Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

A Burglar in the Body – Too Heavy

Jan A. Jahner, RN-BC
Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA

Poet’s statement: In the early weeks of my brother’s cancer journey, both of us were quite ungrounded. “A Burglar in the Body” reflects a snapshot in time. Nine months later he says: “Cancer came with the morning paper, knocking on my door, saying, ‘Guess what? Wake-up time, I’m yours.’”

“Too Heavy” takes place in the morgue, inspired by my first and only autopsy. While invited to attend, I found myself somewhat traumatized by the experience I had entered into without an adequate mentor.


A burglar in the body

Thank you for calling. Thursday
I’ll learn what I’ve got.
Waiting is syrup in winter, you said
waiting is a snowstorm in May, wet
and so heavy the limbs with their leaves can’t bear it.
I needed your call to push me out of the bed,
into the last of the colors,
into the gold in the streets.
I’d rather tell you about the stains on the ceiling,
the cracks in the plaster, the reruns on the tube.
You asked me about my bowels and I hesitated, I didn’t want
to announce improvement.
I wanted you down here, on the bottom rung of every ladder with me,
like when we were kids.
I tell you I’ve had the MRI and CT, you ask “So how was that for you?”
And when I can’t say “dreadful” you’re quiet with me ‘til I swallow my sob
and close the crack in my voice. Then there was your question,
“Who’ll come with me to the next appointment?”
I love you for that, for reminding me I have friends.
The doctor’s words have painted themselves across every surface,
I can’t lock the door, I can’t tell you what I’ve been doing,
but it’s good you ask, you with your career, grandkids, husband, and
savings account, while I wonder if the food stamps will last out the month.
I want you to be our mother, or my fireman, or the safety net 20 stories down
I want this out of my body, this burglar with no eyes.

HandsPhotography by Mrs. Logic


sevensPhotography by Cordey Too heavy

Forty-eight hours ago she was shoving
quarters in the slot machine at Lucky’s
sucking on a cigarette, Beth and Charlie
safe in high school, the laundry
still in the washer, the sink
full from breakfast
her shift at Wendy’s not till three.
She was hoping for the big one
and it came.

His scalpel starts with a cross-cut to chest
slicing through cold, tight tissue that smells of meat
and blood and sweat. Things feel clinical and casual,
the microphone light glows green, clipped
to the grey rubber apron—
his plastic shield, gloves, and booties encase his running
reverent report.

Forty-seven hours and fifteen minutes ago I’d led the code—
her bulging body beneath my locked wrists,
my rhythmic one and two and three and
passionate for one so young.

Creamy white lines her vessels like icing
her heart a stippled, marbled construction—
creamy white in her liver, creamy white in her lungs.
The coroner in his grey plaid suit, toothpick between his teeth, hair
slicked to the left with Brill-cream
says he “ thought so” and shrugs
both of us
wear aprons, too.

The pathologist has placed the heart on his table
He’d found the infarct, the ribs we busted
asks me to adjust the lights, I’m above her
looking into the cavity of her life
wishing we could stop invading
her privacy, wishing
to apologize for wanting to know, like sins
creamy white in the pelvis
creamy white in the brain.

I’m helping hose down the table
but I can’t get clean.


JAN A. JAHNER, RN-BC, CHPN, PMO, needed to understand some of her nursing experiences, and found writing a relaxing expressive outlet. She started her career in the emergency room. The adrenaline became a toxic substance, and she moved to end-of-life care where the pace and people seemed to have more heart. Jahner has just completed a chaplaincy program and is a palliative care specialist, using a contemplative approach to enliven her experiences and relationships.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Summer 2012 – Volume 4, Issue 3

Summer 2012  |  Sections  |  Poetry

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