Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Bone headdress

Susan Sample
Salt Lake City, Utah, United States

After artwork created by a person with cancer


A white cow skill with white roses on a white background. A black stripe runs down near the center of the background behind the cow skull.
Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses. Painting by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1931. Art Institute of Chicago. No known restrictions on publication.

Why tens of bones linked
with silver chain into
an earthly veil?

I gaze at other entries:
hand-stitched quilts
with undulating seams.

I am accustomed
to O’Keeffe’s painting
of the lone cow skull;

Ezekiel’s story
of dry, disconnected
bones strewn in a valley

until divine breath
binds bone to tendon,
skin to flesh: a promise

of life
the bone headdress
cannot make.

To even try it on
is to suffer

of our mortality
clattering, awful
as the polished femurs.


Editor’s note 

The artwork that inspired this poem can be found in Lilly Oncology on Canvas: Expressions of a Cancer Journey (2008). 

According to the author of the poem, “the bone headdress to me represents our mortality and the awareness of our own death, always imminent. When we ‘try on’ the headdress, we ‘suffer’ existential questions that have no answers, unlike the biblical story that offers a resolution.” 

The cow’s skull was found by Georgia O’Keeffe after a drought in New Mexico in the summer of 1930 among many animal skeletons scattered about in the desert. She had the skull sent to New York and later painted it. 

Cows are gentle creatures revered in many cultures as symbols of fertility and renewal, connected to Mother Earth, nature, and reproduction.  

Ezekiel was a Hebrew prophet during the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century BC. His prophesies about the resurrection of the dry bones are found in the Bible in Ezekiel 37, in which he is empowered by the Lord to make the bones breathe, cover them with tendons and skin, and bring them back to life.



SUSAN J. SAMPLE, PhD, MFA, is the writer-in-residence at Huntsman Cancer Institute, University of Utah, where she works with patients and caregivers. At the School of Medicine, she directs the Initiative in Narrative, Medicine, and Health, teaching reflective writing and bringing students and physicians into conversation with patients. She has published poetry in literary and medical journals, ranging from Tupelo Quarterly to JAMA. Her books include Voices of Teenage Transplant Survivors: Miracle-Like (Emerald Publishing, 2021), and two chapbooks, Terrible Grace (Finishing Line Press, 2011) and Some Unsayable Blue (2019).


Spring 2022  |  Sections  |  Poetry

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