A reflection on the poem, "Letter to a 93-year-old Cadaver who Died from Multiple Causes" by Christine Nichols

The Art of Anatomy by Khalil Harbie. Fall 2013 Intima

The Art of Anatomy by Khalil Harbie. Fall 2013 Intima

In “Letter to a 93-year-old Cadaver who Died from Multiple Causes” by Jennifer Stella, she examines the art and the intimacy, as well as the distance and technical precision required in a process of dissecting a cadaver.

I was touched by her willingness to open emotionally to the human side of disease and death. She writes with succinct imagery, bringing us to the edge of her experience at that table.

The fearlessness in this work will inspire others, and brings an essence of both respect and what is holy to what might otherwise be purely clinical.

The examination of the clinical, distance, and emotion, is clearly demonstrated in this stanza:

I never held your hand

ungloved. It was more intimate – your

brittle fingers cradled in my palm, other

hand guiding the scalpel. Probing

nerves or arteries or whatever

loses color.

And the next stanza:

Reflecting your thoracic cage – not my

saw to your manubrium, not

my cut haphazard-sliced, your

lung. Dense, dark. With cartilage

compressed like tears.

The work continues, and further examines in detailed imagery, the art of systems and processes, but resolves with the final line:

“Did you know how beautiful

You were disintegrating.”

Her deft use of language in the work adds to the overall feeling of respect and homage that transmits clearly in the piece. I would find myself less afraid of the idea of a table after death, were a poet like this one the one welding the scalpel.

This idea, the approach to what we fear, intimacy and distance, was rendered in my work, “Washing with Alzheimer’s.

In it, I examined my own emotional response to Alzheimer’s in a loved one, and the impact of saying goodbye to not only a cherished tradition (bathing in a bathtub) but the idea of controlling one’s own ability to decide when to die.

Like Stella’s piece, I hope it also conveys the dual emotions of intimacy and distance necessitated by handling (for others), the ongoing processes of life and death, and how this serves as a mirror for our own mortality.

Christine Nichols is a non-credit program coordinator at Oklahoma State University. She is fairly new to poetry. She is the daughter of a microbiologist, and as such, has always been fascinated with medicine. Christine’s most recent work is pending or previously published in Portmanteau, Strong Verse, Muddy River Poetry Review, and Red River Review. Her poem, "Washing with Alzheimer's" appeared in the Fall 2014 Intima.

© 2015 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine