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Poetry and Medicine
February 28, 2007

How Lightly We Walk on This Earth

JAMA. 2007;297(8):783. doi:10.1001/jama.297.8.783

A gull on stilettos
punctuates a strand of tiny glittering shells.
Humans in two's go by,
toes and heels Morse-coding the sand
for a time.
I sit with my friend on the shore,
an old injury preventing her strolling
this uneven beach with me.
Her Cinderella feet, tiny, elegant,
point in front of her, like 12 o’clock.
But the hour and the air are kind. Our talk,
desultory. Until she fixes on the story
of her mother's death in a good nursing home,
a tale coming in on small waves.
How they allowed the gangrene, not a surgery,
to take her leg and her body,
giving them all a chairos
where she could visit in her mind her childhood Ireland,
where her grown children could spoonfeed her green Jell-O,
tell her she was so fine. Where the good doctor, finally,
pronouncing her gone, peeked
under the blanket to see her foot,
blackened but for the tiny pink spot
announcing a healing.
“Good for you,” he said.
The wind shifts, a new heat descends
letting us love the softness
through which our feet work,
sending me out onto the rolling edge,
the gray-green ocean where
a synchrony of pelicans, three, hover above,
   gray-bonneted nuns, all purpose and hunger,
   tucked-up claws, leather-pleated chins,
point and plunge as one
gray angel.
      I swim out to them.

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