mortality

Yesterday was our “fall break”. It’s odd to call a day a break, and it’s funny to describe it in the past tense already. But an extra day is just what the doctor would have ordered for me.

As it turned out, I went to the doctor, not for any particular ailment but to make good on a promise to go in to get “labs” done, blood drawn to check for general things and count specific things. I’d put this off for months, mostly because fasting and teaching morning classes don’t go well together. With today’s day off I could sleep in, roll out of bed, and find my way to the hospital in spite of a coffee deprived haze.

“Are you good at this?” I asked the nurse as she asked me to roll up my sleeve. I supposed, in retrospect, that this wasn’t the most polite way to make conversation. But mostly I just wanted her to say ‘yes’ just so I could believe it while the large needle went directly into my vein. The oddest thing I realized as the vial filled was how my mortality was right there in front of me. My own blood was being tapped, harvested, and then plugged up again — how the body knows how to put up with this is beyond me, especially when I think of how I will often try to repair a sprinkler head while the irrigation line is on. But also, there’s the idea that contained in that vial are answers to questions I haven’t even thought to ask. As my friend is writing about the moments and interactions of record that can hopefully establish our immortality, I see a blood sample that could reveal to me just how mortal my physical self is.

The previous day in class I offered to read a poem, The Lanyard, after we’d finished measuring molecules and after I’d told them about the published interview. “When you read it, you’ll want to know how this poem goes” — my lame excuse for reading a poem during the last few minutes of the period. So, I read it, and the dozen or so preservice science teachers listened and understood and laughed in the appropriate places. Since the first time I’d heard the poem, I’d always appreciated how the humor of the work highlighted the sentimentality, how it pokes fun at our shallowness as sons (and daughters) and seduces us into the poem slowly. It lets us laugh at little things, then bigger ironies, and then eventually reveals a deeper meaning.

But I’d never anticipated a student crying after class, perfectly fine moments before and then without warning flushed, teary eyed, and distraught. So as I put away poetry and washed flasks of oleic acid we talked, and she revealed to me that her mother had just learned of a return of breast cancer that had been in remission for the past two years. Now it had not only returned but spread to other organs. “I was just fine and holding everything together until I heard that poem,” she told me.

I guess in every vial of blood and in every piece of poetry there is the celebration and joy, but the potential for sorrow and suffering. It’s where we juxtapose life and death, and I think I see not only that this is “another demonstration of [poetry’s] superiority to prose”, as Billy described it. For the first time I understand more completely how our mortality is built into every good poem (or blood sample), whether we realize it or not.

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