What the Doctor Said
by Ray Carver
He said it doesn’t look good
he said it looks bad in fact real bad
he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before
I quit counting them
I said I’m glad I wouldn’t want to know
about any more being there than that
he said are you a religious man do you kneel down
in forest groves and let yourself ask for help
when you come to a waterfall
mist blowing against your face and arms
do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments
I said not yet but I intend to start today
he said I’m real sorry he said
I wish I had some other kind of news to give you
I said Amen and he said something else
I didn’t catch and not knowing what else to do
and not wanting him to have to repeat it
and me to have to fully digest it
I just looked at him
for a minute and he looked back it was then
I jumped up and shook hands with this man who’d just given me
something no one else on earth had ever given me
I may have even thanked him habit being so strong
Tuesday afternoon I left Ray Carver’s “What the Doctor Said” outside my local polling station and posted the pictures on Twitter. My thought was to provide some perspective on an election which was hyped as a life-or-death-of-the-republic event. Things could always be worse, I tweeted.
I myself was not especially anxious about the election result.
But hours after the sun had set I began to tremble and shake. That’s what I do when I’m nervous. I put myself to bed and left my phone downstairs so I wouldn’t reach for it in the middle of the night to find out who won. The next morning I woke at six and approached my phone with the same dread I had twelve years ago when I answered a call from my radiologist.
When I read the news, I thought, strange that I chose to cover the election with a poem about the shock of getting a cancer diagnosis. All day Wednesday I walked around in a similar state of shock.
If you think I’m being dramatic, well, yes, I am, but then you probably are also someone who’s happy right now.
This begins my story of being given “something no one else on earth else had ever given me,” which is one way to look at the election results.
Foolishly I started my day with a Facebook post, not the best idea when one is in a highly reactive state. I wrote that I was getting off Facebook because reading other people’s Facebook comments made it too hard to behave with “charity towards all and malice towards none.” I planned to wait to the end of the day to de-activate my account so I could see what response I got. Which wasn’t much, it never is, just a few likes, and then unfortunately two comments that sent me into a froth of rage. Both people wrote that they were sure I’d be pleasantly surprised. They meant well, but such tone-deaf, insular views and thinly-disguised gloating made me want to scream till my teeth fell out.
A friend had seen the post and the comments and called to say she was in front of my house, did I want to go for a walk. Yes, please. She was calm. She listened to me vent. What is that they say, she said, You get to tell your story three times and then you let it go. She suggested I try the serenity prayer.
That helped a little. I worked all day, wavering back and forth between trying to be calm and feeding my anger. Later I headed to the grocery store, wary of being around other humans. The people in Krogers might as well have come from central casting for a movie about groups insulted during the campaign. A woman in a hijab, disabled grocery baggers, more black shoppers than I usually see at that particular grocery store, and of course women, women, women of every shape, size and age, few dressed to charm men.
Then I saw a white woman cruising the aisles in a Trump t-shirt. Blond bimbo asshole, I said to myself (I was never good at putting together curse words). I gave her the stink-eye. She failed to notice. I hoped to cross her path again so I could make an even more dramatic face. Wouldn’t that show her.
At the seafood counter, a woman, older and African-American, started talking to me about the rising price of fish. She was a talker, and talkers always send me running in the opposite direction, plus I only had an hour to clean house and cook for my mother-in-law and aunt who were coming for dinner. The conversation kept going, even after I got my salmon and was ready to hurry off. She moved on to various ways to cook fish, and when she heard I was having elderly people for dinner, she talked about how fish is a good meal to serve old folks, how the fish flesh is soft in their old mouths and easy to chew even with sore gums and missing teeth. That was a short step to telling me about her mother, now deceased, and how she took care of her in her last illness and how sometimes they just sat together and had so much fun doing that.
That’s when I stopped wanting to get away from her.
Me too, I said. I used to like to sit next to my mother on the couch, reading. I told her my mother died last May.
Just like that my eyes watered. I was about to cry. She saw it. She opened her arms to embrace me. We hugged.
As she let go of me, she said, when you miss her, just think about all the good times you had. Hold on to that, she said.
The interaction was slightly absurd, two strangers hugging in front of the seafood counter, the seafood clerk watching and waiting for the older woman’s order, the older woman consoling me over something that happened months ago, even though I was initially upset about what happened only a few hours ago.
The interaction between the two characters in Carver’s poem is absurd as well, and darkly funny. The bumbling doctor and shocked patient don’t know how to act with each other. The conversation is dislocated from the awful reality, especially on the patient’s end. He says he’s been given something he’s never gotten before, and out of habit he thanks the doctor. As if he’s been given a gift.
Cancer is sometimes described as a gift. It isn’t, but the perspective it supplies can be. Bad news says, This is the reality, straight up. Focus. Bad experiences bring up hard questions. You can face those questions and act on your answers, or you can look away. What’s important? What do I believe? The doctor in the poem asks,
do you stop and ask for understanding
do you kneel down
in forest groves and let yourself ask for help
For me, leaving the grocery store, I asked if I would react to a hate-filled campaign with hate. Would I sneer at those I disagree with? Would I despair of my country?
And also, would I get dinner made on time?
Later that night, the dishes done, back in bed, back in my head, I pictured all of us Kroger shoppers from above, as if I were looking at fish in an aquarium. I believe in the grocery store, I thought. What a beautiful place. The day after the most divisive, ugly election in recent history, and there we were, shoppers, clerks and baggers all going about our business. Here people of different backgrounds, races, faiths, and political beliefs push carts in peace. They ignore each other, they smile at each other, they let someone with fewer groceries go ahead in line. Sometimes they even connect over shared experience.
These everyday relations, how marvelous.
And out beyond the grocery store, a non-violent transition of power. A graceful concession by the loser. Peaceful protests.
Our democracy, I sing of it. People who think differently, whose lives are different, who want different things, all live together. That is our country. That is our experiment and we continue to work through it.
The lab result is in, but the prognosis is never final. Treatment lies ahead.
For me the treatment begins with how I treat other people.
I’m not going to be hateful. I am not going to make assumptions about why people voted the way they did. People have reasons. People have their own priorities.
Humility is called for. Empathy. And as one of my daughters puts it, love:
Planet Earth, there is so much healing to be done. We know that love is the only way to do it. May we each explore what that looks like in our lives, in the tiniest and vastest of ways, and may we all move forward together. The thought that keeps coming back to me, is that love means looking at the most challenging, ugliest things we can imagine, and keeping an open heart. Do no harm, take no shit, and pour out your heart. We are capable of infinite amounts of love. I’m grieving today. I’m on fire tomorrow.
Ray Carver (1938-1988) is not known primarily as a poet, although he published several books of poetry in his short life. Considered the reviver of the short story form, he’s a fiction writer admired for his spare style and peerless dialogue. Critic Thomas Edwards writes that Carver’s working class characters live in a world where
people worry about whether their old cars will start, where unemployment or personal bankruptcy are present dangers, where a good time consists of smoking pot with the neighbors, with a little cream soda and M & M’s on the side. . . . Carver’s characters are waitresses, mechanics, postmen, high school teachers, factory workers, door-to-door salesmen. [Their surroundings are] not for them a still unspoiled scenic wonderland, but a place where making a living is as hard, and the texture of life as drab, for those without money, as anywhere else
Surely Carver would have been a worthy bard of this election.
He was born in Oregon and raised in Washington. His dad worked in a sawmill, his mother worked various other blue-collar jobs.
At 19 he married his 16-year old pregnant girlfriend, a young woman at a prep school whose mother never forgave him for interrupting the upward course of her life. The couple had two children and worked odd jobs to keep afloat, he as a janitor, flower-picker, gas station attendant, library assistant, she as a waitress and office assistant.
They moved to California where he enrolled in school and found a mentor in novelist John Gardner of Grendel fame, and began publishing his short stories. He was given a fellowship to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, but didn’t complete his MFA in part because he felt out of place among the upper-middle-class students.
Eventually he landed a white-collar job as a textbook editor, and wrote in his spare time. He started teaching, and developed a drinking problem (no connection). He wasn’t able to quit drinking till 1977. Two years later he moved in with poet and writer Tess Gallagher. He and his first wife divorced in 1982. He married Tess in 1988 and died six weeks later of lung cancer.
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