In addition to the printed publication, Abaton is posted on the DMU website at www.dmu.edu/abaton.
What We Have
By Rebecca Minardi, M.P.H.’13
I had just made pancakes when I got the call. “Hello?” It was Peter. “Rebecca, Rebecca. Can you come over? Please? I need you to come over.”
It was Saturday afternoon, and while at my job during the week where I work with teens on living skills, I was not used to receiving phone calls during my weekend off-hours. “Uh, hey, Peter…what’s happening?” I asked through bites of pancakes.
In between shouts of “shut up” and “fucking leave me alone” (and through a brief intervention on the phone from his brother), I learned that Peter, 16, was being kicked out of the family home. I thought back to a few weeks earlier when I read through his chart at the office, a chart that broke this complex boy down to the mere sum of his parts. Diagnosis: reactive attachment disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, PTSD. Social history: born in Romania to a biological mother who suffered from alcoholism and substance abuse, a childhood full of physical and emotional abuse, a history of being dressed in costumes by the father for visiting neighbors to have their way. I slammed the chart shut.
So. Here is Peter. Now safe and adopted in America. Peter, a regular kid in high school. Peter tried really hard to be normal. His adoptive parents tried really hard to treat him like he had
a completely ordinary childhood, trying valiantly to ignore the history of homelessness and orphanages, of physical trauma and gross sexual abuse. And though the family hoped that all this trying would pay off and that Peter would prove to be another resilient success story, things were falling apart. I was now on my way to a household crisis.
When I arrived, Peter was rocking back in forth in the grass in front of his apartment building, head in hands. “Hey, Peter,” I called softly as I walked up to meet him. He walked back to the car with me and got in, his already throaty voice all the more hoarse muttering a simple “hi.”
We drove to an empty park and sat on the creaking swings. I listened as Peter told me what I already knew; his adoptive parents had reached a breaking point with his frequent elopements and sexual contact with far older men, with his screaming and unpredictability, with his disrespect and his sudden profound despair. He had to go somewhere else, anywhere else. My stomach felt leaden.
Here was Peter, an old man in a boy’s body. The most broken of humans. His parents were good people, they would say after he’d gone. It just takes too much to fix these sorts of people. It was too late, the damage was already done, people would reassure themselves. At least they tried. People like Peter are a lost cause.
“Peter,” I said with sudden urgency, “what are you good at? What do you like to do that, you know, makes you happy and stuff?” There was a pause. I sat expectant. His swing slowed more and then stopped.
“Well, um,” he began hesitantly, “when I go grocery shopping with my dad, I always find the best deals.” He sat still. The words started tumbling out then, unbidden. “I’m a good uncle to my brother’s baby. I can color in the lines. I help my grandma clean her house. I’m really good in speech class. I can make sandwiches.”
He sat triumphantly, swaying on his swing. “You can do a lot of things,” I added.
We headed back in silence; his grandma would be at the apartment to take him and a few of his things back to her house. I pulled up and saw a man sitting on the porch steps. “That’s my dad,” Peter said, no longer triumphant, now sullen and resigned, “and I’m staying in your car.”
“I can’t take it anymore. I thought we could do it. He’s just,” he paused, taking another drag, “he’s just so difficult. So we tried. I tried so hard as a father. But I…” and here his voice caught.
“I failed him,” the father finished, letting the words fall like a sigh.
I walked up the yard without Peter. The man’s face was hard and unflinching. He drew on a cigarette. “I can’t take it anymore. I thought we could do it. He’s just,” he paused, taking another drag, “he’s just so difficult. So we tried. I tried so hard as a father. But I…” and here his voice caught.
“I failed him,” the father finished, letting the words fall like a sigh.
The man’s face crumpled and folded like a tent. I heard myself say, “He came to you with such…such a heavy past, and sometimes what we do seems…well, it seems pointless. I guess we work with what we have. You had all the pieces of Peter and you tried as best you could to put them, these broken parts, back together.”
The man closed his eyes, tears pooling in the lines on his face. I walked away as Peter’s grandma pulled up in a rumbling truck. I climbed into my car wishing for Peter…anything. That he would know he was loved. That it wasn’t too late. That the pieces would one day mend. That we all didn’t fail him.
I thought of a poem I had read long ago by Richard Wilbur. A bird was caught in his daughter’s room. He and his child stole in to open a window and retreated behind a cracked door to watch with bated breath as the bird tried again and again to get through to the sky. We provide what we can, we give all we have. But in the end we can just watch and wait, eyes opened. The bird cleared the sill of the world, as Wilbur wrote.
I pulled off the road, grabbed my gloves from the back seat and pulled a knit cap low over my eyes. I walked along a river when I saw the bird. The dove was listing precariously to one side like a ship that had taken on too much water. Slowly I stretched out my hand and stroked its glistening gray-blue head. One eye peered out at the rushing water, the world. I picked up the bird; its warmth filled my hands as I felt the heartbeat steadily, surprisingly strong for such a tiny creature. I turned the dove over and noticed the bloody mess between its feet. I wildly thought that I must rush to the veterinarian and save this bird’s life. I must nurse it back to health, help it recuperate. I must fix this. This was my poem, my broken bird. Its heart beat and one wing reached out, fluttering dimly. It was my turn to close my eyes; I stood very still, the wind breathing for me.
I set the bird behind a fallen log; its eye could continue to watch the flow of the river. The bird still listed. I placed one glove beneath it and one to blanket its sleek back; it would know that someone loved it, I assured myself. It would know that it mattered and that someone sacrificed something for it. It would know, I whispered to the leaves, to the water. I walked away. Don’t look back, don’t look back. I turned. The wind lifted the fingers of the glove into a purple salute. An I’ll-be-all-right-you-did-the-best-you-could wave. Did I? Do we? The moon flickered in and out of the treetops. Clouds drifted across its face like tendrils; a celestial jellyfish. I flexed my ungloved hands open and closed, accepting the chilling bite of the dark air. I wished what I wished for Peter earlier, but now more fiercely. The wind stirred the earth and the leaves sang softly beneath my feet.
Rebecca Minardi is finishing her master’s degree in public health at Des Moines University. She is passionate about working with adolescents to help them become independent young adults. Her essay, excerpted here, appears in the 2012 edition of Abaton, DMU’s annual medical literary journal. She was selected as this year’s recipient of the journal’s $1,000 Richard Selzer Prize, named in honor of the distinguished surgeon, Yale University professor and prolific author.
By Michael Eastman, D.O.’15
What were we doing then, the four of us,
sweating over you with our blades gone dull?
Chest or abdomen or neck,
something like that, not that it mattered.
We were tired, resigned.
Our white coats were stained brown
around our arms and waists.
With forceps and steel probes,
we whittled away at the fat, talking about football,
and movie blockbusters.
A piece of fascia flicked on my face.
And you—you weren’t looking so hot either,
by that point not much more
than a pile of scraps with some legs sticking out.
And we’d be getting to those next.
But as I stood up to stretch my back,
I found myself holding your hand,
your tiny hand,
wondering who had held it before
and if anyone else would hold it again.
Before going to medical school, Michael Eastman, D.O.’15, worked for 20 years and earned a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from Warren Wilson College. He lives with his wife, Jennifer, and two sons in West Des Moines. This poem was among the honorable mentions for this year’s Richard Selzer Prize.