Earlier this year, an important mentor in my life suffered a stroke. This poem is my reflection on what that event meant to me. It is filled with allusions to maxims he coined, poems he quoted, and classical references he inspired in my imagination. Enjoy.
“An Ode to a Mentor”
You told us to never worry alone,
And always to listen to the Voice.
But then we all were struck prone:
Despair alone could rejoice.
You told us not to compare our insides
To someone else’s outsides.
But our insides relied thus:
On you beside us,
To guard and guide us;
Your slim suited stride was
Powerful and prideless.
But then, we, like Zachariah of old,
Were struck dumb by the news untold.
Will we see again his dance of joy?
Like Baptist John, the leaping boy?
“He must increase, I must decrease,”
Thus his acts had spoken their piece:
Wisdom given before the strike,
For both sheep and shepherd alike.
And so we too will be a guest house.
For each new visitor
Whether riotous villager
Or pilf’ring pillager
Or Grand Inquisitor.
In this Odyssey of our theodicy,
We will welcome the sirens’ scream.
We’ll be grateful for whoever comes,
Even Lazarus with the crumbs.
Because he too has been sent
As a guide from beyond.
And so we will never worry alone.
His same spirit in us has grown!
We will always have the Voice.
We now will make the choice:
We will not die an unlived life
We will not live in fear of falling or catching fire.
Because the fire is light–God’s warm delight.
A poem while on a bus, doing some medical work in Honduras. Still needs some polishing…
“El Hombre de la Mancha”
Jan 30, 2014
We’re packed like bananas–
The bus curtains flapping like plantain leaves, thin and hot in the breeze,
Honduran music crackling loud from someone’s ancient cell phone
A few seats back.
You’re sitting just across the aisle from me,
Close enough to tap your elbow into my ribs–
If we were friends who made jokes,
Or if there weren’t several bodies standing stacked in the aisle between us.
We make an odd pair riding together:
I, tall and skinny;
You, short and stout.
I, with a pen in my hand like a lance;
You, with a cap to shield your graying head.
But what is that?
…On the tip of your nose
To some, perhaps just an ink stain or a birthmark
But to any doctor, it’s a melanoma.
A black tick the size of a penny,
A monster engorged on your life blood.
It’s cancer–“crab-like”–doomed to crawl
to your bones
to your liver
to your brain.
The only hope of cure is radical resection–
No easy feat
In a country
Where most towns have no doctors
Where most cities have no specialists
…Unless you’re rich.
Today, I turned 30. I went to a beach.
Today, you received a question whispered from a gringo doctor as you were leaving the bus to walk home to your family,
Asking if the little spot on your nose was growing.
And when you said, “sí,”
You were told that you likely have cancer…
That you should see a doctor immediately…
You, with your nod and “gracias” and handshake,
You have driven a needle into my heart…
The bleeding will stop, but a scar will remain.
Hours later, as the moon, sharp as a sickle, rises over the Honduran hills,
And the bus plods onward like sick cow
I’m trying to use my rosary beads
To wash away the feeling that I should have done more
Or to plead to God
That a warning from a stranger
Might have saved a good man’s life.
[Please pray for him. I’ll try to write more about Honduras when I find some time.]
Written recently on the train, with deep sympathy for friends who have recently suffered tragedy.
Those tragedies grave that to some befall–
Their home destroyed entire by flood or fumes
Their child lost in birth or whilst in the womb–
Are trials suffered by few but feared by all.
And when such gates of darkness open wide,
Our blood runs black, and our hearts ask, “God, why?”
But Job fails when he such probing persists;
And Alyosha can only give a kiss.
When words or time cannot grave loss restore
Let’s grasp our Lady’s hand all the more
To hear ‘Eloi, Eloi’ shrieked above,
And trust our lives are shaped by deepest Love
That will transform anew what we treasure most
Raised by the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
I recently witnessed an event on the Boston metro. I took some notes, and I’ve turned it into a poem. This is my first attempt at free verse, so no promises that it’s any good.
“Loving in Latitude”
Her eyes plow towards the right, then swing
Then glide again fitfully right, only to
But all the time, making steady
Like some pair of unassuming bumble bees
Supping their way down the garden rows.
But these wings
Beat far swifter than eighty times every second–
As innumerable synapses fire, and ions are
In that magical transformation whereby carbon on a page
Becomes a word,
Matter moves mind.
And the soul is lifted,
Even more than some youtoobian
“Loving in Latitude”–
It’s printed on the book’s blue cover.
A cover that protects the still freshly white leaves,
A cover that is grasped
By ringless, slender white fingers
Of a strawberry blonde figure
With cesious hummingbird eyes,
A scarlet pea coat,
And a pair of burnt umber boots.
A violet JanSport backpack lies at her feet,
With the small ribbon, pink as a crab,
Clasped tight to the pocket
By a safety pin,
And a small silver cross
Those bees continue their typewriter path
A man steps onto the metro car
Like a loon
His current flight and dubious plight.
That herd of glazed gazing eyes, momentarily distracted
From their own mindless zigzag stares at the spaces outside
Giving a condescending somersault,
Resume their thoughtless course.
So too the flock of young hens, pecking away at their iPhones
Stops for but a moment,
To return to their Angry Birds.
But the bumblebee in red,
Unzips the violet
And brings out her honey nut granola bar–
a study snack, no doubt–
And hands it to the loon
With a smile.
As the lurching, faded iron metro cars screech to my
I step out into the barren coldness
Knowing I will never see the hummingbird again
But wondering if I too
Can learn to
Love in Latitude.
“Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new” -St Augustine, Confessions
Do we take the time to appreciate the beauty and charm of the elderly? I’ll spare everyone the latest stories from the hospital and instead give an anecdote from a recent flight to Texas over Christmas break.
As I rolled down the aisle, counting down to my row… 15, 16, 17, 18 — there in 18D was an 80-ish-year-old lady. She was in the aisle seat, and I needed to get to the window. When she saw this, she smiled, propped her black cane on the outside armrest, and then gracefully swung both of her little tan-stocking-ed legs around the armrest. Her dentured teeth grinned from behind her bright-red-lipsticked lips. On the flight, she soon dozed off–what a blessed nap–and I couldn’t help but notice her finely pencil-accentuated eyebrows, her worn-with-age-but-still-beautiful wedding band, and her festive Christmas-Tree ring. She had a red sweater and one of those brass ‘jingle bells’ hung on a string around her neck. Her vein-accentuated, leathery hands may not have had the softness or musculature they once did, but they bespoke a life given for others. Indeed, she reminded me of those dozens of nameless old ladies who volunteer in our hospitals — smiling as people like me whisk by. Or I think of the countless elderly women who come dutifully to daily Mass, who place flowers near the altar, who begin the rosary in soft but steady voices.
Then I thought to myself: “The Kingdom of God is of such as these.” When our flight landed, she said the first and last words I heard from her, revealing her Texas drawl. As I helped bring her bag down from the overhead bin, a simple, “Well thank you, kind sir.”
No, thank YOU, ma’am.
Another little stab at poetry…
“This time of year thou mayst in babes behold”
A Pediatric Resident’s Pseudo-Sonnet
(cf. Shakespeare‘s Sonnet LXXIII)
This time of year thou mayst in babes behold
The mucus yellow, white, or clear that drips
Upon each little nostril and each lip
That wail against that vile disease called “cold.”
But ask me not just to dole out the ‘script,
Unless membrane doth bulge or rales are heard.
Nor shout for an IV if juice is sipped;
Nor weepest thou if the nebs are deferred.
Recall “Do no harm”: some meds aren’t good for you.
But ‘roids I’ll use for asthma or for croup,
And Tamiflu if under two with flu,
And for RSV it’s time, nebs, and O2.
Remember that we’re in this together,
And your child’s health is our top endeavor.
We know it’s hard and you might not admire us,
But we’re oft pleased when it’s “only a virus.”
That’s why our training lasts forever:
To know when it’s bad, or just the weather.
I recently heard that an old friend passed away. He was his parents’ only child: please pray for him and his family. Who can imagine the grief of a mother or father or grandmother who survive to see their child die in their prime? The last words I have from him were in a phone text (we invited him to come out to eat a few days before, but he and a couple of others could not come):
“I’m sorry I’ll miss you boys. All my love!”
A few days later, I replied to his text to invite him to a different dinner party… only to learn that he had passed away. We will miss you and your loving heart sorely, my friend. Your death is a shock that my mind can still scarcely accept as real. Κύριε, ἐλέησον. God willing, we will meet again in those realms of Eternal Joy, where “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev 21.4).
Since before the time of Job, the human mind has attempted to make sense of tragedy and suffering. Rather than write on the Christian approach to theodicy, however, I (being a neophyte physician) would prefer to discuss how these sorts of tragic deaths could be avoided in the first place. Even if I knew the details of my friend’s death, I certainly would not publish them. But suffice it to say that he had struggled with substance abuse.
In our age group of 25-34, drug use (whether prescription medication abuse/overdose, or illicit drug use) is THE leading cause of death. In particular, death from the abuse of prescription narcotics is quickly becoming an epidemic in the USA: the death rate has more than tripled since 1999. Currently 100 people die daily from drug overdoses. Hence the movement to get the prescription nasal spray Narcan (which can reverse narcotic overdose) distributed into the hands of non-medical friends and family of narcotic abusers. If you are close to someone with substance abuse problems, please seek out the proper resources for them (whether Narcan nearby, rehab, etc.). Once drugs are in a person’s brain, it often becomes extremely difficult for that person to quit or to make responsible decisions. Recent studies with functional MRI scans demonstrate how drugs make structural and functional changes in those areas of the brain responsible for impulse control, motivation, etc. In short, the brain is “re-wired” and does not function as it should. As one neurologist taught us in medical school, drugs effectively “spoil” the brain by giving a strong reward signal without any reason/challenge for this reward.
When the “drug overdose” is rolled into the ER, you might see people rolling their eyes. But those of us fortunate enough not to be struggling with addictions are in no place to judge. Where would you or I be if we grew up in the street, where this was our only “out”? Or if we had chronic pain from a car accident, and this was apparently the only thing that stopped the pain? (As an aside, narcotics certainly do have a place for pain; but so do non-steroidal drugs, physical therapy, acupuncture, etc.) Whatever circumstances brought a person to use the drugs, the outcome is similarly dangerous: once the drugs are in their system, their reasoning is muddled. If you know someone suffering from mental illness, you can imagine what neurochemical muddling might look like.
We all need to educate ourselves about this growing overdose epidemic. But horrible tragedies like this don’t just make me sad, they infuriate me. For all the Hollywood stars who die annually from drug overdoses, you think the message would get out there: drugs aren’t cool. Cocaine or heroin or PCP or crystal meth don’t promote any societal or personal goods. They don’t further any important revolution or rebellion. They don’t make their users any more attractive, talented, or charitable. Instead, they are a selfish attempt at personal pleasure; they destroy health, careers, families, and societies. They can lead to heart attacks, violence, psychosis, and the spread of Hepatitis and HIV. The drug demand in the U.S. fuels the cartels that perpetrate the countless deaths and kidnappings in Mexico–of teachers, mothers, children. You want to see the real face of drugs? It isn’t the back parking lot, where the “cool kids” hang out. It’s the homeless shelter; it’s the hospital bed; it’s the cemetery. It’s the decapitated teacher in Mexico, or the weeping mother in the U.S. In several cities, there has been a movement to show online the ‘Faces of Meth‘ before and after a few years of methamphetamine use–shocking images. So sad that something as harmless as the Ephedra plant or as beautiful as the red Poppy, could–in the hands of a fallen humanity–cause so much harm.
We humans are broken and fallible enough as it is–the last thing we need is something to muddle things worse with drugs. I just wish that the maxim “Just say no to drugs” didn’t sound so trite, or that the slogan “Drugs, sex, and rock n’ roll” didn’t still have its popular appeal.
In the least, I hope you, the reader, is a little more informed of some of the dangers of drugs, particularly prescription pain medicines. I wish it were an easy problem to fix, or that we didn’t need these narcotic medicines (or benzodiazepines or amphetamines or other potentially harmful drugs) so badly for disease.
If you know anyone at risk of abuse, please make sure they get help. They may well need it.
Requiescat in pace.