When by Heather A Davis

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Narrated by Heather A Davis


Heather A Davis, "When"
Illustration by Sue Babcock
When you’re so sick you can’t hold your head up
but the doctor finally listens, tells you that you’ve had
thyroid cancer for five years and you rage and scream
the world down around you

When you’re swallowing a pill full of radiation
in a hospital room next to one of the kindest men
you’ve ever met, a hospital worker, who holds your hand
and is crying because he has the same thyroid cancer

When they say this is the ‘good’ cancer even though
others are dying from it, yet they’ve just issued guidance
against life-saving neck checks

When you become a pre-existing condition

When you go to a lawyer to draw up your will
and power of attorney, then go to the cemetery
to pick out your burial plot as you put away
the thought that you’re too young for this

When you lose almost every friend because
they’re scared of what’s happening to you
and don’t understand your erratic emotions
or they’re sick of hearing how sick you are

but you don’t blame them because you want
to run as far away from this as you can, too

When you avoid email and all social media,
but hand-write letters to former friends, lovers,
to thank them for their kindness for the good
things they did for you, but you leave off

your return address and you don’t tell them
you have cancer because it’s too painful
to think about them not writing back

When you lie on the floor every night,
begging, pleading, bargaining for your life
with a God you’re so afraid of, who you believe
is punishing you or teaching you a ‘lesson’

and you’re too afraid to utter a bad word,
think a bad thought, do a bad deed, give a bad
look to another human being, because if you do
the right thing, it will all go away

When your surgeon chooses to leave
a small remnant of the tumor and doesn’t
have to cut your vocal cord nerve
that would take away your ability to speak

When you’ve fought so long against
the ‘cult of positivity’ and you have to face
the impact hope can have
because despair is a great redeemer

When you finally find a support group,
who show you that you’re not alone,
who know exactly what you’re going through,
who encourage you every day

to arrest your falling apart, and you understand
that your anxiety is too high from chemicals
controlling the imbalance, but your endocrine
system starts to level out with the right medication

so that in time, you can do the same for others
When you finally listen to your colleagues
and start that PhD and the professors are willing
to take a chance on you; you decide you’ll show up
for your life just like they are showing up for your life

When you write for the first time
Over the next five years…

When you’re walking, dancing, moving
and start to really feel the miracle
of chemistry and movement, that numinous
connection, which nothing else can produce

When for the first time in your life, you know
your body is not the enemy and when you’re lying
on the floor in the darkness with only the cats
around you, but now thanking God

and you start to feel there is love,
and you can no longer go, even a second, without
being plugged into that love and joy and peace

When you reconcile that no matter what happens
or whatever you did or whatever you ate or drank
or for that matter what you didn’t,
that it’s not your fault you have cancer

When you can think of the future, take risks, go back
into the world again, and start meeting amazing people—
doctors, nurses, teachers, politicians, journalists,
secretaries, cleaners, farm workers, artists—

who are working for healthcare rights
because they’re just like you
and you raise your voice with theirs
because you still have a voice

and you’re not going down without a fight
when there is so much and there are so many
to fight for 
	and you see life ahead


(A prose version of this poem was previously published in VISUALIZE HEALTH EQUITY: A Community Art Project http://nam.edu/visualizehealthequity/#/artwork/8)

BIO: Heather A Davis is a writer and healthcare activist, and is currently pursuing her PhD in Human Geography / Health Inequities at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She is a dual US/UK national, born and raised in the Knoxville area. She lived, studied and worked in Baltimore and Scotland for many years. Her work has appeared in the Knoxville Mercury and the National Academy of Medicine’s Visualize Health Equity community art permanent online gallery. She won first place (while a second piece was a finalist) for Literary Short Fiction in the 2017 Autumn Contest (Knoxville Writers’ Guild). She currently resides in Knoxville, TN.