To the Loved Ones of Patients in Surgery

To the Loved Ones of Patients in Surgery


This is not about them. It’s about us—

though they’re cut open, we are too, sorta.

Right now, you and I drift in a boat of grief. 

Let’s each take an oar. Let’s tell our stories.


I’m sitting here eating BBQ chips

and peach shortbread cookies. First I jogged

in place to bounce away fear. I am not

a jogger, but COVID means no visitors

so wait wait wait at home. What do you do?


I put away my husband’s coffee mug,

kissing it first. It’s okay. You have done

something squishingly sentimental, right?

Like crying when slicing a pear because

they know just how to choose the ripe ones.


This isn’t cheering you up, is it?

Sometimes we don’t need cheer. We need to be

piglets or great hogs wallowing in self-pity.

Muddy, messy, barbeque-fingery,

selfish. Yes, they could be dying, but if

so, they will gambol with angels while we’re

useless down here in a wasteland watching

comedies that don’t seem funny by ourselves.


Surgery should well be over, yet no

phone call. No phone call means something is wrong,

something went wrong. Oh that cringe-memory

of something indeed terrifically wrong

for my last love, dead on our kitchen floor.

What a great gut-punch now, even though

my husband has the “best” kind of cancer,

and his surgeon is the Roger Federer

of this procedure—grand-slamming cure rates,

5-year survivals, chances of…


The morning after his diagnosis,

I felt that old ache of the vacant space

in our bed, though he had only risen

to make coffee and sat very alive

in front of the fireplace contented

as if his long-lost cat were on his lap.

A crater had crashed clear through the mattress,

through the floor, to the garage below.


As Paul Simon sings, grief blows you open

so everyone can see right into you.

Like our fourth-grade trip to a vet college.

Live cows had plastic windows in their sides

so students could observe the four stomachs.

Great loss has laid me bare twice before.

So now the ache, which I thought had left me—

or at least had been tightly tucked away—

too easily pops up like a rusting

Jack-in-the-Box clown. Oh that wicked smile!


When positive thinking fails you, do you fret

that some magical power has been lost?

Let’s try the Buddhist practice of tonglen,

embracing all suffering as the same:

Feel your own pain, know others have pain too.

Breathe it all in, vacuum it from the world.

Then breathe it all out—everyone’s and yours.

I’m inhaling my black storm and yours too.

I’m exhaling a cloud—white, of course,

downy in a blue sky. Or clouds tinged pink

by the dropping sun. They carry sorrows

into the topsy-turvy magnetic fields

of the Devil’s Triangle to vanish.


Finally, the surgeon calls to tell me

he made it. He made it through perfectly.

All that worrying for nothing, except

more useless worry about the healing,

the waiting in lymph-biopsy Limbo.


But now it feels important to tell you

about our honeymoon six months ago—

wild horses eating sea oats on beaches,

Spanish moss draped like lace, resurrection

ferns softening the branches of live oaks.  

The ferns become sad, gray ghosts of themselves

in dry spells. Fronds curl like dead spider legs.

But you can trust these marvels to revive:

With rain, they’ll turn vivacious-green again.  


What are you looking for?