My friend Alan Paskow is finally dying. Hospice has been called in and he probably has only a few weeks left, if not days. I haven’t seen him or his wife Jackie for three weeks—since the evening we talked about love—as Alan keeps asking me to postpone my visit. This afternoon, however, Julia and I will be going over, even though he may well be asleep when we are there.
The poem that comes to mind is Mary Oliver’s “University Hospital, Boston.” Oliver describes visiting a dying friend there, a place where once wounded Civil War soldiers were sent as they struggled to stay alive. A blooming nature stands in contrast to the clean antiseptic rooms within the hospital. The contrast shows up as well in the patient’s eyes, which (this has been true of Alan as well) “are sometimes green and sometimes gray,/and sometimes full of humor, but often not.”
As one of our preeminent nature poets, Oliver is well attuned to all of the ironies. On the one hand, the hospital has pulled people out of nature (“high above this city”). As a contrast, she imagines that the Civil War soldiers would have been gazing up into the leaves of the trees as they were dying. On the other hand, they would also have been “longing for for tools still unimagined, medicines still unfound,/wisdoms still unguessed at.” Today’s “intricate machines”–in Alan’s case, cyberknifing, chemotherapy, and pinpoint surgery–are indeed miraculous. Then again, the word “still” may refer to modern times as well as to the past. There are still tools, medicines, and wisdoms that elude us.
Other than short stints in the hospital for surgery, Alan has spent most of his days in his beautiful home on the banks of the Potomac. When he has gasped for air, it has not been in a sterile environment. In that respect, the reality that applies to the patient in the poem is not his reality.
But that other reality, the common lot of humankind, he does in fact share. As the poet leaves the hospital, she turns and steps into an empty room. Even though she tells herself that her friend is better, deep down she must acknowledge that soon she will facing absence, a “bed that is made all new.” She engages in her dance with denial because “my life without you would be/a place of parched and broken trees.”
Here’s the poem:
University Hospital, Boston
By Mary Oliver
The trees on the hospital lawn
are lush and thriving. They too
are getting the best of care,
like you, and the anonymous many,
in the clean rooms high above this city,
where day and night the doctors keep
arriving, where intricate machines
chart with cool devotion
the murmur of the blood,
the slow patching-up of bone,
the despair of the mind.
When I come to visit and we walk out
into the light of a summer day,
we sit under the trees—
buckeyes, a sycamore and one
black walnut brooding
high over a hedge of lilacs
as old as the red-brick building
behind them, the original
hospital built before the Civil War.
We sit on the lawn together, holding hands
while you tell me: you are better.
How many young men, I wonder,
came here, wheeled on cots off the slow trains
from the red and hideous battlefields
to lie all summer in the small and stuffy chambers
while doctors did what they could, longing
for tools still unimagined, medicines still unfound,
wisdoms still unguessed at, and how many died
staring at the leaves of the trees, blind
to the terrible effort around them to keep them alive?
I look into your eyes
which are sometimes green and sometimes gray,
and sometimes full of humor, but often not,
and tell myself, you are better,
because my life without you would be
a place of parched and broken trees.
Later, walking the corridors down to the street,
I turn and step inside an empty room.
Yesterday someone was here with a gasping face.
Now the bed is made all new,
The machines have been rolled away. The silence
continues, deep and neutral,
as I stand there, loving you.
Alan and Jackie, in the terrible, anonymous emptiness that threatens to swallow us, I stand loving you.
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