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Poetry and Medicine
October 22 2008

Thin Ice

JAMA. 2008;300(16):1852. doi:10.1001/jama.300.16.1852

Late Fall, the lower canopy
Clings to its dead leaves as in life,
The upper canopy long since blasted bare.
A membrane of ice covers the patches
Of mud puddles in the overflow.
A rescue is in progress, nothing serious.
The girl's brother has twisted his ankle on the rocks.
Fire-truck, ambulances and Zodiac flash
In the cold gray between the canal and river.
We walk the path which was resurrected
From the river's attempt to reclaim its turf.
The season of sunning turtles, and great blue herons
Diving for meals from the treetops, has passed.
The subject of our conversation is somber.
My mother's right middle cerebral artery
Has leaped its banks, a fire-hose of blood
Ravaging the adjacent landscape, depriving
The distal watershed of its disordered source.
The serpent's fury spent, the terrain
Remains swollen with the sudden effulgence.
Pools of blood coagulate here and there,
Waiting for the crews of blood-eaters to clear them away.
Whole neuronal relay stations and axonal thoroughfares
Have been washed away in the receding flood.
The thin gray layer of cortex, outpost of civilization,
Lies blinking in the distance, power outages the norm.
The storm has struck the core of the central nervous system,
Reaching down to the arousal centers of the brainstem.
A blanket of restless sleep has descended upon the land.
Mother, in a rare moment of lucidity, proffers
“I don't like what's happening here.”
She is not with us, as my wife and I walk
The familiar path of our too infrequent outings.
We discuss her fate as if it were my own,
Though it's she who holds the last dead leaves in place,
Not knowing the next season may be her finale.
Still, she issues language, Monopoly money
To while away the hours in her hospital bed,
The content and tone of her caught phrases
Familiar, yet the timing suspect amid the whirl
Of aphasic gibberish punctuating her somnolence.
Waxing alert, her face is a beacon inviting to visitors,
The etching of her lifelong angst erased by a splash of red.
Waning, her wasted and paretic form rejects all
But the most elemental attempts at nurture—
Sounds, touches, smiles and amino acids.