Something Stronger

you said he likes it dark in the morning. every morning
he made black coffee by the light through the window over the sink
well anyway he used to. well anyway that’s why it’s so dark in here beg your pardon
the monitor beeped and i ate my yawn and said no problem almost my lunchtime anyway
you laughed and i laughed but he did not see the joke
i’d seen his mri i wondered if he could see anything at all out of that eye
seventy-four-year-old male temporal mass first start case
you sipped coffee from a styrofoam cup. you said he liked to garden
likes to garden

you got quiet for a while then
i said politely the thing you’re supposed to can i get you anything do you need anything
you wanted something stronger than this junk
well we both smiled and i said of course i’ll see what i can do
but i didn’t see in fact i forgot pretty quick

because it was find the suite scrub in circles clean the fingernails gown up gloves on
do you know when we wheeled him back in that white gown he smiled at me like he knew me
we were old friends and i smiled back before i shoved a tube in him gassed up his lungs
do you know while you drank that cheap coffee i
grinded a hole in his head let a little sunshine into his skull black bits of him tumbling down to my sneakers
someone etched at him chipped away dug a plot while i irrigated veins spreading like roots
(more water more water come on)
do you ever wonder how we did it like really wonder
was it graceful and did we pray and was there an angel flapping her wings over us
(more water more water don’t stop)
we tossed that yellow skull flap on the table and i kept watering him
can you believe it they scooped him out with a tiny spoon like they use to let you try ice cream
do you want one scoop or two?
that’s about the time i realized shit i forgot your coffee

later when we stitched back his scalp and washed his hair
understand you have to wash the blood out of the hair
you asked me how it went
i said well i don’t know much but i think it was fine
i left the coffee cup steaming and you thanked me. you asked me
was he afraid
you were already crying even when i said no not at all he did not see fear
you grabbed my hand and you touched his hands and you said
his fingernails have never been so clean
you know he always makes the coffee he weeds the garden now can you believe it it’s overgrown with nightshade

you said please will you pray with me
will you speak to god with me
well i don’t know how to speak to god so
i just held your hand and hoped we hadn’t taken the piece of him that
always made the coffee and took the nightshade from the garden

Matt Hagerman is a first-year family-medicine resident at the University of Virginia. In his spare time, he enjoys spending time with his dogs and playing banjo with his fiancée, Anna.

About the Poem

“This was one of my first clinical experiences, memorable primarily for two brief yet powerful perspectives it gave me: one on the world of surgery and another on the life once shared by patient and partner. A special thank-you to Dr. Childress and her Literature in Medicine course for encouraging this piece.”

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10 thoughts on “Something Stronger”

  1. Matt– wonderful work …..I read it twice and it was even more alive the second time….Keep on writing!

  2. JEANETTE KEENAN

    When I was in the hospital for my radical scalp resection and left neck dissection, trying to survive late-stage melanoma, there was one younger doctor who was notably different from the others. While they rushed out, he took the time to stop by my bed and talk quietly with me. I could feel his caring, and that enabled me to ask him for something I needed. Seeing me as something beyond a collection of body parts, some of which were in need of repair, he said yes, and he delivered. Your writing conveys touchingly that you, like him, understand the humanity of patients, and have more than scalpel to offer. Please never lose that.

  3. Such a touching piece. You were there for her in a way you probably did not realize. I was there with you through your words, and unspoken emotion, down to the very last line. You allowed her to take you through her praying!!!

  4. Achingly beautiful poem. Matt, am so glad you are bringing your attunement to the patient, family , the existential significance of the intervention process and the emotional impact on all of you into your career as a physician. Please make sure to hold onto all of this through residency and your career. You, your fiancee and your patients need you to stay whole as you still are. May you continue to have wonderful mentors, colleagues and teams who will nurture this gift in each other.

  5. This is captivating and beautiful. I’ve been on the table and I’ve been beside it and I’ve been at the bedside. Pitch perfect.

  6. Thank you … a well written perspective.
    My husband recently died from a brain tumor ..
    He loved to garden and I drink coffee.

  7. You got them both, you the young Doctor (why did that show up with a capital D?) her, as the wife lover, and even him for the brief moment he exists for you.
    And you got me. The mother of a 52 year old epileptic post brain tumor removal 25 years ago.
    ‘You are a good candidte for surgery’ they say. And he resists, knowing that you could remove that part of him that ‘likes it black’ and wants to be able to say ‘I love you’ and mean it.

  8. This gives me an overwhelming sadness and a sense of awe all at once. I can wish all went well and I do. And I hope the coffee is still as dark and wonderful/awful as it once was

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