Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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I held an iPad for Miguel as he lay in his hospital bed
so he could see his family sheltered at home.
He was suffocating, this man who at the worst of times
would only tell his loved ones, Me siento bien.
All around us the equipment of life
and death was buzzing, humming, beeping,
a stubborn choir of mockingbirds.
I turned the camera on myself so they could see
the plastic shield, the gown, the precious N95.
Outside, a train pulled away from Marble Hill; the city was fleeing.
Sunlight gleamed down the Harlem River, catching the red oaks
just starting to get their leaves back. It was blinding.
It was the first day that felt like spring.
I saw a dozen family members on my screen, squeezed
into a small apartment somewhere in Washington Heights.
A man my age held a young girl in the air; it seemed important
that I see her. She was laughing. Another man rose
to his feet and began to clap. Soon the whole room
was doing this. Someone whooped — for me! What gratitude,
like a prayer over my meager talent. I understood
they expected me to save him.
Miguel turned sixty-six in the ICU. His family gathered
outside his window to release balloons into the sky. I watched
as they sailed over northern Manhattan. Later that night
his daughter called and asked me to sing “happy birthday” to him.
And I did.
Tranquilo, I learned to say, todo va estar bien. I was lying
in a second language. There are few roads back
from where Miguel’s body had gone, his lungs
full of something like cement. The rest fell
in sequence: kidneys, heart, then brain. From the start I knew
that when he died it would be like this, alone and pierced
with tubes. When his monitor stopped beeping, I peeled
his name tag from the door and let my intern
call his daughter. I walked home down Dyckman
still in my scrubs as neighbors leaned from windows
banging pots and pans, swinging matracas, making noise for me.
A virus is such a tiny thing
to demand so much from us.
This poem was first published in The BEAT, a medical-student magazine at UCLA.