Friday, November 9, 2012

Renaissance man.

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His eyes were distant, in lands unreachable by planes or trains or automobiles. Years of troubled waters from as early as he could remember made those far away places his refuge. I could tell.

There was weight loss. There were symptoms that fingers had tried to be placed upon but couldn't. So he'd just been living his life, doing the best he could. Until eventually those slippery symptoms crystallized into findings pointing toward a real diagnosis. Perhaps there would soon be answers but those answers weren't the kind people like hearing connected to themselves. His waters would soon be troubled even more.

"We need to admit you to the hospital," I said. "I think that's the best thing. What do you think?"

His response was delayed. Like he was returning from those distant lands to join our conversation again. I could tell I needed to repeat myself.

"There's a lot going on with you. Your blood count is low and your body is weak. It would be easiest to manage this for you in the hospital. We want to admit you to start getting you feeling better."

That time he heard. "Now? This morning?"

"Yes, sir. I'm concerned that with your body so weak and your blood count so low that it would be too much if you went home."

His eyes welled up. No words, just wet eyes. I reached for his hand. He let me.

"Are you okay?" I asked.

"I'm afraid."

"Where is your family? Can I call someone to be with you?"

"It's just me. Just me." When he said that, he somehow pulled those tears back just before they fell onto his cheeks. Off his eyes went to those secret places. I squeezed down on his hand to bring him back.

"What can I do to be of support? What would make it easier for you right now?"  This is what I said, and I realize that this was loaded. Lofty, big and full of all the Pollyanna-ness that I have inside of me. Hoping and somehow believing that I could provide something that might make this a little better. Realizing that, from my experiences at Grady, that many times what human beings need isn't as unattainable as I originally thought.

His eye wandered upward then eventually landed upon me like soft raindrops. He thought for a beat before speaking, and then he asked me something that completely took me by surprise. "Do you know of Langston Hughes?"

"Sir?" I asked for clarification. "You mean, the poet Langston Hughes?"

The tiniest hint of a smile began to creep across his face. A twinkle glimmered in his eye for the first time during that encounter. "Yes. The poet Langston Hughes. His words always comfort me. I feel a connection to them. I often recite them. Do you know of his work?"

My heart leaped a little because I do know of his work. I do. I even know some of his poetry by memory and, actually, have felt connected to those words myself. I got lost for a moment, recalling the day I stood on a stage in eighth grade, speaking a piece of Langston Hughes' Harlem Renaissance truth in front of a large auditorium. I still count that experience as one of the most pivotal moments of my life. "Yes, sir. I know his work well. I do."

His eyebrows went skyward. "Is that right, doctor?"

"I'm not even kidding. I was pretty into the Harlem Renaissance movement as a kid. Especially Langston Hughes' poetry. That guy was my go-to biography report subject--for sure." I chuckled at my own confession. Because that was true.

Now he really was smiling. "Wow. . .that's great," he said while sitting a little taller in his chair.  His eyes were dancing so much that I thought he was going to start clapping and squealing in delight. "So tell me. . . do you have a favorite of his poems? You have to have a favorite, Dr. Manning."

"Definitely. It'd have to be 'A dream deferred'," I quickly answered. "Oh yeah! I also love the one that starts with . . .'hold fast to dreams.''"

He tilted his chin upward, closed his eyes and lifted his voice, smooth and sweet like homemade ice cream. "Hold fast to dreams. . .  for if dreams die. . ."

I joined in and we spoke in unison. ". . .life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly. . . .Hold fast to dreams for when dreams go. . . .life is a barren field frozen with snow.'" 

And then just silence.

It was. . . just. . .yeah. I felt my face getting hot and my eyes stinging. This moment, this connection with this human being over a poem I'd learned as a sixth grader was . . . surreal. I wanted to sear it into my mind forever; it felt as dream-like as those words. I needed to break up the emotion so I asked a question. "Which one is your favorite?"

"Aaaah. That's easy. It has to be 'The Negro Speaks of Rivers.'"

I thought for a second and tried to remember it. I knew it was a longer one, one that seemed deeper than my middle school mind could get around back then so I never learned it. But now I was older so I was ready. "I don't remember that one very well. Will you . . .recite it to me?"

I kept my eyes on his after asking and then just waited. Waited to see what he'd do next.

And you know what? He recited it. He did. Cleared his throat and then eloquently, beautifully, perfectly he did.


So after that, he got admitted to the hospital. And, I think, he was just a little less scared. Or at least had found solace in the words of Langston Hughes. In fact, I think we both did.

Yes. His eyes were distant, in lands unreachable by planes or trains or automobiles.  Now I know where he was during those mental journeys. He was thinking of rivers--ancient, dusky rivers and, perhaps, all that had been overcome by those who stood at their banks. Today I imagined him among them. . .feeling those cool waters lapping at his feet and embracing the life that rivers bring.


The Negro Speaks of Rivers

I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world
and older than the flow of human blood in human veins

My soul has grown deep like the rivers

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it
I heard the singing of the Mississippi
when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans,
and I've seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset

I've known rivers
ancient, dusky rivers

My soul has grown deep like the rivers

~ Langston Hughes

Happy Friday, y'all. Those who work here know that this, too, is Grady. The real, beloved piece of Grady that we are so fortunate to know and love--and that now you are, too.

 For my patient--a little piece of the Harlem renaissance--the works of the poet Langston Hughes. 

Always loved this one. . . .

Mos Def pays homage to one of the original "def poets" at Def Poetry Jam.. . .

And a little lesson on the Harlem Renaissance. . .

Think I might teach my boys to recite a little Langston Hughes. Yeah, I think I will.


  1. Poetry is medicine. It should be written on the walls and door jambs and across the lintels.

    1. Hey Nancy! Do you know I almost made a label that said, "Nancy would like this one." I know how you feel about poetry. I am so glad you got a chance to read this post.

    2. Thank you for thinking of me. I very much enjoyed it. If I ever end up in front of you, and you say to me, "I think you need to be admitted to the hospital," I'm going to start quoting Billy Collins... so bone up.

  2. what nancy said...

    plus I AM SO happy (tear of joy!) that you added the option for one tear. so often this is what i feel after reading and reflecting upon your wise words. (well in my case maybe more than a single tear but the sentiment is the same.) so, yay, thank you for this. so beautiful! poetry has been on my mind of late too... it just fits.

    1. Awwww! Hey Spice! Do you know that I LITERALLY added that button after a comment that YOU left. Not even kidding. So yay that you saw it and appreciated it. That has made my morning! :)

  3. I had forgotten about that particular Langston Hughes poem-powerful.

    Maria, fellow Meharrian

  4. Thank you for this. I needed to remember the rivers.

  5. A Grady elder AND Langston Hughes in one post??? Doesn't get much better than that!

    1. You know what, Tounces? When the two of us recited 'Dreams' together I thought, Man, I wish my mom could have been here to witness this.

      Not. Even. Kidding.

  6. Me again. I remember learning "Life For Me Ain't No Crystal Stair" in the 8th grade - still remember it. When President Obama was first elected in 2008, I remember thinking about "I, Too". That poem reminded me, and still does remind me, of him ...

  7. Thank goodness you added that tear button :)
    This story is so poignant. Thank you for sharing this man and this poetry with us.

  8. Wow. Reading this post gave me the chills.

    You know what? Sometimes what we need as a patient is superwoman to come in and save the day. I mean, that would be nice but it would be kind of scary too. I know that what I need most as a patient, especially when I'm afraid, is for someone to be there for me in the moment. And for someone to walk over the bridge into the vulnerable, to hold my hand and remind me that we can bring the good things with us too.

    Thanks for being an amazing doctor and then writing about it for all of us.


    1. We all need people who see us for who we are and love us anyway. Thanks for your words and for doing that for me, too.


"Tell me something good. . . tell me that you like it, yeah." ~ Chaka Khan

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