In the poem “The Caregiver,” (Intima, Fall 2013), Kristin Cammitta Zimet writes about the role reversal that occurs as a daughter becomes her mother’s caretaker. We are often powerless in the face of death or illness to do much besides watch; we are forced to recognize “the uselessness of love to give her breath.” This feeling of helplessness we experience, both as physicians and as caretakers, forces us to reevaluate the way we understand ourselves and the purpose behind the role we play as a family member or a healthcare provider. Perhaps even more importantly, recognizing how little we can fix gives us a chance (or simply forces us) to be still and appreciate what value we can add; it leads us to change not only how we think, but also how we interact with those around us. Perhaps inevitably, it leads us to change our relationships and the roles that we play within those relationships.
University of Michigan medical student and poet Ting Gou writes a beautiful piece describing the way that a family comes together “only in times of disaster, gathers what’s crumbling at the edges” (“Family As Six Scenes,” Intima, Fall 2016). In her piece, the narrator blurs the distinctions between unrecognizable and familiar, giving the members of her family descriptions that change based on the context and timing. An unknown “person” becomes the speaker’s aunt; later, this same aunt is first described as the grandmother’s daughter before her direct relationship to the speaker is clarified. Later still, she is described as a “stranger with stories of smoldering cigarettes." The speaker herself even “stepped out of [her] body,” taking on a role different from the self.
In times of crisis, these fluid roles can lead to a loss of identity, perpetuating the feeling of uselessness that Zimet describes. Perhaps the way we confront this loss of identity and purpose is not to cling to the roles we are accustomed to playing, but rather by embracing our helplessness, connecting with others in the new roles they are discovering, and being present in the moments life throws at us.
Bekka DePew is a first year medical student living in Nashville, TN. She loves biking, music, seasons, and Christmas lights. Her poem "Vestibular" appears in the Spring 2017 issue of Intima.