|Section 2 Exercise 3 My Father's Autopsy
Overview: This exercise explores the relationship between the 'art' of interpersonal relationships and the 'science' of diagnostic and physical interpretation. The language we use often reflects our purpose. We use a scientific, abstract language in pursuing the science of medicine. To enhance the quality of our relationships, we need to increase our awareness of the language we use. In health care, we must understand how medical language often excludes language that connotes warmth and relationality. Conversely, emotional language often connotes lack of rigor and clarity.
The following is a poem by Georgetown University professor David Gewanter, published in a collection of poems, In the Belly. Professor Gewanter's father was a pathologist. The poet envisions himself as a young boy who accompanies his father to the morgue to watch him perform an autopsy. He articulates the contrast between his own perceptions and his father's.
Read Gewanter's poem and answer the discussion questions on the next page.
My Father's Autopsy
by David Gewanter
The one he did, that is, and took me to
when I was 13. I turned as white as
the old woman lying naked there;
but as he clanked out tools I inspected her
quickly, the dead cinder of her nipples,
the stiff tuft at her crotch ("Still black?
Wouldn't it turn gray?"). Dad took stock
of her length, weight, muscle tone, telling me
or the microphone how she lived,
what made her sick. "Like being a detective,"
he said, "except I answer my own questions.
Here; touch this." But I wouldn't, and
I wanted her body to resist interrogation,
prayed weirdly she never said "aah" for a doctor.
Then he slit and sawed her down the middle –
she opened as easily as a yam, or a duffel
bag; dipping delicately in, Dad scooped
out a handful of stuff, all jumbly
like underwear from Mom's dresser. He
read her guts like a priest: proving
the tubes, slicing wafers from her heart,
so thin they would glow under lens-light –
at last she yielded him a brown pebble
which I felt between his finger and thumb;
then he put it back. Death's story, deduced from
facts hard as bone – as he talked me through it,
I could hear the joyful lift in his voice….
He had little patience for his house,
its prattling unready anatomies,
his wife's "incompetent housekeeping";
at night he sat over journals and drinks,
compact, severe, inward as a microscope.
Now he's home all day waiting for the mail,
hasn't cut a corpse for years. He calls
every weekend, his news familiar
as a backache, and we talk without fear.
Once I thought my pen would open him here
like the corpse on its single pan of judgment;
but as I cover this pan with pages
he is alive on another one.
David Gewanter, In the Belly, University of Chicago Press. Copyright David Gewanter, with permission