The Question You Cannot Answer

Adrianne Soo, MS1, Orthopedic Surgery

It's the job.

You have to explain the scan,

you have to tell them outright,

as much as you wish

you could just show them the images

and then step back silently

with your eyes on the floor.

 

The attendings say it gets easier,

you'll start to learn the words

soft but still true.

So if the child asks:

Is it going to hurt?

you speak concisely

until you reach the bit about the analgesics

(of course you refer to "medicine")

where then you take your time, elaborating

assuring that the nurses will be gentle.

 

If she asks:

Can I still go to school?

you might pause for a moment

as you process your respect for her,

but then the question is an easy one

and your answer flows like milk.

 

If the child looks at you

with those impossible eyes

and asks: Am I going to die?

you uncap the will

to look right back at her,

outsourcing your answer

to the statistics, readying yourself

to sprint against the cracking dikes,

reciting the clinic's resume,

brandishing the poster cases,

the underdog victories, the hope

that pumps true inside your heart.

 

But then there is the child

who cuts straight to it:

What will happen to my parents if I die?

as though she already knows

the prognosis and is ready

to hammer out the will.

You ache to lie to her,

to clasp her to your chest

and insist "You will not die!"

voice pleading her to believe you

pleading for it to be true.

 

It's not that you don't know the answer,

answering with uncertainty is custom,

but rather it's that you can't even begin

to imagine it, what you might do

if your daughter died-

would you ever recover?

Could you ever make love in the same way,

swimming through weightless passion?

Could you walk through the house

where she took her first steps

without your temples clenching

in the haunting chimes of her laughter?

 

It's not a matter of medical opinion.

 

So what do you say?

Because you have to say something.

You could redirect, hurdle the question,

reiterate past successes,

tell her not to worry about that

it won't happen for a while even if it does.

Hell, you'd even do a magic trick

to distract her, maybe give her a lollipop.

Like the moments of your life

all the possible responses flash before you

but when you go to part your lips

all that scrapes its way out

is "I don't know."