The Your Voice section of The Poet’s List showcases articles and blog posts written by poets. These pieces may or not be about poetry. Most often, they are on topics with which the poet finds passion. You can find more of these posts, here: Your Voice.
Jim Gallagher rose from his chair, wincing in pain, and I watched as he shuffled across the waiting room toward me. As we shook hands at the door to my office, I was struck by the difference between us. I was a young Black doctor in my twenties, working as a medical resident at the Manhattan V.A. Hospital, on Twenty-third Street and First Avenue. Jim was a portly white man in his seventies. Years of stress were evident in the small vertical wrinkles marking the sides of his face, and in the bags under his eyes.
When we reached my office, Jim told me his story. In a halting cadence, he said that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer nine years earlier, in 2008. He had completed forty-eight sessions of radiation, sending the cancer into remission—but then, five years later, it had returned. He began to suffer back pain, and a CT scan showed that the cancer had migrated to his spine; it soon invaded his bones, making walking difficult. He had researched his prognosis and knew how much time he had left—he thought he had maybe two years.
As an earnest young physician, I wanted to provide him with a different kind of experience. So I turned away from the computer screen, with its long list of routine questions, and asked, “What gives you purpose as you face your own mortality?”
It had never occurred to me to pose such a question to a patient before—I asked on a whim. In response, Jim reached into his sports-jacket pocket and pulled out a rectangular black leather calendar book. He was, he said, a poet. He handed me the book. Inside were some of his own poems, and copies of verses written by some of his favorite poets—Carl Sandburg, Walter de la Mare—typed out and carefully stapled or taped onto each calendar page. Writing poetry, he said, was one of the main sources of joy in his life. “I’ve always appreciated the verse,” he said, with Shakespearean flair. But it was only in the past few years that he had found himself writing all the time.
As I thumbed through the pages, I saw poems of different lengths and forms. I took a minute to read one, while Jim sat in front of me. It was called “in a fragile time”:
The poem reflected my initial sense of Jim—who gave me permission to tell his story and quote from his poems—as a man faced with his own mortality, trying to capture or rewrite his own concept of time. I handed the book back and told him that I would be happy to read more. He left. That evening, while wrapping up my day, I reviewed his chart. I saw that he had been coming to my hospital since 2014, bouncing from oncologist to oncologist until finding his way to our primary-care clinic. He was on an antihormonal therapy called abiraterone, meant to starve the cancer cells in his prostate of the hormones that they needed to grow, and he struggled with the side effects—debilitating fatigue and joint pain. As I typed my own notes into his chart, I thought about Jim’s poem—another kind of report on the state of his life, rendered in a very different language.
A couple of months later, Jim arrived for his next appointment. We greeted each other like friends. His voice was stronger, and he told me a few stories about his life and travels while I checked his neck for swollen lymph nodes and palpated his back for tenderness. He had served in Vietnam, in Army intelligence, then spent decades working around the world for a global industrial-manufacturing company. Now retired, he spent most of his time at home, in New Jersey, with his wife. He had met her in 1986, in Hong Kong, where they’d both been members of a local hikers’ club. As I moved gingerly through the physical exam, Jim occasionally lurched forward in discomfort. I noticed that telling these stories seemed therapeutic for him. He took a deep breath as he moved off the table, and mentioned that his back pain was causing a slight limp. I thought that a lidocaine patch and a back brace might help.
Before ending the visit, I asked him how his poetry was going. He said that he had just written a new piece, and that he’d started compiling his poetry into a book, which he hoped to publish before he died.
Jim asked me if I wrote poetry. I told him that I had been writing most of my life. I explained that I’d loved poetry when I was young, writing poems during car rides with my family or on lazy summer days in our suburban New Jersey home. In high school, I’d entered poetry contests, and I’d studied literature in college, reading Wole Soyinka and Langston Hughes. What I didn’t mention was that I hadn’t written a poem in years. At the beginning of medical school, I’d thought that I would write every day, inspired by new patients and clinical experiences. But studying and practicing medicine turned out to be all-consuming. At home, I left a blank sheet of paper on my desk, in case inspiration came, but I was always rushing out the door or off to sleep. I was also coming to terms with being gay. I started slipping into the same depressive symptoms that I was learning about in my medical textbooks. The page remained blank.
I didn’t want to admit to Jim that I hadn’t written a word of poetry in three years. When he asked to read one of my poems, I told him that I would send him one soon.
At our next appointment…