Ultimately, all bets are off

There is no arguing with death, except through art.

Here is a poem I found through an Art of Medicine essay by physician-writer Caroline Wellbery MD in the Lancet. She uses it to talk about the value of medical uncertainty.

Dr. Wellbery's article is worth reading, and so is the commentary that went with it in the May 15, 2010 issue.

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.