At first, when you reach out to hold my hand, I am scared —
the smallest touch could seemingly shrivel such delicate skin,
and my hand feels huge by comparison, a bear paw grabbing
the tiniest cub — but you press and press, pale brown fingers
clutching at my grasp. “Mary, Mary,” you say in your little sing-
song treble, “today I ate a whole cup of yoghurt and Momma
didn’t even make me!” I smile; we laugh, sharing this moment,
quotidian but for the fluorescent lighting, white walls devoid
of photographs, or paintings, an outdated television held
aloft by its metal perch, black screen silent and reflective,
and you, nestled in your sky blue blanket, oxygen mask pressed
to your lips, your laugh tinny and distant but alive, vibrant.
Soon, your mother will return and fuss over your unruly hair,
strands clambering over a sweaty forehead. And you will still
smile. It amazes me, the light you exude despite the death
sentence looming over your tiny frame, promising a shorter
life than most. On my worst days, I call my mother and rant
and rave and feel like my head will explode from all the facts,
bits of trivia about cytokines and leukocytes racing through my
head, never enough, and always boring, professors’ voices droning
through two hours of agony about the smallest detail. Later,
though, I’ll visit, and remember. A deletion or two and here you
are, this little ball of life I wish I could cure, wish I could rid
the encroaching disease, its facts engraved in your soft flesh, bony
frame, raspy breath. We talk about your dream dog, your garden
back home, the other kids on the floor, and never once have
I heard the merest complaint. At the end of the hour, I’ll gather
up my things and trundle back to the library, and you’ll hand me
a paper crane you made and I’ll stare at its pink wings, its long neck
and every day you remind me that despite the worst days, the long
nights, the scores that don’t reflect the thousands of hours spent
dissecting subjects most people would spend years studying, I
remember why I’m here in the first place. For you, and for those
who come after. So someone can hold your hand and do their best
and never, never give up until you say you’d had enough, and one day
you might, and I hope on that day, I can be strong enough, selfless
enough to heed you.
Have you seen the cherry blossoms yet?
Patient AB asks, her bright white sheets folded beneath her chin, tucked
tight into a cocoon within this cold and confined room, curtains closed
and light weak — she says it helps her rest her eyes better.
no, have you?
Silly question: of course, she’s been here, but then so have I, or if I haven’t
been here, I am at the wobbly desk next to my twin bed in my studio
apartment watching lectures on two-time speed so information comes out
in a whir that I now understand, captured in my messy short-hand on yellow
notes slung into file folders by subject and highlighted in bright blue pen.
no, but I want to; that’s mainly why I came to DC, besides my niece.
She tells me how she was only supposed to stay a week, see some monuments
and bask in her sister’s new baby, teeny scrap of human flesh crying for milk
and affection — she shows me photo upon photo stored in her phone, eyes
closed, eyes open — but then the tragedy of life’s ailments caught her unawares,
she thought it was just a cold but then it grew worse and her breath labored,
her lungs seemed inadequate to the task of simple oxygenation, luxury and
necessity she says you never appreciate until you need it most.
Well, maybe one day — maybe soon.
An inadequate reply, but then we tally days by the rings under our eyes, hours
slept and not slept, mealtimes enjoyed and ignored, ritual of sacrifice made
manifest in the silver circle we slip between our fingers, threading plastic
tubes into our ears, say, let me take a listen to your heart, an art we’ve
somehow both learned and forgotten, mind corralled into centering on the
physical, spirit distant and inert, we mouth terse incantations we’ve watched
real doctors practice on tired, sick patients and still we cannot feel the
stirrings beneath, the simple palpitations guiding hearts and dreams:
Well, you really should, living in DC and all. You should enjoy yourself.
And yet I never do —
but I hope she gets to.
Marilee Goad attended the University of Chicago and has work published or forthcoming in Ghost City Review, rose quartz journal, OUT/CAST, Persephone’s Daughters, and Georgetown University School of Medicine’s Scope arts magazine.
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