Sickbed Lists

Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds a dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.

—Susan Sontag


A mattress of marshmallows

              and dead leaves.

The friends who know this night-side

              hand over hand

send the best gifts:

a fifty dollar bill for C.,

              a weird array of magazines,

sour cream cake,

              a voicemail with heft.

I am terrified but I can’t see it yet.

I just know the ICU loves me,

              so I build a cacoon there

of tubes, needles, beeps, pills—

              and a hoard of lizard thoughts,

survival thoughts: camouflage and calm.


In the MRI, the same

              white plastic

of an airplane door.

              Air pushes over me—but

under the storm

              I swim

unbreathing in the calm.


The best-praised vein takes the best needle.

              Best drugs for unremembering

the pre-op head positioning.

Best doubled gloves. Best attitude for luck.

Best scalpels for cutting

              s-curves over the burr-hole

for the best post-op hair cuts.


Just testing for response.

              Follow my fingers.

Squeeze my fingers. Lift your leg.

How many fingers here,

              here, here, now, and now.

In future MRIs, the scarring will be like

              an aerial shot of a city

where a block of houses are burned out.


Slippery brain, slippery heart,

              famously untrusty

despite the barriers of blood-brain, ribs, and sheaths of muscle.

They’re slipshod. The heart

              a hoof battering the mud. The brain

a mussel in the sand.

We keep calling it an echo,

              the echocardiogram,

for echo-in-the-machine.

The saline into the IV into the heart

              has shown us no vegetation,

but has shown us a patent foramen ovale—

              a jellyfish tentacle—

a back transfer between atria of blood, something

you should not look up,

              one thing

to take the doctor's word for.

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