The narrator's mother, having received "all the benefits of modern medicine," was still alive after 14 months. The son, himself a doctor, finally told her that she had cancer, after which she requested that she receive no treatment, other than pain control. Thus, her son provided her with a bottle of opium solution to use as needed. However, the other doctors continued their pretense that, if only she would take the "cure," she would get better.

She died six days later, "not slowly, like a train arriving at a station, but swiftly and convulsively, like a train derailing." She was buried without the priest's blessing because she hadn't been a practicing Catholic. However, the "ceremonies" of the craftsmen creating a masonry border around her grave, and of the stonecutter carving her headstone, were "last rites" more to her liking than the priest's prayers anyway, because she had never been fond of religion.


Vivante himself was a physician who gave up medicine to become a writer. His mother was a painter and his father, a philosopher. He and his family fled from Fascist Italy 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.

This very short story touches on several themes important in terminal illness. First, the issue of truth telling. Second, patient-controlled analgesia--the bottle of opium by the bedside is analogous to our modern patient-controlled morphine pumps. Then, as now, good pain control was associated in the minds of many with drug addiction. Third, the possibility of physician-assisted suicide.

Finally, the notion that dying is an individual process--a "good death" means different things to different people. One size does not fit all. In this case, the appropriate "last rites" for the dead woman were based on her love for craftsmanship, rather than being based on religion or common social practice.


This story was published previously in The French Girls of Killini, a collection of Vivante's short stories (1967).

Primary Source

The Tales of Arturo Vivante The Tales of Arturo Vivante


Sheep Meadow Press

Place Published

Riverdale, N.Y.




Mary Kienzie

Page Count