Peggy Shumaker

Autopsy Report

My mother’s brain weighed 1420 grams.

No discernible measure for the gravity of her mind.

Her thoughts, heavy enough to crush her.

Cyanotic nail beds. General clubbing of the ends of her lungs’ alveolar septa. That means her tiny air spaces had real trouble exchanging gases with nearby webs of well-meaning capillaries.

Bronchioles dilated and somewhat tortuous. Somewhat? Can the inability to gasp breath be anything but tortuous?

S. Bennett, M.D.; T. Foreman, M.D.; and H.G. Harrison, M.D. mucked around inside her body, a body consistent with her stated age of thirty-five years. They noted an unhealed incision sutured shut, from the previous day’s tracheostomy.

The larger bronchi were filled with whorls of blue-pink stains.

She kept a hump-backed chest in her bedroom filled to the brim with cutout pattern pieces for clothes she intended to sew for us, clothes in sizes we’d long outgrown. Brown tissue straight-pinned to cloth.

Whenever we asked her what something meant, she made us look it up. Mean. She knew, so why didn’t she tell us? “Yeah, I’m the meanest mother in the whole world,” she deadpanned. Not until years after she was gone did it occur to me that perhaps most of the time she didn’t have any answers.

Her pancreas, patchy recent hemorrhage. Her brain, perivascular hemorrhage. She could no longer contain what she needed to keep herself alive.

Vodka bottles in the rag bag, not really hidden. Her liver weighed 1550 grams, with a marked cloudy swelling.

The inner lining of her uterus, worn after four kids and two miscarriages, had broken through the muscle wall. That uterus, I lived there once, her first tenant. On the day she died, a proliferation of cells lived within her, though she may not have known it. We carry so much that we don’t perceive, that we can’t acknowledge.

Inflammation, chronic. Her temper inflamed almost always. Her intellect, neglected, feverish and throbbing. Edema, swollen responses.

The autopsy lists as her address 5750 T Street, Tucson, Arizona, a place I’ve never been, never heard of. This appears accurate. She left us.

She traveled so far nobody could reach her. Even in the same room, nobody could reach her.

The post-mortem took place on February 2, 1969, the day my mother died. My Uncle Kris handed the report to me more than fifty years later. The envelope was addressed to his parents, my grandparents. I had no idea that another uncle, long dead now, had signed papers for an autopsy, no idea that my grandmother had insisted, certain that my mother had not received proper care.

I would bet good money that my grandfather waved the report away, wouldn’t read it. His only daughter, dead. Already that was too much. He could not bear images of her body butchered. But my grandmother, who ran the medical records department at a San Diego hospital, would have parsed it, understanding nuances of each Latinate phrase, knowing what was documented and what was left out, combing each detail for answers. My mother, her firstborn. That report left my grandmother alone with why.

Grief, a galaxy, endless light from long-dead stars.

My mother’s right lung weighed 330 grams, her left 250 grams. Patchy, purple, collapsed, atelectatic.

Diagnosis: bronchiectasis with acute inflammation; chronic and acute obstructive bronchial disease.

So yes, we knew about it. Her illness formed our childhood, the cupboard of steroids, the lunch money can, the pills she swallowed by the handful, the inhalers, the terrible season of blooming palo verde trees. That night neighbors broke her window with a brick so paramedics could get to her.

So much more we did not know, will never know.

Probable cause of death: status asthmaticus, severe asthma unresponsive to repeated courses of inhaled albuterol, nebulizer treatments, subcutaneous epinephrine. Beta-agonists, chemicals intended to ease open tightened airways, medicines intended to relax panicked muscles, to open closed paths for breath.

My mother’s wheezing was terrifying. She’d press a fist between her breasts and bend forward, a tiny whistle of air trying to escape her or trying to get in. As a small child, I scooted close beside her in the car as she drove blue-lipped to St. Joe’s, aiming for the huge red letters EMERGENCY. I steered when she passed out.

Pupils equal, but moderately dilated. Her irises, like mine, brown.

My mother’s heart weighed 330 grams. The cusps thick and delicate. Frayed myocardial fibers, for sure. Her sturdy heart slammed again, again, again. No respite.



Peggy Shumaker’s most recent book is Cairn (Red Hen Press). She teaches in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA Program.


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