These are just a few excerpts from the many inspiring selections in Muse 9. To order a copy and read the entire issue, please visit our Support the Muse/Order Copies page.
B.A. St. Andrews, Hour of the Pearl
Floating world. Transfiguring
fog. Holy hour of transformation.
In silence such as this the heart
speaks for itself. Every bird
boat and buoy is less fact
than apparition in stillness
so seamless small boats
at anchor barely wobble
with the change of tides.
Sea curls its lit fuse in
lambent silence. All
colors transmute to grey
on slate on silver, sorrowful
as Lent. In air filled with
salt and incense, thick with
hope, gulls circle silent
overhead as if shut valves
of the human heart might
open on a new and priceless
world: sudden, succulent, rare
as mollusk hoarding pearl.
Toni L. Wilkes, Things My Daughter Lost in Hospitals
One million twenty-seven strands of hair.
A smooth scalp. Several inches of frontal bone.
A Tiffany bracelet. Thirty-nine liters of urine.
The call button. Her patience. A pear-shaped
Gallbladder. Her husband's patience. Eight pints
of blood. Numerous stainless steel staples.
Her job. One decaliter of cerebral spinal fluid.
Two blue and white hospital gowns. Her pink
sweater. The ability to have more children.
Twenty-two pieces of Big Red chewing gum.
Forty-one days of consciousness. Names
of night nurses. Names of day nurses. Six
Actiq lollypops. Seven neurosurgeons.
Two hundred eighteen sutures. Her daughter's
sixth birthday. The desire for sex. Three yellow
bedpans. Her blood-brain barrier. Five years.
Johanna Shapiro, Hip Precautions
Fellow oldsters, you know
what I'm talking about
When we get those fabulous,
spanking new metal and ceramic
balls and sockets
we want to protect our investment
of money, pain, blood, sweat, tears,
so we take precautions
But oldsters, think about it
How hip is that?
You remember the hipsters,
The Beat Generation
wild, free, on the road
Maybe you even were a hipster
before you got lost in the American Dream
And started driving that RV
all over nowhere
Oldsters, these hip precautions—
Come on grandma
Really think about them for a sec
Don't bend too far
as in get some backbone granny
Show some spine gramps
Stand up for something you believe in
Stop the war
(that one still works)
save the environment
Just do something that matters
with that new hip
Don't cross your legs
or your principles
Use these years to do
what you've always known is right
but always seemed too unconventional
Set a trend that goes deeper than fashion
Set a trend that someone will remember
after you are gone
Don't stand pigeon-toed
It's a posture of shame,
You big dodos
be proud that you have made it
to body part replacement time
and decide that new hip can bear
the weight of the world
its poverty, its violence,
its still-burgeoning promise
Don't twist and turn
parsing your words with a
Admit your mistakes
(you can start with Iraq
work your way down to the
kids and whether you really
tithe enough to your church)
Use that hip to take a stand
Oldsters, be hip, be cool
be finger-popping mellow
(heck, smoke a little weed if you want)
But remember who you are
and who you still can be
So that when that titanium prosthesis heals
you can use it to walk somewhere
that is worth walking to
Questions about this poem can be found on our Reader's Guide Volume 9
Sallie Naatz Bailey, Accidental Therapist
I fumble inside my purse reaching for a tissue but I can’t find it—until I open the purse wide so the light reaches its contents. There it is—I just couldn’t feel it. Seated in a restaurant, I move my chair and accidentally unplug a wall lamp that illuminates the table. I reach down to replace it, find the bulky plug and try to find the wall receptacle, but it’s impossible to feel the place to plug it in and so I fumble awkwardly. A waitress arrives at the opportune moment. I move my chair back and stand, giving her room to access the wall socket. Light is restored. How embarrassing.
This lack of sensitivity in my fingers is the result of a lacunastroke, a stroke caused by an interruption of the blood flow to an area of the brain, rather than a blood clot or hemorrhage. It was minor by stroke standards, but in my case, it affected an area very close to that center which controls movement on the right side. My good luck! I was “lucky” that it wasn’t closer because the neurologist informed me that my side would have been paralyzed. As it is, I am left with numbness, a permanent sensation comparable to one’s arm being “asleep,” except that it extends down the entire side of my body. I have full use of my right hand but the sensitivity—the “fine tuning” in the fingers is gone.
Certainly not the worst outcome of a stroke, but of course I’m an artist—a right-handed artist. I found it impossible to do any drawing or watercolor painting afterward. It wasn’t a physical problem, but rather—a mental one. I just couldn’t try. It was fear of failure.
I had always felt a sort of mystical connection of “hand to shoulder to brain” when I was deeply absorbed in drawing or painting. At least, that was how I described it—how I felt it. Fortunately, I have long been involved with doing computer art and was able to satisfy most of my creative urges through that medium.
Two years after the “event,” (in medical parlance strokes are called“events,” which conjures something like ski competitions at the Olympics), my husband and I returned to a favorite spot on the coast of Maine. We had vacationed there many times in past years—and every time I had carried a full complement of portable sketching and painting materials. This time was different. I didn’t even want to look at the “tools of my trade,” let alone pack them.
It was autumn and the weather was incredible. The owner of our rental house has shelves full of intriguing books, among them, a volume by Betsy Wyeth about her husband Andrew’s preliminary drawings for watercolors. It’s what is commonly called a “coffee table” book—the term often derisively defined as“a book that would be large enough to serve as a coffee table if legs were added!”At any rate—it was a dauntingly large, heavy book.
My husband, Dwight, kept urging me to look at it, and I kept making excuses not to do so—the weather’s too nice to read.... It’s uncomfortably heavy, etc. (Granted, the latter was a pretty lame excuse). The truth was that I didn’t want to look at drawings, reminding me of a skill I was afraid I no longer possessed. My hand is numb! I was fearful that my sensitivity to the line, the ability to create the necessary variations in pressure, was gone.
Finally, after a string of glorious days, the weather turned, and we had a full day of lowering clouds, wind whipped rain, and lashing waves. It was a perfect day to read. That afternoon, after further urging from Dwight, I somewhat reluctantly picked up the book. Turning page after page, I looked at Wyeth’s superb drawings. As I did, I could feel that familiar “itch” in my hand, as though I could feel the pressure of the pencil. I wanted to draw and—of course—I hadn’t even bothered to pack my travel art gear.
The next day dawned bright and sunny. We went into town and stopped at the local art supply store. I bought a small sketchpad and just a few colored pencils—nothing like the huge array of Prismacolor pencils I had left at home. We returned to the house, and I threw caution to the winds, producing six quick sketches during our last two days. It was exhilarating when most turned out just as I wanted. (Not all, of course—but I can’t blame those on my hand!)
The following year, I packed my watercolor travel kit and did a watercolor sketch of the ocean view—just one—but it was reasonably successful. I may still have trouble buttoning my blouse, because I can’t feel the buttonholes (and yes—I didn’t realize till the onset of the numbness, that it is a task one does entirely and automatically by touch) but I can draw! I owe a debt of thanks to Dwight, who so persistently urged me to muster the strength, mental and physical, to take up that book and to Betsy and Andrew Wyeth—all of whom so unknowingly served as therapists.
Carol Scott-Conner, From the Heart
A woman sits in the examining room, clutching a flowered poncho about her slender frame. Husband sits on a chair next to her. If you met her at a cocktail party, she would be the elegant one wearing the deceptively simple gown and understated jewelry. Now she looks hollowed out. The color has left her face. I'm suddenly conscious of the small sounds beyond this quiet room. Nurses' voices, something brushing against the closed door. Her gaze never wavers from my eyes. Her name is Sharon.
Sharon's mammograms hang on the X-ray view box. An irregular shadow, opaque white against the cobwebby grey of normal tissue, can be seen from where I sit at the small desk. The radiologist has done a needle biopsy. I, her surgeon, have just had to tell her that it's cancer.
I've eased into it as best I know how. Started with neutral words like "shadow" or "opacity" and then becoming more specific: "growth," "tumor," "cancer." I've tried to emphasize the positives. Now I repeat myself, hoping she hears me.
It's only about the size of the tip of my finger," I say, reaching up and demonstrating. "Your exam is normal. It's excellent that you've been getting routine mammograms. You have a really good chance of a cure."
Tears well. These rooms are stocked with boxes of tissues, and now I hand her one. Her husband draws his chair closer to hers. I busy myself with her chart, give them a moment to absorb what I have just said.
It's six months earlier. I'm lying on a stretcher in the emergency room of this same hospital. My heart pummels the inside of my chest with a new, erratic rhythm. The ER doctor has just told me I have atrial fibrillation. She's admitting me to the cardiac unit.
My physician husband sits on a chair on the other side of the gurney. We all know what this means. I muster enough breath to protest, saying, "But I've always been so active. I've never been sick. I bike to work, eat right..." I'm looking into her eyes. I'm drowning, I can't breathe. She's grasped my hand, she'll pull me out.
"All of that will stand you in good stead," she says calmly.
Ten days later, Sharon lies on the operating table. I stand at her right side, looking down into those eyes, holding her hand. I'm going to do a breast-conserving operation. She won't lose her breast, not today. The anesthesiologist puts a mask on her face. "This is just oxygen," he says.
"You're going to go to sleep now," I say. "You may feel some warmth in your arm, that's just the medicine." I speak softly, slowly, my gestures deliberately calmed to gentle her. Inside, I'm as keyed up as a violinist awaiting the conductor's baton.
A milky white liquid flows into her intravenous line. Propofol, "milk of amnesia," bringing instant unconsciousness and forgetfulness. She moves slightly. The drug always burns a bit as it goes in. Within a couple of seconds, she grows still. I place her hand carefully on the armboard, secure it in place so that I can work. So I can remove the lump, test the lymph nodes. Once she is asleep, things move swiftly.
A cardiac nurse glides in and out of my darkened room that first night, always increasing the drip flowing into my right arm. It's not working. My pulse dances chaotically, tracing an erratic line across the monitor. They will have to shock my heart.
In the morning, the senior cardiologist prepares to do the cardioversion. He checks the equipment, the EKG leads, the paddles. He stands at the head of my bed, his strong fingers hooked under my jaw, holding the clear plastic mask over my nose and mouth. Deep breaths. I'm so tired.
"It's just oxygen," he says. A nurse pushes Propofol into my IV. "Tell me what you did on vacation," the cardiologist says. The drug warms my right arm. Good. "We went kayaking..." I start to say.
Two months later, Sharon is in the middle of chemotherapy. Her hair is falling out, so she shaved her head. Her husband shaved his in sympathy, and so did his buddies at work. Her breast has healed well. The cosmetic result is excellent. When she finishes chemo, she will undergo radiation treatment.
"I used to run three miles every day," she says. "Now I walk. When I can. I get so tired."
"Your body is telling you to conserve your strength. You'll run again. When this is all behind you," her husband says. I nod.
"Just do what you can, for now. Give yourself a couple of months. It will be a bit like training for your first 5K run. You'll have to build back up, but it will come," I say.
"I ran my first 5K in forty-one minutes. I finished dead last," she says. Laughs.
And then stops, as if surprised by the sound of her own laughter.
I go home from the hospital on five medications. Meds to slow my heartbeat, to regulate it, to lower my blood pressure, to thin my blood. My heart won't beat faster than 60, except when it reverts to its hectic, danse macabre. Leaves begin to fall. In our garage, dusty spiderwebs enshroud my bicycle. Every day after work, I trudge around the track at the student center, clutching the handrail for steadiness. I seem to have aged ten years. Early winter snow will fly before I jog again. Scout's pace at first. Jog twenty steps, walk twenty, repeat, repeat, repeat. Slowly, tentatively, starting all over from the bottom. And, in due course, I go into a kind of remission. The meds are reduced, and then all but two of them are dropped.
Sharon continues, "I just don't understand why I got breast cancer. Nobody in my family ever had it. I never smoked. I've eaten right, exercised, kept to my ideal weight..."
This would be a good time to tell her about the researchï¿½scientists all over the world, trying to ferret out that very issue. But I've been a surgeon for thirty-five years, and the answers remain elusive.
Or maybe I should share my own story with her. Tell her how I got back into my life again after being sick. But we are in Sharon's story, not mine.
So I just speak from the heart.
It's a rotten disease. It just strikes anyone it pleases. You didn't do anything wrong," I say. "You will get over this and get your life back. And, as for those good habits, all that will stand you in good stead."
Questions about this essay can be found on our Reader's Guide Volume 9