Recapitulating Ontology: Thoughts on meaning making in life-limiting illness by Ethan Stonerook

Ethan Stonerook is a native Floridian, fisherman, former ecologist, and physician assistant in bone marrow transplant at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. He is particularly interested in the use of creative writing as a way to make meaning in the context of life-limiting and altering illness. His poem      “A Gullah Woman comes to clinic”      appears in the Spring 2019 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine.

Ethan Stonerook is a native Floridian, fisherman, former ecologist, and physician assistant in bone marrow transplant at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. He is particularly interested in the use of creative writing as a way to make meaning in the context of life-limiting and altering illness. His poem “A Gullah Woman comes to clinic” appears in the Spring 2019 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine.

How does a patient facing a life-limiting illness make meaning in the end? What are the talismans that best reflect their identity and reality? Beyond death, how are they anchored to the present?

I am often caught short when patients share images of home, landscape, or their domestic role as symbols of the loss of identity and reality. To what do we anchor ourselves when we can no longer knead bread, hang clothes to dry, or engage loved ones in lifelong conversations?

Christopher Adamson (Intima, Fall 2018) addresses the question of ontology at the end of life in his poem “Tata.” He settles, at least to some degree, on what seems to be Hegel’s dialectic; the concrete, the abstract, and the absolute (or is it Popper’s three worlds of the physical, the psychological, and the theoretical?):

“Ontology can be nightmarishly opaque
but as you once patiently explained
we exist simultaneously in three worlds:
The world in which we are but facts
Our world, Tata, the one you and I created together
My world, one in which little is certain
except that you will live on in me.”

I am interested in the simple domestic liturgies of our daily lives and landscapes, and the role they play in meaning making in the end. In “Tata” we see the domestic life of family. I marvel at Mama’s defiance as she looks at the sky, while still depending on it to dry the clothes she is hanging; the imagery of both Tata and Mama’s arms, tattooed by different traumas, alongside the broken wing of the sparrow, the everyday-ness of sugar cubes and warm socks.

In my poem, “A Gullah woman comes to clinic”, I explored the role of place, household knowledge, racial identity, and physical bodies as the conduit by which we form and apprehend our world. I painted a picture of a woman whose identity and reality are rooted deeply in three real worlds; the concrete world of place, people, and matter, the abstract world of calling, volition, faithfulness, and memory, and the synthesized world of family, race, freedom, and marriage. In the Gullah woman’s lament, the unmet desires from all of these worlds converge in an inability to make vegetable soup, which acts as a symbol for who she is, a talisman of her own personal ontology.


Ethan Stonerook is a native Floridian, fisherman, former ecologist, and physician assistant in bone marrow transplant at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. Throughout his career in medicine he has used creative writing as a means to honor and memorialize patients and their families. He is particularly interested in the use of creative writing as a way to make meaning in the context of life-limiting and altering illness. He is passionate about teaching and mentoring PA students. He is currently conducting a pilot project with staff and faculty at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. Most importantly, Ethan is really excited about his role as a spouse and father. His poem “A Gullah Woman comes to clinic” appears in the Spring 2019 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine.

© 2019 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine