The Poetry of Trauma
Twice in the past two months I’ve heard two writers, one a memoirist and the other a medical doctor say something like, “Only poets can write about trauma.”
Seventeen years ago, my newborn baby had his first open-heart surgery. His chest could not be closed because his tiny heart was too swollen to fit back inside his rib cage. So, for days he survived in a medical coma, and we could not touch him. My body was still recovering, barely, from a violent emergency c-section, and not only could I now hold my child, I wasn’t even allowed to comfort him, in case he became distressed or confused.
The front part of my brain understood this. The back part of my brain yearned to touch my infant child. My first baby. My pride and joy whose life was suspended in the wires and tubes of twenty-two medications, a ventilator, and a pacemaker. No one, no mother, should ever see what I’ve seen.
If only a poet can write about trauma, then I want to share some of my poems (some published, some not) from several years ago, when my son was going through some of the most traumatic heart surgeries and the aftermath of it. I hope you find the last one hopeful. He’s seventeen now, and he has no idea at all what he survived to be present in the world. But I do, and I’m doing the work to heal from that trauma.
Over the Rainbow
I’m the green witch
the bad witch.
the wet witch –
What a world!
I struggle to listen
to your vacation songs
Boca, Cabo, Hawaii
Disney-what-a-world . . .
I smile and nod as you slip
back to your islands and I to mine.
I can’t see your sandy beaches
my brain is already
back there, at the hospital
until I’m ejected for shift change,
a refugee scraping together some crappy
spaghetti at the Ronald McDonald House
eating it alone over the communal sink.
I wash and run
back to the CICU, wash my hands bloody,
sit in the dark with a book and no brain –
waiting on his heart, we’re going
back to OZ next month,
and this takes all my courage.
Boy Next Door
This is not my child
in bed twenty-two
Children’s Hospital, Denver.
My son’s in bed twenty-one
struggling through the aftermath
of his fourth open-heart surgery.
We are far from home, restless
wanderers in the arid desert of
a hospital at 1:00 am.
Cruelly, I walk my weeping son
in staggering laps around the CICU,
he cries, “Hi, Babies,” to his peers,
and fluid like cactus water
gushes into the bulbs pinned to his diaper,
sewn to his side.
Three years ago, we had a choice,
take him home to wither or
fly a thousand miles to OZ seeking a heart,
but the Wizard told us he had one all along,
it just needed a few patches and parts,
and maybe it might hold out – no guarantees.
So, my son is fighting the battle I began.
No, this is not my child in bed twenty-two,
at thirty-five months, my son has lived
twice this boy’s life. Not my child
who could not be patched and lost
his liver and kidneys waiting for a heart.
Not my child in photos above bed 22 from the few weeks
of ever being “not here,” and wearing “real clothes”
not yet thin as the rails of his hospital crib
His parents have a choice;
he can die in this bed in the corner,
swathed in purple hospital pajamas
or he can die in their arms.
Tonight the nurses press his tiny hands in clay,
inscribe his name and the date,
and the boy next door is going home,
before we will, and his borrowed heart
will stop for a second time, somewhere, “not here.”
And just like that, new neighbors will share
the space between twenty-two and twenty-one.
The boy in the corner, (his name is Cadyn)
is yellow as corn, and breaks my heart
as he cries and his mother rocks him to death.
Meanwhile, my son (his name is Liam)
is doubled over with his mystery pain.
Nurse thinks it’s gas; nothing passes but time.
Finally, Esther, earth angel, surgical nurse
discovers Liam’s sternum clicking,
like sticks bundled in loose wires.
But he’s finally eaten today, so
for hours, I wait and watch my baby
groan and writhe away the Rice Krispey treat.
5:15, Liam screams through the veil of
double dosed versed and morphine;
5:30 we roll him to heart surgery number 5.
Dr. Deb Kosic tells us it will take an hour
to reset the sternum; “Sometimes, after this many
surgeries,” she says, “The bone doesn’t adhere to itself.”
Three hours pass, I pester the secretary,
she checks the OR, tells us 15 more minutes
forty minutes later we find what they found.
Staph infection, necrosis, death’s finger tips
pinched in his shifted sternum like a crow
in razor wire, a breath from his heart.
They dissected the death’s residue from the
cavity of Liam’s chest, scraped the bone raw
and wrapped it double tight in surgical ties.
The French super-surgeon, man of astounding confidence
accompanies Kosic, “We are so lucky to have found it;
a few hours later . . . too late. . . heart infected . . .sepsis…etc .
Liam wakes with seven tubes in his chest
sucking fluids from his lungs, and pressuring
the sternum to stick it out, to stick together.
On the post-op side of CICU, sternum and clock are reset,
Parisian accent echoes in my ears, “So lucky, too late.”
Cayden is on the other side, reserved for children going home,
and I know his mother would trade places with me today
or any day, just for another day with her yellow baby.
Two days later, we’re still here and they are gone.
Quiet Night at Home
Death, the elephant in our living room,
sulks in the corner; hisses to our son,
“Come, boy, sit on my lap.”
But Liam is running,
he breezes past Death and shouts,
“Zoom, Zoom, Zoom!”
With arms outstretched, he is an airplane,
soaring across the infinite skies
of a two-year-old’s imagination,
gliding, zooming, exuding life,
until his half-heart whispers,
“Liam, land the plane.”
Our boy crashes between us
gasps, pants, draws up
and clings to each breath.
Liam’s lungs claw to compensate
for the absent ventricle, the missing piece.
Finally he rests silent in my arms.
Even as systems settle and cyanosis fades,
Death skulks near us again,
creeping as he always does
when he thinks he’ll have his turn.
Our boy slaps Death’s bony hand,
laughs into liftoff . . .
“Zoom, Zoom, Zoom!”