Anita Dale: The Gun

The gun handle is facing my mother’s withered body as she labors to breathe through a mouth that grimaces more than smiles these days. Her hair is pure white now, like ivory, and her skin is the color of cream. It’s obvious how fragile she is in an emaciated state. She chills easily. The day’s humidity can’t even dampen her skin. All day she lies under a flannel sheet. At night, she needs an electric blanket to stop from shivering. She hasn’t been out in the sun for months, not that sun is important to her anymore.
Hearing my voice, she stirs in her bed. Wincing, she rolls onto her back then opens the cloudy pale eyes that were once royal blue.
“Hey,” she says in greeting.
“Hey, yourself,” I reply.
My hope is that something deep and meaningful has passed between us with those few words, but it may be too much to ask.
My brother has been taking care of her since her last operation two months ago. I need to ask him how to do everything so I can help while I’m here. So I can prove my worth and give him a break. But I first need to understand why there’s a gun on her night table.
“What’s that about?” I ask, pointing at the gun.
“The gun.”
“Oh, that,” she says. “Your brother put it there. It’s for the pain.”
I didn’t want to know how bad her pain is but now I feel obligated to inquire. I decide to be direct but in a tone that might soothe a newborn.
“Are you in pain?”
“Not so much.”
She explains that she doesn’t expect to need the gun. The doctor prescribed extra strength Tylenol when she told him she didn’t want a pain reliever that made her feel too good. She’s afraid of becoming drug dependent. It sounds odd in view of her circumstances.
My mother never considered dying, but it seems to be happening. The drama between us ended last year with a late stage diagnosis of cancer. She hasn’t wanted to talk about it. Not talking is the way she maintains control. But she has no control over death.
“You can get hooked on that stuff, you know.” She means morphine. She wants to educate me like the mother she still is. 
“And the gun is a better option?”
“Don’t worry. I don’t plan to use it. I thought I told you that.”
She doesn’t have enough strength to lift a gun or pull its trigger. Yet, I don’t know what to think about finding one an arm’s length away from her. I ask if the gun is loaded.
“I think so,” she says. Losing patience, she adds “Ask your brother. He put it there.”
Bristling with energy I didn’t think she had, she snaps at me. “Put it in the drawer, if it bothers you.”
The source of her irritation is unclear. It’s either my questions, my brother’s actions, dying, or all three. Certainly life hasn’t turned out for her as she expected. The key, I decide, is to not have expectations.
My thoughts retreat to a decade ago when my mother shot our bathtub. My father gave her a pistol for protection. Then he left for good. When I got home from school that day, I found a pile of porcelain shards on the floor next to the wounded tub. It amounted to enough shards to fill a space eighteen inches around. The tub’s bumpy iron interior stood unfazed by the trauma. Mom said she’d been practicing where no one could get hurt. With safer options available her explanation didn’t make sense, even to a twelve year old. Years later I figured out what she’d really been trying to do.
What bothers me is not that my mother might use the gun on herself. It’s that we’d have to clean up the mess if she did. For practical purposes, leaving a loaded gun near a dying person might be a reasonable idea. My brother will need to explain his thinking.

Following my mother’s suggestion I grasp the gun’s black barrel and pull it slowly across the table, like dragging a dead opossum by the tail. Relieved once it’s shut away in the drawer, I look over at my mother. She seems destined toward a restless nap. It’s time to find my brother.

Anita Dale is currently writing a
memoir. The piece submitted is from that memoir.

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2 thoughts on “Anita Dale: The Gun”


    Hi Anita,
    My name is Susan Chase-Foster and I live in Bellingham, WA and Fairbanks. I found your memoir engaging and immediately thought of a blog written by a local writer from B'ham at who is writing about her mom's passing on her blog. It might be interesting to check it out. All the best.

  2. Christina Whiting

    As someone whose father took his own life with a gun because of a chronic and painful illness, your story definitely struck a chord. My Dad died in 2005, but it was just this past year that I was able to at last put pen to paper and write about it. I started out writing my story of reacting to the news of his death, but ended up writing a fictional story about his last morning. Writing takes courage anyway, and writing about such difficult themes takes heart and courage. Thank you for inspiring me. I am reminded that while my story is fictional, it does give my father the voice he didn't believe he had while he was still alive…

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