“He was a doctor, you know,” your wife said,
when I introduced myself
as your doctor.
These words were still foreign then –
the two syllables sharp and too intimate
in the hospital room, above the tubes and twisting
IV lines connecting your body, disconnected
from me in my starchy white coat
and this intern-resident body,
from the land of the comfortably breathing and conscious.
I could hardly see you, the real doctor,
swallowed by your oxygen mask and hospital gown,
your wife standing between us.
“You know he worked here for many years,”
she tells me and I nod.
You are not just another patient
dying in this hospital.
You are not this spotted,
thin-skinned and foley catheter’ed
prisoner with strangers coming to turn your body
four times a day. You used to stride with your legs
confidently around this hospital,
thinking about the ways in which the human body fights
and fails, stealing away from the sanitized hallways to stand
for moments outside in the still heat of July.
That doctor could have predicted the end to this stay.
I came to see you too many times
during those days when your body depended
on a machine whose dials dictated the number
of breathing days you had left
in this room, warmed by sunlight across the East River,
your wife reading newspaper headlines out loud
to your shadow.
I was always copying down those little numbers
on the machine and sometimes my breathing
stopped too, for a moment.
“He’s de-satt’ing again,” I called my senior resident
in the hallway. “Can you come to down? I’m worried.”
Those days, I worried
and you remained calm, silent. I wondered if
in your infinite experience with death, you had accepted
the inevitable or perhaps you had already slipped
away from this hospital existence,
leaving your wife and me behind
to labor over your heart, your lungs, your brain.
Those days, I used to ask you questions
with no answer expected:
“How are you feeling today, doctor?”
A daily performance –
the questions, the concern, the polite cheeriness,
the attention to numbers – for your wife’s benefit.
But I think
you would have understood,
you would have done the same thing.