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Poetry and Medicine
July 5, 2000

O'Connor at Andalusia (1964)

Author Affiliations
 

Poetry and Medicine Section Editor: Charlene Breedlove, Associate Editor.

JAMA. 2000;284(1):17. doi:10.1001/jama.284.1.17

Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing
and I think those who don't have it miss one of God's mercies.
The Habit of Being by Flannery O'Connor

It came with the steady pace of dusk,
slow shadings in the distance, a sense of light
growing soft at the center of her body.
It came like evening to the farm
bearing silence and a promise of rest.
There was nothing to say it was there
till she found herself unable to move
and stillness settled its net over the bed.
A crimson disc of pain suddenly flushed
from her hips like a last flaring of sun.
She believed the time had come
to embrace this perfect weakness
that had no memory of strength,
a mercy even as darkness hardened
inside her joints. It was not to be
missed. Nor was the mercy of sight:
she believed the time had come
to measure every moment and map
the place she soon must leave.
At least she had been given time,
though her wish would have been
an hour more for each leaf visible
from her window, a day for trees,
a week for birds and month to savor
the voice of each friend who called.
Though she never belonged in the heart
of this world, she gave this world her heart.
Within her stillness she remembered
the first signs: that brilliant butterfly
rash on her face, a blink that lasted
for hours, the delicate embrace of sleep
veering as in a dream toward the grip
of death, hunger vanishing like hope.
Her body no longer knew her body as itself
but this too was a mercy. To leave herself
behind and then return was instructive.
To wax and wane, to live beyond
the body and know what that was like,
a gift from God, a mixed blessing shrouded
in the common cloth of loss. Half her life
she practiced death and resurrection.

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