This is part of the Medical Humanities Series on Op-Med, which showcases creative work by our members. Do you have a poem, short story, creative nonfiction or visual art piece related to medicine that you’d like to share with the community? Send it to us here.
Describe a challenge and how you overcame it.
Is this an interview? It is. I see. Yes, the way you are looking at me like I should be providing an answer. OK, well. You see this is a challenge right here because you are two-dimensional and yet I have been told that you are three — and you look like you could have human-like qualities and maybe a cat — but right now I see a whitewashed wall and a plant you may or may not have bought explicitly for this occasion. But seeing how you have come all this way (through space and time and whatnot), please, continue.
What motivates you?
Have you ever wondered how many times death has not come, but could have? On the corner of Church Street and Dubuque how close was I, pausing to assess an ice-sheeted puddle just before a woman turns, her head turned too, searching for what? A snack? A phone? A child crying? The summer I almost drowned, my mother said no you will not, and I did not. Hotel pool, a single cool eye seeking, floaters upstairs in the room. Every backseat I slid into under the cloaks of dark and youth and rebellion with every driver that palmed the wheel like a dare — I will not be struck down tonight. How many near-deaths have I walked towards without hesitation, another door, another elevator, another escalator on its way up. And now — every mouth and nose just a house for fear. Oh, but how I dare to smile.
Tell us about your research experience.
Informally? I'm investigating how long a tea kettle will last, waiting patiently for the concoction my husband brewed last summer to grow mold, and testing the edible nature of a variety of other substances that, yes, they tell me, intend to grow mold. I'm also working on a handful of mysteries including several ongoing missing underwear investigations, how long you can love someone for, and the cold case of a favored jacket I lost several moves back. List of suspects pending. In my spare time, I'm writing a case study concerning aging parents, the time and space the heart can tolerate without them.
Tell me about yourself.
When done right, the clementine peel unspools like a child's toy, a Slinky collapsing down the stairs. I haven't seen one in so long, though I feel it every day, a momentum urging me towards the next step to which I dive headfirst, pulled by nothing more or less than an engine — though I’m empty: these ribs and vertebrae holding so much stale energy that has yet to pick a form.
You've worked in mental health.
Is that a question?
What was the most interesting case you have been involved in?
A patient told me how her aunt used to care for baby raccoons the time they stole the car keys, and, dangling them over the air conditioning vent, let go, how no one knew for 30 years and there was never enough money for a new set of keys so the car sat on its four tires in the driveway where things up and lived around it, weeds grew to make it more art than life, and the racoons they probably died — but the keys, they found last week, just days after the car was sold. That was a case both solved … and unsolved.
What are some of your strengths and weaknesses?
My grandfather takes a nail and hammer from the toolshed, an old log he finds behind the back of the house. He teaches me to hold the nail straight when pummeling the head, not to hit my fingers like (here he holds up his bruised thumb ruefully). His attention like water running like I’m one bucket and bathtub too short. You have surgeon’s hands. Each strength has shown its weakness and every weakness, strength, when you push it around in your mouth tenderly enough and spit out the bones. Next question.
Do you see any problems managing a personal and professional life?
My personal life is fall leaves, a fox slinking over the back fence, snow, slow and steady. Professionally, I try to save life or keep it holding on or hold its hand before letting go. Personally, the sun is setting when I leave the hospital and every hand inside me grabs fistfuls. Professionally, you are wilting before my eyes. Personally, the ends of my hair are becoming cold and hard, knotted stalactites of salt — these tears and sweat, this cold. Professionally, your daughter comes to visit and she's five. The visiting hours are short but not short enough. I don't want her to see me like this. Personally, I skate home on a joyless ice rink. Professionally, there are no more options. Personally, I search. Professionally, your wife searches. Professionally, I explain metastatic cancer. Personally, the knife slips during dinner prep and I watch the cut coolly, command the blood to coagulate. By nightfall, my heart only beats when I tell it to. I breathe when I remember.
If we were to consider you for said residency, what would you fill your pockets with?
A taste of my last good dinner, the look of a whole moon on a pellucid night, every cicatrix that wears my skin and whispers in my ear, a watch pocket’s worth of crabgrass from my parent’s backyard wilting beneath the Slip ‘n Slide, the sun’s tongue when it licks me between my shoulder blades, two rocks, not so much to sink me, but enough to remind me to swim.
An interview with the creator
What was your inspiration? Did other creative works, if any, influence your creation of this piece?
The idea for this poem started while I was preparing for residency interviews. I had a list of questions I wanted to have answers prepared for and started thinking about the answers I would give — and also the answers I wanted to give.
How long have you been doing this activity? What got you started?
I've been writing forever. I have a B.A in Creative Writing with a focus in poetry from Emory University, but I've been returning to prose writing lately. Prose poetry is really my favorite kind of writing. It's so expressive and full of emotion. I love playing with rhythm and speed of a piece.
How does this submission relate to your medical practice?
This work was inspired by my experiences during medical school and residency interviews.
Liana Meffert is an incoming Emergency Medicine resident at Georgetown University. She has previously been awarded an Academy of American Poets Poetry Prize, Stanford’s Irvin David Yalom Literary Award, University of Iowa’s Carol A. Bowman Creative Writing Award, honorable mentions for the William Carlos Williams Poetry Award, and the F. Sean Hodge Prize for Poetry in Medicine. Her work has been featured in The Examined Life and The Healing Muse, among others.
Illustration by Jennifer Bogartz