In my youth, it wasn’t uncommon to see people collapse. Whole groups of them might go at once in an invisible sea swell that washed over five or ten people at a time.
I’d stand in my brown upholstered church pew, shifting from foot to foot, watching as the adults around me dropped to the floor or into the arms of the church elders. On the platform at the front of the church, a keyboardist would quietly play chords on an old Yamaha while the minister held up one arm, or maybe both, over the crowd. He’d mutter over the bodies on the floor in what sounded like a language spoken on some distant star.
Even if this scene wasn’t unusual, it was always strange. The church members called this phenomenon “being slain in the spirit,” a term I could never quite understand. I’d been hearing since I was in Sunday school that God wanted to give us life. So what did he want with slaying us?
From time to time, other children would walk forward to the church altar and take their turn at being slain—letting the minister push the heel of his hand down on their foreheads until they swooned over and hit the rough carpet. But I stayed put. I wanted nothing to do with being killed, even by God himself.
I waited in the surgeon’s consultation room through the afternoon, the unexpected March sunlight streaking through the window and warming my back to a sweat.
I’d dressed well, or at least tried. Years of medical appointments had taught me to neaten up for doctors. I wanted to look like a person who was doing her best—a person who hoped that, in turn, the surgeon would do his best. Even if I’d wanted to throw on a comforting tee shirt or my “feel-better sweater” and slouching track pants, the doctor would certainly come in wearing his white coat like a vestment, and I’d have to play the role of supplicant.
Yet here I was, sweating grimly through my button-up shirt and my snappy slacks. It didn’t seem like a good start.
When the surgeon walked in, he sat abruptly at his desk and angled the computer’s monitor up, covering half his face. He asked me questions, typing my responses on his black keyboard with both forefingers. I waited for him to look up, hoping he’d meet my eyes, but he didn’t.
After a half hour of this, he asked, “Any questions?” Still, he finger-pecked at his keyboard.
“Given all the risks,” I asked him, “does it make sense to go ahead with the surgery?”
He wheeled his rolling stool around to where I sat and finally looked me in the face.
“Do you have a religious preference?”
I sat in silence for a moment. How to answer that question—“it’s complicated”? And why did he want to know?
“Christian,” I blurted out. It was at least a historically accurate response.
He nodded and looked as though he was scanning his mental template of responses for an appropriate choice.
“Then you should seek wisdom in prayer. Ask God to guide your decision.”
I understood what he was getting at: pick a god. Any god. This doctor wasn’t going to give me an answer.
In the Old Testament, a man named Gideon isn’t quite sure what he’s supposed to do about the pesky problem of his mortal enemies. He isn’t thrilled about going out to battle, but thinks that maybe he’s obligated.
Gideon’s at a loss, but luckily he has some animal fleece that he lays out on the ground with the intention of divining his deity’s will. If the wool is soggy with dew the next day, he decides, then God himself wants Gideon to fight. The soggy fleece decides for him.
I have plenty of wool socks, and sometimes they lie out on the floor where I’ve dropped them and don’t have the energy, will, or balance to pick them up, but they tell me nothing.
A relative who is an anesthesiologist—and a good one—drove with my husband and me to the hospital on the morning my chest was to be split open like the Christmas goose.
I grilled him about things I’d read when I’d scrolled down too many inadvisable pages on WebMD. Would anyone try to use contraindicated anesthesia on me? I knew it meant I could wake up on a ventilator, assuming I woke up at all.
“No one who made it past their board exams would dream of using paralytics on you,” he said. “It’s not something to worry about.” Still, I worried.
After the paperwork and the weighing and the repeated questions as to whether I could be pregnant, the anesthesiologist arrived by my gurney and pushed a consent form into my hands. She told me to sign. The way she leaned in, jaw set hard, made her look like someone who’d played a lot of volleyball in college. I could picture her lunging forward in a dive and shouting at her fellow players to back off from what was hers.
I held the blue ballpoint pen lightly, frightened to use it just yet. I said I was sorry but that I needed—for my own panicked mind—to double check that she’d reviewed the great swath of notes from my other doctors. That she wasn’t going to use any of the under-no-circumstances, totally-not-okay paralytic drugs on me. Was she?
She gave me a look somewhere between annoyance and amusement. “Of course I’m going to use the paralytics. Now you need to sign.” She jostled the clipboard and its release forms at me again.
As if on some kind of practiced cue, I cried. Explosively. It was as though I’d acquired an ability to weep projectile tears.
“I do this every day,” she told me.
“On patients like me?”
“And nobody’s died?”
“Not yet,” she said. “But let’s not put that out into the universe today.”
The universe was going to make medical decisions on my behalf.
She put a facemask over my nose and mouth—“it’s just oxygen,” she said, and in a moment I was gone.
As a teenager, when the first sparks of neurological disease started to glitter away in the secret spaces of my body, my legs would collapse for no reason.
I was dating a church boy at the time. He wanted to be a pastor one day, as well as a doctor and a missionary. Such are the bizarre aspirations of youth. He spent his weekends watching televangelism shows. He put his hand to the TV screen when the preachers told him to, and interpreted the static crackle as a sign. He sang when he was told to sing, stood when he was told to stand. He knew he had the power of God in him, he said.
He would put his hands on me in the way that teenaged boys put their hands on girls, and he would pray.
He’d look up at me with a confused tilt of the head, wondering why it hadn’t worked—why I wasn’t healed.
In the neuro-ICU, it was the chaplain who frightened me the most. The man-handling doctor who wanted to enact a medieval-sounding procedure on me was hard to take, of course, but I could hear my husband standing behind me in the semi-dark of the room, saying No—refusing for me what he knew I would refuse for myself. They couldn’t knife me or pump out my blood as long as he held my ground.
But the chaplain, when the care team sent him in, seemed to signify something worse. Shouldn’t he be with a dead patient’s grieving family, or with someone barely tethered to life? Then I understood.
My husband couldn’t very well say No to a small and unassuming minister, but I didn’t want him there. He was one more reminder that the doctors, those lesser gods robed in their scrubs and always washing their clean, clean hands of me, were passing me off to a higher power once again. An invisible one to whom it was so easy to assign a will, a plan, an out.
He asked me if I wanted to pray with him. I told him No.
Not content to leave me unministered to, he tried for more small talk. He got it out of me that I taught English. He loved poetry, he told me. Did I like Wallace Stevens?
“A Rabbit,” I said. It took some time to get enough breath back to add “as King of the Ghosts.” Always answering these lesser gods when called upon, too afraid to tell them I didn’t want any more of their attention.
The chaplain didn’t know that one, but he thanked me. Said he would read it sometime. Finally, he shuffled off to some other patient’s room, and I looked for it—the poem—behind the swelling in my brain.
The difficulty to think at the end of the day,
It came in pieces, in fragments of line. My nurse walked into the room and dimmed the lights.
The whole of the wideness of night is for you,
He pushed another merciful syringe of pain killers into my IV. My skin hummed across the hospital bed, the division between my body and the white sheets blurring.
A self that touches all edges,
You become a self that fills the four corners of night.
As the heart rate monitors beeped and the IV clicked, I grew light. When I closed my eyes, I thought I could feel myself rising from where I was tethered by electrodes, lines, and tubes of every color and description.
higher and higher, black as stone—
I rose, the edges of my self crackling against the darkness of the room. I rose against the doctors, small deities of these halls, and the orderlies who served them. Against their signs and wonders, against hands placed on me in prayer or in cutting. I spun into the blackness like a Catherine wheel, sparks breaking out against the night, against the silent dark, against every god who’d see his people slain.
Note: “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts” can be read in full online thanks to The Poetry Foundation.
Kelly Davio is the Poetry Editor of Tahoma Literary Review. She is the author of the poetry collection Burn This House (Red Hen Press, 2013) and the co-editor of the anthology The Poet’s Quest for God. Her work appears in venues including The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Best New Poets, and more.