Dr. Daniel Becker is a professor emeritus of general medicine in the School of Medicine at the University of Virginia. His “un-retirement” has included support of COVID-19 management at UVA. Dr. Becker’s 2020 book, 2nd Chance, won the 2020 first-book prize at New Issues Press.
In academic medicine, doctors write grants, grant budgets, scientific articles, chapters for textbooks, textbooks, clinic notes, progress notes in the hospital chart, letters to patients explaining lab and x-ray results, humble pleas to third parties to pay for tier 3 meds and durable medical equipment, indignant letters to third parties after the humble pleas fail, evaluations of residents and students, and—for some of us—poems and stories. My writing habit needs a few hours every morning, the rest of the house asleep except for the creatures keeping me company in my basement office. My academic career got interrupted in the late 1990s when managed care arrived at UVA, when every employee needed a PCP, and overnight I had hundreds of new patients. The grants and scientific articles went out the figurative window of my basement office. By then I had a lot to say about the patients and colleagues and residents and students who helped me learn how to be a decent doctor and person.
Writing for some of us, and reading good writing for most of us, works the way a vaccine does: it deflects the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune; it protects us. It can make us a little more happy or a little less sad. Moreover, it can make that sadness or happiness a little more interesting.
Why poetry? Watch the You-Tube video of young poet Amanda Gorley reading “The Hill We Climb” at President Biden’s inauguration. Or, read the Bible or the Koran or the Tao Te Ching or the Vedas. Listen to Bob Dylan. Listen to the stories you read to your children.
Of all the vaccine tents in all the world
Of all the vaccine tents in all the world
she walks into mine.
Or he. Or they: husbands and wives,
partners, care givers and care getters,
mothers and sons, fathers and daughters,
neighbors with good deeds to share.
After answering questions about efficacy
and sore arms and allergy
and the unfortunate lack
of a commemorative band-aid,
we do some catching up, where and what we were
We knew each other when
and by some casual miracle
we’re who we were before.
Or, we know each other now,
this intimate non-friendship.
Between introductions and choosing an arm
and rolling up the sleeve or extracting an arm
in the most modest way possible in public space
and choosing a spot near a freckle or a mole—
an innocent mole—
or the upper edge of an inked rose or heart or dagger
or name whose story will have to wait,
and burying a needle almost to the bone
and following the sharps disposal protocol:
it won’t hurt because it didn’t.
It feels that way a good day did.
…………….. Daniel Becker © 2021
The next poem is a transcendental moment. It is about swimming laps. What I miss most of the pre-pandemic days was swimming at UVA’s North Grounds pool.
Swimming with John’s Ghost
During the memorial service, after the mensch acclamation
and before the sermon sized metaphor
that started with a tree then lost me,
a comrade from the morning shift at college—
they shared a lecture hall and the appreciation
that all sleepy students are each sleepy in different ways—
quoted John bragging about having the North Grounds pool
all to himself at sunrise. Morning people brag
about their mornings. This morning the lifeguards,
proving they do pay attention to the lives they guard,
have the music tuned to oldies—Sam Cooke crooning
you-ou-ou-ou send me as Sam’s fans adjust their goggles.
John, easy to spot in that deep blue bathing cap
he claimed helped part the waters, takes the lane next to me.
We’re standing there praying the water isn’t as cold as it is
and waiting for one of us to acknowledge our existence.
Bummer about that service I say, hoping not to sound
too relieved he doesn’t want to share my lane.
Total he says. Then we submerge. Strange how dying
helped his stroke. He doesn’t have to breathe but does—
old habits die hard.
I’m a little choked up in the locker room
and he suggests doing something about that cough.
He would know. Since it is a locker room
I share some locker room wisdom:
when the going gets tough the tough get going.
John takes his cue: practice doesn’t make perfect,
perfect practice makes perfect. We allow a moment of silence,
but before any hymns erupt, I share my favorite hymn fact:
Emily Dickinson poems can be sung to the tune of Amazing Grace.
I dwell in pos-si-bil-i-ty he sings almost on key,
then asks if he can borrow my brush. Get real I answer.
Who wants to catch someone else’s static?
We complain about chlorine and dry itchy skin.
We put our pants on one leg at a time,
an act of faith that grounds us. See you later he promises
and just like anyone walks out the door.
…………...Daniel Becker (Pulse, © 2016; 2nd Chance, 2020)
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