Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

How to live like this

Tom Janisse
Portland, Oregon, USA


Tom’s father’s painting of the Nova Scotia shore near his mother’s birthplace.
Courtesy of Tom Janisse

How to live like this

“This is no way to live, Tom,”
my father, Emile, said.

I didn’t hear him say
he was choosing to die,
ready now, wanting to go,
because I wanted him to live.

He disguised his pain
in gentle relations.

Tumor still lived in his thoracic spine
after extraction. Turning hurt,
even transferring from bed
in my arms to a wheelchair
for our neighborhood walks.

That colostomy bag drooped like his identity
from the hole in his belly.
The whole in him seeped out
through his paralyzed legs.

Pain medicine, or pain if he chose,
made him sick, so food
was no sure pleasure.

Joy for dad was our family
called to visit for a summer reunion,
though often he couldn’t join
living room laughter or patio stories,
rest in bed so deeply soothing.

To who did dad say,
“No way to live.”?

Not mom, Rita, who
knew his end coming
but believed not soon.

We all hoped dad fine
next gathering.

Supine that end-of-day,
about to sleep,
mom said, “Emile,
here, a pain pill.
No need to suffer.”

“I don’t feel pain any more.”

“You must have pain, or
you’ll have pain later,
so please take this.”

“Okay, Rita, I’ll take it just for you.”

She carefully placed
the right pill in his mouth,
offered a sip of water.

He closed his eyes,
and passed on.

“This is no way to live,”

“So courageous, dad,
to bear this to stay.”

I live like this with your memory
expressed in verse,
for your family to come.



TOM JANISSE, MD, is the founding editor-in-chief of The Permanente Journal – an international medical and social science journal, in which is embedded a literary and arts journal, leaflet. His published medical writing includes a poem, “Dying Distant,” in the New England Journal of Medicine; a story, “Bring the Bottles,” in the book Emergency Room: Lives Saved and Lost: Doctors Tell Their Stories; a story, “The Soothing Sound of Water,” in the University of Virginia e-journal Hospital Drive; and a short, short story set, “Doctor and Dad,” in the Yale Journal for Humanities in Healthcare.


Fall 2016  |  Sections  |  Poetry

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