last Rites" the woman dies only a week or so after being informed of her diagnosis, and the end comes dramatically, "like a train derailed."


This story was first published in The New Yorker in 1980.


Sheep Meadow Press

Place Published

Riverdale, N.Y.




Mary Kinzie

Page Count