A Halo Over The Hospital

by Maggie Nelson

Maggie Nelson

Your eyes blue and lucid
Though your face has been reconstructed
by a team of surgeons, just a few little scars
on the bridge of your nose
and under your chin, you’d never know
your skin hung on a rack
and they gave you titanium cheekbones
and a titanium jaw, I couldn’t tell either
until I brushed your teeth
trying hard to dislodge the morning’s oatmeal
while avoiding the broken ones
Some in the front are apparently little stumps
and inside your gums, an astonishing gnarl of metal
Such miniature machinery! You are truly
a cyborg now, the metal of your jaw linking up
with the metal of your cheekbones, behind the scenes
Now your skull is literally shining. And your arms
can move much more than I thought, and your grace
is utterly intact. But your mouth gets so dry,
I have to trace your delicate lips
with a finger laden with balm, cherry balm
from a tube, make sure my hands are clean
then reapply, reapply. And give you water
from a miniature green sponge on a stick,
a little lollipop of water. This is
an incredibly inefficient means of drinking
you observe, and indeed each suck gives you
only a thimbleful. So we have to perform
the feat thousands of times
Try going in through the left side, you advise
and I straddle your bed to do so, trying
to avoid your broken tooth in the front
Just shove it right back in there, you tell me, always
the mentor, always encouraging me
to get it right, to use an adequate angle
and thrust. When you sleep I make sure
you stay breathing, make sure I’m there
when you open your eyes, as you’re slightly stricken
upon remembering the prison
your body has become. I’m frightened, you say
Then I’m sad, so sad to be paralyzed, and I’m sad too
You can’t wipe away your tears because your hands
don’t move, and I can’t wipe them away either
because it’s too abrupt a motion, everything now
needs to happen very slowly. So we place
a wet towel across your eyes and the tears
must soak upwards. More ice, more ice, the water
on the little green sponge has to be cold, not
lukewarm, and your fingertips can’t touch
the sheet, it’s too painful to touch something smooth
OK we’ll try propping your hands up
on rough white towels, is that better, yes
You say my hand feels good touching yours
and it’s like I won the lottery. You fall asleep again
and I hold your hand, but don’t know where
to put my head, so I lay it on your bed beside your hips
and fall asleep too. It’s Sunday afternoon. Outside
in the common room there are people
we once might have pitied but now we envy—
double-knee replacement, one amputated arm, big deal
Later I get to wheel you outside, it takes forever
to lift you into the chair and requires a motorized
yellow crane, your body like a beautiful tan bird
in its beak. I try to wheel you slowly like Nurse Peggy said
Slowly down the glass hallways, careful not to raise
your blood pressure, we can go out into the autumn air
but we can’t go down to the pond, not yet, you say
you want to see the trees with the gold leaves and so
we do, the leaves fallen along the pathway bunch up
in the wheels of the chair and I get a little panicked,
how do you work this thing, where are the brakes?
Everyone at home wants to know if you are OK
You’re not “OK,” you’re paralyzed and in tremendous pain
Everyone keeps asking, Do you think she will walk again?
But that really isn’t the issue, the issue today
is your distended stomach, your painful little balloon of gas
Apparently the spine runs the bowels and the blood
and just about everything else, miraculous and hurt
jelly cord. Your whole body suddenly withered and transparent
We can see your muscles move with the electrodes on
You have some tricep, no bicep, your left quad jerked
but no luck on the right, someday you’ll recover, I just know it
and I tell you so, I can’t stop smoothing your hair, its
blonde laced with gray, growing longer
than it’s ever been, and your body
I always wanted to see naked, now
I’ve seen it twice: once in a photo album
I stumbled upon, photos of you and your lover
naked in your kitchen, you both looked
happy and free, and I felt happy for you
and now here, the aureole of your immobile breast
magnanimous and wide, your legs quiet
and hairy, so not-moving. We discover
some stitches in your calf, someone at the ICU
must have forgotten about them, the nurse pushes on them
and pus comes out, we all wince. They have to come out soon
and so they do. Dinner wheels in, puréed tuna melt, puréed
Black Forest cake, and I imagine this gigantic medieval kitchen
where they make each dish then send it
to an enormous blender and out comes
this ridiculous beige & gray paste. Of course
you’re not hungry, the lemon yogurt I fed you
so assiduously in the morning has caused you
unthinkable pain, and to think I pushed you into
eating all of it, agony. I read you an essay of mine
about troubling the passage from the particular to the universal
and you say yes, Maggie, the problem now is to think
the singular. The singular, you say again, very seriously
as if it’s ten years prior and we’re just sitting in your office
This whole situation is seeming very singular, there’s a book
you want me to read but you can’t remember the title
so we have to call J, I hold the phone up to your ear
Press it harder, you say, OK, it’s called PROVINCIALIZING EUROPE
and I promise to read it, at this point
I’d eat a copy of MEIN KAMPF if you asked me to
I am so sad to be paralyzed
The problem now is to think the singular
The pain is returning and thank God Nurse Winnie
is back on duty, I’m so glad she’s curious and presses you
to be articulate, even when you’re tired and don’t feel like it
She needs more of a description, she doesn’t want
you to get an infection, finally you say Winnie, the pain
in my intestine is coming from my unconscious, a line
that brings me unending happiness. Later I sit on the bed
and tell you a little about my spastic love life, about the person
I am trying not to be in love with
You ask if we went home and fucked, I say we did
and you are happy, and I love the way the word Fuck
comes out of your wired mouth, as if desire can never be
closed down or tortured out, as if Fuck will always bubble out
of a metal forest. I tell you a little more
and you say, Good for fucking, bad for future planning
You say I don’t have to be ashamed of my desire
Not for sex, not for language
You say you’ve learned by age fifty
that you need them both, together, and that you and J
have that. You’ve been so happy. Crying now you say
All I can think is that if we built it once
we can build it again and I know you will and tell you so, then kiss
your forehead, the one part of your body
that hasn’t sustained any damage
Not one single scratch on your helmet
You took the whole fucking fall
on your chin, the snap back of your head
caused the fracture, the space that’s injured
is no bigger than a chocolate bar and yet
here we are. Jelly cord swollen with broken blood
vessels, thousands of nerve cells fighting for life
“Scars form, further distorting any surviving nerve pathways”
“One axon after another turns into a severed stump”
Fuck science, it’s so moralistic, and the terrible sensations mean
you will heal because you can feel, like when the nurse
pushed on your stitches until they oozed and you said Ow
or when the smoothness of the sheet assails your fingertips
or when you say everything, absolutely everything
feels so tired and sore. Every word a chore, and yet
you give me so many, we discuss direct service
vs. community organizing, your care for the world
simply astonishing. You even make your physical therapist
feel beautiful, by expounding on the virtues
of her new haircut. Well my husband really likes it, she says
and you don’t even cringe. You change the subject, tell us
the story of your first dog, whose name was
Shameless Hussy. I am happy to see so many competent people
buzzing around your body, I get angry when they move you
too quickly, I like it when they tend to you
tenderly, your head kind of tacked on by a brace
I hate this thing, you say, but I’m so terrified
to have it come off, because you know you can’t hold
your own head up, it’s like being an infant again
but you have all this rich language. And when
they take it off to stretch your head
your neck finally appears, beautiful and clammy
and bluish, a little like the plucked skin of a bird
You ask me to lift your shoulders off the pillow
then set them back down, I try to get the rolled towel
behind your head with one hand while I redistribute
the gelatin of the pillow with the other, Be a little bolder, you say
What feels right to you keeps changing
Thousands of times I moisten your mouth with balm
and water. At lights out I drive back to your house
where I sleep on the floor of your office, amidst
the hundreds of projects you left in-progress
Piles of books and papers, tracts about
global feminism, calls for social justice
I cry a little then, in mourning for
your graceful and butch handwriting
But I know now where you are, and where you will be
for some time, gold leaves swirling outside
your window, gold leaves making a halo
A halo over the hospital

The Hospital for Special Care

Last updated May 12, 2023