Here’s a Mary Oliver hospital poem that I’ve always appreciated but that has never been as relevant as it is right now. That’s because my 89-year-old father has suddenly come down with something—they’re not entirely sure what the problem is—and is struggling to regain health and coherence in the Sewanee Hospital. We are very worried.
I think of the speaker in the poem as my mother visiting him. My parents have had a long and deep marriage—65 years, during which time they have been lovers and best friends—and life without him would indeed be “a place of parched and broken trees.” (The friend’s illness stands in ironic contrast with the flourishing trees outside the hospital, foliage into which dying Civil War soldiers once peered.) I am trying not to surrender to “despair of the mind,” but I can’t help but fear that the man who has been my model and my guide is dying.
The speaker voices the possibility of such an outcome through indirection. Walking down a hospital corridor, she looks into a room that the day before held someone “with a gasping face.” Now she sees that “the bed is made all new,/the machines have been rolled away.” In other words, she foresees the day when she too will experience the emptiness of that room, a future she has been trying to deny (“I tell myself, you are better”). Gazing into the continuing “deep and neutral” silence, she is overwhelmed with love.
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.
Papa, I stand here in Maryland loving you.
“University Hospital, Boston,” American Primitive (Back Bay Books, 1983)