The Teacher

Hilarie Jones

 
I was twenty-six the first time I held
a human heart in my hand.
It was sixty-four and heavier than I expected,
its chambers slack;
and I was stupidly surprised
at how cold it was.
It was the middle of the third week
before I could look at her face,
before I could spend more than an hour
learning the secrets of cirrhosis,
the dark truth of diabetes, the black lungs
of the Marlboro woman, the exquisite
painful shape of kidney stones,
without eating an entire box of Altoids
to smother the smell of formaldehyde.
After seeing her face, I could not help
but wonder if she had a favorite color;
if she hated beets,
or loved country music before her hearing
faded, or learned to read
before cataracts placed her in perpetual twilight.
I wondered if her mother had once been happy
when she'd come home from school
or if she'd ever had a valentine from a secret admirer.
In the weeks that followed, I would
drive the highways, scanning billboards.
I would see her face, her eyes
squinting away the cigarette smoke,
or she would turn up at the bus stop
pushing a grocery cart of empty
beer cans and soda bottles. I wondered
if that was how she'd paid for all those smokes
or if the scars of repeated infections in her womb
spoke to a more universal currency.
Did she die, I wondered, in a cardboard box
under the Burnside Bridge, nursing a bottle
of strawberry wine, telling herself
she felt a little warmer now,
or in the Good Faith Shelter,
her few belongings safe under the sheet
held to her faltering heart?
Or in the emergency room, lying
on a wheeled gurney, the pitiless
lights above, the gauzy curtains around?
Did she ever wonder what it all was for?
I wish I could have told her in those days
what I've now come to know: that
it was for this--the baring
of her body on the stainless steel table--
that I might come to know its secrets
and, knowing them, might listen
to the machine-shop hum of aortic stenosis
in an old woman's chest, smile a little to myself
and, in gratitude to her who taught me,
put away my stethoscope, turn to my patient
and say Let's talk about your heart.
 
From Intensive Care: More Poetry and Prose by Nurses by Cortney Davis and Judy Schaefer, published by the University of Iowa Press. Copyright © 2002 by University of Iowa Press. All rights reserved.

Further Reading

Thanks and Gratitude
A List of Praises
by Anne Porter
A Toast
by Ilya Kaminsky
Around Us
by Marvin Bell
Dusting
by Marilyn Nelson
For the Fallen
by Laurence Binyon
For the Twentieth Century
by Frank Bidart
Lift Every Voice and Sing
by James Weldon Johnson
Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus [excerpt]
by Denise Levertov
Rabbi Ben Ezra
by Robert Browning
Slow Waltz Through Inflatable Landscape
by Christian Hawkey
Starfish
by Eleanor Lerman
Thank You For Saying Thank You
by Charles Bernstein
Thanks
by W. S. Merwin
Thanksgiving Letter from Harry
by Carl Dennis
The Culture of Glass
by Thylias Moss
The Routine Things Around the House
by Stephen Dunn
The Thanksgivings
by Harriet Maxwell Converse
The Triumph of Time
by Algernon Charles Swinburne
Two Countries
by Naomi Shihab Nye
Visiting Pai-an Pavilion
by Hsieh Ling-yun
What Was Told, That
by Jalalu'l-din Rumi
Essays About Teaching
Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? [excerpt]
by Kenneth Koch
The Read-Aloud Handbook [excerpt]
by Jim Trelease
A Treasury of Read-Alouds: Poetry for Children
by Jim Trelease
Can Poets Teach?: On Writers Teaching Writing
by Joan Houlihan
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Poetry
by Bill Zavatsky
First Gestures
by Julia Spicher Kasdorf
Gimmicks
by Ron Padgett
How I Teach Poetry in the Schools
by Jack Collom
Kindness
by Naomi Shihab Nye
Serious Play: Reading Poetry with Children
Teaching Poetry: Accurate Songs, or Thinking-in-Poetry
by Eleanor Cook
The Accomplished and the Insufficient: What Readers Should Ask From a Poem
by Thom Ward
The Hand
by Mary Ruefle
Why Latin Should Still Be Taught in High School
by Christopher Bursk
With Tenure
by David Lehman
You Begin
by Margaret Atwood