© 2019 Orris Root

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Crimson Jellyfish/Immortality

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As a student I was fascinated by

the biology of cancer

how a rogue cell could mutate away from     what it was     

and lose the ability to die.

I was transfixed by microscope pictures:      blooms of cells

stretched         across the page,                      crimson jellyfish

with the ink blue hearts;

the sublime beauty of immortality.

 

That was before things                       unravelled,     

when it was easy to see a line between people who were

sick

and those who were

well.

 

As an oncologist people pilgrimage to see me.

Carrying their tumours           like old luggage

There are  familiar stories of             a bloodied tissue         a lump

their body inexplicably melting away.

When they speak I see the swarm of blue and crimson

turning and growing inside of them.

 

Radiologists describe cancers innocuously

an apple core in the throat                  spiculations in the breast,                 

a coin  in the lung,

                                   cannonballs,

the meaning always in the subtext of the last line:

the lesion is suspicious.        

 

Our weapons against immortality are blunt:

knives, radiation and poisons.

My patients are brave even as we take away

pieces of their body.

I bring them to the cusp of unliving,

then stand on the sidelines hoping the cancer will die before they do.

 

I wonder how these people can bear to look at me.

 

Above my desk I have list of Chaplains,

Anglican

Buddhist

Catholic         

Greek Orthodox

 

These people come and sit with my patients providing things that              science cannot

provide.

 

The Hasidic Rabbi

walks slowly down the ward in measured paces,

dressed in black          a bowler’s hat,

his beard obscuring his face, long tendrils hanging beside ears

He looks as if he may have walked all the way from Jerusalem.

 

Those I am resigned to lose are resilient against the odds,

they fend off infections, regain flesh and colour, pack their belongings and return home.

Those whose lives I bargain for                    

seem only to go more quickly.

 

Last week I lost a woman my own age.

The cancer was in her pancreas, but by the time I saw her

its satellites were all through her.

Her limbs so swollen with ascites                  she was bound to bed.

She looked at me with disbelief                    

‘but I was out gardening a fortnight ago.’

 

I phoned the Chaplain            told him there was someone for him to see,

even though my gardener was an atheist.

I waited for him to arrive                   wearing serenity like white robes,

wondered if I’d the courage to intersect        at the nurses’ station;

to place my hands on his shoulders

and shake him with the violence of burnout,

so that through his tremulous vision he could see

it was me he’d come for.