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The Art of Palliative Medicine - 2017 Semester 1

The title is what our palliative care patient said to us when we mentioned that the project could be a creative medium, rather than just a written reflection. He said we should “write a poem and call it ‘the man who couldn’t face death’.” Which we laughed at as an automatic response, but it did strike me as at odds with what I felt the point of this assignment was.

After somewhat avoiding attempting poetry writing (a medium I decided on right from the beginning), I decided a week or two ago that I needed to actually sit down and just throw out ideas onto a page about how the visit went. What developed through this process, was the realisation that my patient’s views on his condition and his inevitable decline are probably the most realistic ones I could’ve heard.

PDF version of "the man who couldn’t face death"

The man who couldn’t face death
You laugh; I wince.
I glimpse a moment of my naïveté.
Expectations of profound wisdom – perhaps foolish.
Why I wonder, is death scary
or just barely thought about?
You say you ignore it. Do I?
Should I?
We talk of catheters, pianos. Of wheelchairs
and where’s your sanity these days.
You laugh again.

A glass of water comes in and leaves him a smile.
Her old jewellery-making table sits in the corner.
She doesn’t use it much these days you tell me
it’s a shame
I nod.

New conversation, what did you do
education and music:
onto the music now,
neurons on fingers on keys. But
not in this household any more, you tell me,
I haven’t played the piano in years.
Head in the sand, you say.

Do I fear it? Not death:
Your wheelchair reclines, we laugh.
Can’t waste time thinking about it.
Back to music, you’re losing choir
but the fire still burns inside,
it’s your body getting caught in the rain.

The stain of a losing battle on your face
a race to fill the remaining days
but never a rush.
A hush in the room again
we look at the rain now seen
on windows and skin.

So thin you are but not in knowledge
for I see a breadth of wisdom in those
quivering hands of yours, hands
which have done their time trying to
find the right keys.

So we come to the end and you ask me
just once to play – only if I want to.
But of course I say, though
I haven’t played the piano in years.