A Patient Record
In the United States, 周 ends my name.
In China, 周 begins it.
Grandma never touched school.
Couldn’t read her own name,
but ran numbers in her mind
like blinks of an eye.
Great-uncle was the only boy,
the only one allowed words
as Grandma and her sisters
brushed his room, boiled his food.
Bitter for my Grandma,
I ask what he makes
of his privileged pen,
his manhood, his career.
Instead I hear how
this only son’s
only son worked
down in a coal mine
and one day got shut
in the earth forever;
how Great-uncle was
not entirely there after.
Meanwhile, Grandma was a doctor.
Barefoot doctor, trained but still
unschooled; the countryside’s answer
to medical shortage.
She welcomed newborn
farmers to the fields,
eased ill and old growers
on their way back into soil.
After college, I move
to a small country town
to learn about medicine.
I read, I run numbers in my mind.
I think of Grandma,
how my surname is hers too.
Later, I realize I’ve confused
Half a globe and two deaths away,
they form one woman in my mind.
In China, they are 姥姥 and 奶奶.
In the United States, they are Grandma.
My mother’s mother doctors.
My father’s mother births
my father with her name
after my father’s father flees.
English can lack clarity,
but I refuse to take the ability
to read and write all my family
names for granted.
Date of Birth:
A girl dreams of a doll
A man dreams of a son
A woman dreams of a life of her own
I was in the world
I was something like air
but then I was born.
On a Sunday afternoon, the wind turns a girl sister, a man father, and a woman
When the nurse hears my name for the birth certificate, she says Isn’t that an old
woman’s name? Of course: I’ve already been here too long. I’ll live as a question
that ages every fall.
Whose dream did I answer?
Did I answer?
Mom nurses me at night and attends nursing school by day.
A year later, she stops nursing me, and starts nursing hospital babies who grow newer
as I grow older. She nurses at my birthplace, alongside the doctor who delivered me.
Years later, he holds a reunion of lives he’s brought to the world.
Will you join us to celebrate?
I have no space for more questions. I toss the invitation.
The first man to hold me stays in the past, where he belongs.
As a child, I needle my mom
for diagnoses every time I get sick–
Flu? Cold? Allergy? Bug? Curse?
Medicine is the Answer; I will treat
it as one when I ask
what to do with my life.
In that farm town for future doctors
I bloody my own finger
to practice glucose checks.
I watch doctors’ demeanors
to determine who I want to be.
I feel not good enough.
If I only had a brain,
is not what I wonder.
I already think too much;
I want a heart (bigger, stronger)
and dare I sing it–a home.
I watch tornadoes
drop old houses
onto their ghosts.
Here, ruby glitter is only
what deer do after dark,
and steel cars.
A hoof heel-clicks
in wind for a faraway field.
There’s no trace but bone
There’s no trace but bone–
dry burntout self after
the service year ends;
I can look after
only myself the next year.
My answer was not an answer.
I move from country to city.
I scavenge a temp job
and take up a tablet
preloaded with voter addresses
alongside other 20-somethings
desperate for paychecks.
We go home
to home, push door
bells for hours
and make too little money for it.
It’s not white out yet,
but we walk toward winter.
temple to temple
my head is full of prayer:
please, nobody answer the door.
One shift, my prayer is answered
and eighty doors aren’t.
But the boss is extra high
and I start to worry
about my numbers.
The eighty-first door, my last:
an old man in a wool sweater appears;
he’s familiar with the work,
he supports it, he smiles, he nods.
Yes, I can hear already,
when I ask if he’ll take a survey.
I’d love to hear your answers!
and simply walks back
into the house.
• Brown sugar hotteok & vanilla ice cream–take 1x at breakfast before running to SEPTA station. Take last possible train to work–be almost late. Be almost fired. Be almost done with job, but instead keep running, keep ringing, keep making money to make rent and more hotteok and ice cream.
• Cheese chips–take 1x at lunch break, on any dusty For Sale stoop you can find. Substitute with beef jerky from backpack if it would take entire lunch break just to reach nearest grocery store.
• A whole tomato pie–accidentally step in 1x on sidewalk during work. Man walking out of funeral will watch you and sigh.
• Your leg–loose dog will take 3x bites during work and land you in urgent care.
Actually, not you, but almost. Supervisor will screech up to your curb and wait until you’re buckled in before explaining what happened to your shift partner. You will never see him again. For his sake, you and your coworkers hope he faked the story to get out of this job.
• Spicy instant ramen & fried egg–take 1x at dinner while watching any YouTube video that lets you forget who you are.
• Whatever else puts grease between you and the day–take as needed.
1AM: Woken by a tidal wave; instead of the usual anxiety, it’s a contraction in the center of my chest. WebMD is awful for these things, so of course I read it on my dummy little phone and sweat. This could be a Heart Attack–or just Heartburn. I bet on Heartburn, forage for Tums, and knock back two dusty tabs. Back to bed.
3AM: Storm surge and the wave is full of sharp shell shards and it won’t recede I can’t remember if insurance covers ambulances I don’t have the money to test this I call a cab to the ER and try not to alarm the driver I silently die a little inside every time we hit a pot hole I crawl out the car and through the walk up entrance The triage receptionist is nonchalant while I hold my body together It’s so hard to speak with her through the thick glass pane THE PAIN ISN’T A THING YOU CAN SEE I think at her YOU HAVE TO TRUST ME WHEN I TELL YOU IT’S THERE
They stick me behind a curtain and forget I’m there.
I’m patient. I fall asleep and forget who I am.
Hour, hour, hour, hour:
then the curtain parts, white enters, and I wake from a poem–
Look back into the snow and ask whether God can sing.
The white turns coat, turns man in white coat, who asks me a question.
Still in a half-dream, I gesture at my chest. It hurt so bad I couldn’t breathe right.
And what could it be? I walk a lot. I’m out in the cold. I wonder how dark and quiet God can be. I eat things not right for me. I am lonely. I think too much. I think about money, or not enough of it. I sleep badly. I am heartbroken.
I scatter a handful of this into his coat pockets.
Past Medical History:
though I should say man,
from that farm town of future doctors
is training to be one in this city.
He broke the heart of a friend,
another farm town doctor-to-be.
I broke mine on one
who was his friend, and her friend,
and once mine.
I was about to say I love you.
It rattled against my ribs
and as if sensing it
this friend read me
a Davis story that ended
with heartbreak and an old shirt.
In it, I love you was an awkward
obligation, to hear it back,
or to awkwardly not.
In it, pleasure did not make
pain worth it. Love was a mistake
one kept committing anyway.
I remembered visiting a patient
at church the other week;
the pastor had us all hug
and say I love you,
and there’s nothing you can do about it.
I did it then, but here I balk.
Speak now, or forever hold my piece.
I hold it in.
Physical Exam–Tenderness: There is no guarding or rebound.
As I blink off my poem and look at the doctor,
I can’t help but see him, old boy, in the dark
beard, the gold-rim glasses, the soft voice.
The year must be too new;
I must have asked the cab for the wrong day.
The driver pushed the gas
and left me at the future.
My brain said, say any hospital but that, but that,
so my throat simply repeated the that.
This must be him,
(not the one I loved, but still a mutual connection point, a tangential reminder, like almost anything is–any cloud, bossa nova song, blue sedan, yellow shirt, old pair of sneakers, spiral shell, jar candle, blackberry bush, fine-tipped marker, tomato seedling, rolled sleeve, plate of scrambled eggs, burned CD, old kayak, receding figure in the rearview mirror)
a medical degree, a gold ring, and fine-lined decades later.
Here, he’s known me longer than I’ve been alive.
The white coat, old, old friend, turns his pockets inside-out.
And what could it be?
Acid Reflux. Heart Attack. Kidney Stone. Stomach Flu. Pregnancy.
Hard to know at this moment, he says, like a stranger.
He doesn’t know me after all.
He doesn’t know who we are, or when.
This is the stupidly correct hospital. Not his. It is today. It is this hour.
Mental Status: Memory normal. Patient is alert and oriented to person, place, and time.
The doctor touches an ankle and there is pee in a cup and there is a wire everywhere he feels a pulse. Ribs, wrists, throat, feet.
The body stays still,
still, it stays–
not time to go back
into the earth, and everything.
All this to hear Your heart is fine. Something went wrong, he admits, but he can’t figure out what. There’s no pain to fix right now, which means
Go through the sliding glass and it turns out the world is morning and near-freezing. Wind dries tears still in the eyes. Clutch discharge papers and shirt to the skin. Current property: more paper, another question.
In the mind: Cold, and Dying, but mostly, God, So Hungry.
Bus home, record dream-poems, boil miyeok and miso in a big white pot, and go back to bed.
Review of Symptoms:
At the follow up, I tell the nurse I don’t think it was the food–I ate sweet hotteok and spicy ramen a few weeks later and slept fine.
You’re brave, she says, without admiration.
Mental Status: Judgment normal.
She has no answers and sends me home with a printout. At the top, a cropped two-body picture: a hand clutches its headless chest while the other torso, expressionless, notes this on a clipboard.
Treatment / Refused Treatment:
Fresh from the hospital, from hell-edge, I gather my pieces and hold them holy. The
chest pain never returns.
I toss out the calls for proton pump inhibitors and laxatives. I find a new job that lets
me stay home for winter, and break my canvassing contract a luxurious two days
early. You look like you’re going to cry, the boss says at my last shift debrief. I’m about to, I
say, from relief, I think. I nearly fly out of that 52nd Street McDonald’s.
I prescribe myself new rituals. I close my eyes and open to a page in Rilke’s Book of
Through the empty branches,
the sky remains.
It is what you have.
My first snow in the city falls a month later and I listen closely to the rattle-radiator,
the shake-glass, the drip-ice. I name them on the page, and they are full of questions.
They are what I have.
And what could it be?
Maybe looking into snow, maybe holy song, maybe riding into the future.
Did I answer?
Unknown. For now, I wait and listen.
I begin to sing along.
Mary Zhou is an artist based in Philadelphia. Their work is published or forthcoming in Oversound, Philadelphia Stories, and Philadelphia Contemporary’s Healing Verse Poetry Line.