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Poetry and Medicine
April 4, 2012

The Salvation of Humor

Author Affiliations
 

Poetry and Medicine Section Editor: Charlene Breedlove, Associate Editor. Poems may be submitted to jamapoems@jama-archives.org.

Author Affiliation: Richmond, Massachusetts (madriverpress@gmail.com).

JAMA. 2012;307(13):1343. doi:10.1001/jama.2012.318

When the past broke down
in the wake of her stroke,
my mother couldn't come up
with a single noun for anything,
not a watch, or a pen, or herself, such
small words whose sudden weight
made me see gravity in a whole
new light as if loss played
out like fire, and ninety years began
burning their bridges. For those first
few ER hours, her reply to each
question was more body language
than language, less sound than fury
until, around dawn, a solid word
against the emptiness came
close enough to love. Maybe
syllabic brainwaves clicked,
or a late-breaking drug kicked in,
but it didn't matter. Across that limbo
between lost and found, while
shaky vitals blipped, I finally heard
a coherent response: “Cow,” she said,
when asked what she would order
in a restaurant, and her split-screen face
half-laughed along with the rest of us,
so right on cue the young neurologist
smoothed his hand across her blanket
asking, “Now what do you call this,
this thing that keeps you warm?”
Digging deep, gung ho as always
to please, my mother frantically
ransacked the tomb of her memory,
and then, almost calm, grasping
some fugitive peace of mind,
she looked at him the way stoics
look at weather, and answered
with embraceable logic,
“I call it,” she said, “I call it . . . 
the thing that keeps me warm.”

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