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Editors Commentary on "The Week After Your Death"

 , March 31, 2019

Chang’s piece “The Week After Your Death,” is a poem about becoming: about becoming alive and human, as in the birth of a baby, and about becoming a ghost and a memory, as in the death of the character to whom this poem is addressed. But mostly (and subtly, as it took me multiple readings to notice), this poem is about becoming a doctor.

As the patient teaches the narrator, our evolutions and transformations are not as public as we may have imagined they would be. Despite what we might learn on various television dramas, a doctor is not born during the fanfare of a frantic code. There are no “guns firing and crowds bawling.” The moments that turn us into physicians are quieter and more fluid, like mist “becoming apparent,” like the swell of an expansive and unknowable ocean.

The narrator begins to realize this in the final stanza. The first line “I become aware,” can stand alone, as it represents the larger lesson to be learned. Yes, the narrator has been corrected and casts their gaze downward in a mark of humility. But on the quiet walk to the call room, they are reminded of their own connection to someone they lost. This moment is small, devoid of “marches and dirges,” and signals a weakening of the divide between worlds. In this quiet, simple moment, the doctor’s humanity bleeds into their work, like the wave of a dark ocean sweeping across the sand.

We learn in medicine that the divisions between life and death, presence and loss, human and doctor, are as solid as mist. And when we lean into those moments, reflect on times when we were humbled by our patients or experienced personal loss, we become aware; we become doctors.

Mara Feingold-Link