I write poetry to clarify what I think I know. I read poetry for the same reason. Both were at work in my writing of “Decision” (Spring 2019 Intima) and in reading Virginia Boudreau’s poem, “Signing the Order” Spring 2016.
My dad died of pulmonary interstitial fibrosis 5 years before Boudreau’s poem was published. At first, his decline was slow, and his symptoms caused little disruption in his usual activities. He continued to mow his yard, do 40 pushups each morning and night, and walk 2 hours every day. After a while the usual became impossible, and he required hospice care where he continued his quiet campaign of rage against the dying of the light. He often let his nasal cannula drop and dangle around his neck and sat with his oxygen saturation hovering around 60% believing that this would strengthen his remaining normal lung tissue. Until the very end, he thought he could win.
One afternoon while we watched the UT Vols play football on television, he asked, “Have you ever seen anyone as sick as me get well?” I was surprised. We had documented his advanced directives years earlier and reviewed them when he declined to where he needed hospice. Still, at the age of 84, despite a decade of disease and decline, he had nurtured some glimmer of hope that he might get well. My answer caused him to look away from me, to sink a little deeper into his recliner, to retreat to somewhere. He died before dawn the next morning.
The burdensome memory of that two-sentence exchange, the hurt it seemed to cause him and the timing of his demise haunted me. The precipitate of that discomfort was “Decision,” but the writing of it still did not seem to describe the essence of what I felt. When I read “Signing the Order,” I was enchanted by the elegance of this poem about a person who was nothing like my dad, yet still captured their shared recognition of the certainty of death and their reluctance to die. When I came to the lines,
“we know the slow and awful rising
of a white flag.
It has frayed, finally, to threads,…”
I recognized in this poem, in my father’s eyes and in my heart the awful feeling of surrender.
Ron Lands is a semi-retired hematologist at UT Medical Center, Knoxville, Tennessee and an MFA alumnus of Queens University of Charlotte. He practiced medicine for many years near the community in East Tennessee where he grew up and was privileged to treat strangers, lifelong friends and a few relatives. He has published short stories, poems and essays in literary and medical journals. His writing is about those experiences. His poem “Decision” appears in the Spring 2019 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine.
© 2019 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine