Terrible though the subject of Tim Cunningham’s 'The Sunshine Chairs' is, set in an Ebola Treatment Unit in Sierra Leone; intense as it was to hear it read by the author, an emergency pediatric nurse who returned to New York to complete a DRPH in Public Health; and undercut by the loser-chance inbred in an epidemic, the story ends with an uplifting glow. The source is sunlight that pierces the ward entrance to reach the stilled, silent body of the central figure, the ‘regal’ (Buddhistic) 18-month old Gabril whose last weeks have been shared with us.
I emerged from being utterly gripped to wonder what kind of dialogue I could hold between Cunningham’s 2000 words and my 100 words.
Instead of “Eva Borrisov,” I might have called my poem “The Lumbar Pillow.” Gabril’s chair and Eva’s pillow, which function in the narrative and have a life beyond it, retain the invisible imprint of the deceased and serve to remind us of him. Further, they carry memory into the future extending the breadth of the story. As stand-ins, the objects create a space between us and the unbearable human event so that, listening, we can better bear the story told.
Rereading Eva’s story in light of Gabril’s, I am reminded of the last exchange I had with the woman (whose name I have changed) behind the poem-portrait. It was the day before her surgery. She told me she had never been sick, never been in a hospital, and she could see nothing ahead. I was moved beyond speech by her courage in telling me, she, whom I cannot forget, a survivor of extreme political and personal traumas, at last, age 89, facing the very last.
Like Eva, Gabril is a subversive rebel imbued with heroic stance for his dignity and his approach to death. He too endows us with keepsakes: his calm and glow; Eva, her spirit and the adage that work keeps her alive.
We share their final days and receive their deaths.
But now let Professor Charles lose the lumbar pillow he inherited from Eva; and now from the sour air of the ward, from inside ‘our’ protective plastic mask and clothes, let us step into the yard where wind has blown plastic chairs onto their sides as if in reverence for the death of Gabril; and we feel the intensifying heat.
Joan Michelson is a writer whose publications include Toward the Heliopause (Poetic Matrix Publishers, USA, 2011), poems, fiction, and essays in British Council anthologies, New Writing, volumes 3, 4, 14, ‘Prognosis,’ The American Journal of Nursing, 2012, ‘The Next Week,’ The Best of Bellevue anthology. ‘Muslim Girl’ won the Hamish Canham Prize from the Poetry Society of England, 2012, ‘Daxon Fraser’ first prize, Torriano
International Competition, 2014, ‘Stories," first prize, the Bristol Poetry Competition, 2015. ‘Eva Borrisov’ is from ‘Bloomvale,’ a sequence set in a Home for Assisted Living and giving a glimpse into individual lives within the aging ailing spirited community. Former Head of Creative Writing, University of Woverhampton, Michelson teaches creative writing to Medical Students at Kings College, University of London.
© 2016 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine