Keeping Up Appearances

July 1, 2003

Poetry of the Times

He's crossed the line from gaunt to wasted,
temples hollowed out, his skin pale
and gray as skim milk, sunken eyed
like my father the year before he died.
My patient lives on a "colitis-cure" diet
of tofu, wheat grass infusions and green tea.
And though a colectomy could save him,
he refuses surgery because,No womanwants a man with a colostomy bag.

I'd like to kill him.
Oh, I know this is "countertransference,"
but saying the word doesn't stop me
from remembering the rye bread
my mother brought home from the bakery,
the fat brown loaves sliced by machine,
their crisp, seeded crusts and tender insides
our family spread with slabs of sweet butter,
the caraway and crumbs falling on the table.

But after my father's bowels began to bleed,
his doctor prescribed a diet
without "roughage," seeds, nuts or grain,
and for years my mother boiled beef
or roasted chickens as if they were drugs.
And beside every platter of overcooked meat,
she placed a golden loaf of seedless rye.

Today the struggle is in my gut:
do I tell him the story of my childhood
diet of bland meals and '50s health food?
Do I share my fury that no one offered my father
the cure of surgery? I don't believe tofu is better
medicine than seedless rye, but I question
my clinical distance, how I'm desperate
to save a man who asks if I mind him
drinking iced green tea while we talk,
my own stomach growling for lunch.