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Poetry and Medicine
November 7, 2001

What He Gave Up

Author Affiliations

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

JAMA. 2001;286(17):2069. doi:10.1001/jama.286.17.2069

I was six when the doctor yelled at him.
So mother burned cartons of Luckies
like leaves in the alley ash can.
And dad's color drained—
a brown from deep within his fingers,
the yellow etched into the marrow of his teeth.
I missed the crisp cellophane shards on the sofa
and the earthy autumn smell
rising from the cushions in the lumpy green chair.
I missed the peace smoke seeped into his lungs,
how his chest filled at leisure
as the light dropped down the cozy blinds
in the little room
slat by slat.
For months we wondered at his temper,
how he inhaled candy quickly
by the bag until his face,
reddened by loss of his cloudy angel,
nearly flashed into fire.
Thirty years later when the cancer etched his bones
he offered up his testicles,
buying time with living coin.
No doctor knew what magic part to cut out next,
and when he finally went
I'll bet it was his lungs that held
the final pink inside him.
Isn't it a measured paring down we do
to save a hazy corner of the future:
from our fattest appetite to the final
belt-hole in the leather—a cutting back
to smaller rooms, fewer steps, a slimmer
piece of fish, until there's little left
to choose between—us and just the air,
just the smoke we're bound for.

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