In May of this year, my pregnant daughter’s friend lost a baby two weeks before its due date. My daughter sobbed the news to me via cell phone, gasping, “I feel so guilty that I’m still pregnant!” Five weeks later, two days after she gave birth to a healthy girl, I dismounted badly from a horse; my blown knee collapsed under me, and I knew, horribly, that my grandmothering summer was over, faded into surgery and rehab.
The vulnerability, insights, and rueful humor that inevitably accompany such events are celebrated in The Examined Life, “a new print journal published biannually by the Writing and Humanities Program at the Carver College of Medicine” and edited by Bruce P. Brown, MD. Similar in its origins and goals to The Bellevue Review, though newer, less established, and therefore more modest in scope, The Examined Life “intends to deepen and complicate our understanding of healthcare and healing, illness, the human body, and the human condition.” In fulfilling this purpose, the journal is deeply appealing.
Because of my own surgery, I liked Elizabeth Burk’s poem, “Recovery Room” (“Kindly gnomes rush to and fro / . . . as I lie swaddled, nursing / from tubes, a newborn . . .”). Because of my daughter’s friend, I was drawn to “Honeysuckle,” by David Nichols, a scene between a husband and wife who lost a baby a year ago. The husband wants to welcome the memories, but the still-grieving mother protests, “You want memories? You can have mine . . . I don’t want them. But they’re carved in my body. I see my memories every time I shower.” It’s not just the mother’s grief that elicits empathy—it’s the rift between the parents, the chasm between their desires a year after tragedy, that “complicates [their] understanding of the human condition.” There is not a piece in the issue that isn’t rich with sensory detail and rightly-earned emotion. Not a piece feels strained or sentimental.
Flavian Mark Lupinetti’s short story, “Surgical Mortality,” is brilliantly crafted. Narrated by the chief of pediatric cardiac surgery in a West Virginia hospital, it reveals this man’s uncharacteristic fondness for one of his new interns, Danny, through anecdotes showing how smart, how personable, and how like the chief Danny is. Danny calls the chief “Skip,” and the chief calls all his interns “Jim.” But we discover—with the narrator—that Danny was not what he seemed. “I blame that fella Skip,” his brother says. “That year workin’ with Skip, that tore him up sorely. . . . How could the sonofabitch not of noticed? Next time you see Skip, tell him Danny’s death was on him.” Talk about complication! The narrator says, “I need to get back to work. I have . . . a new resident to train. . . . His name is Kamal. I’m going to call him Kamal.”
“Salt River,” written by the survivor of an accident that cost her two members of her family, is full of pain. The accident is re-created in necessary detail; her courage to go on is hard-won: “On my good days, when I’m not tired, I can safely talk about Raymond without crying. On days when I cannot, I don’t mention him. . . .Describing these feelings to someone with no knowledge of tragedy . . . is a challenge.” She meets the challenge not to garner admiration, but to set down the truth. This and many other pieces in this issue are hard to forget.
The poetry is equally memorable. Witness, among many fine poems, “Dread,” a beautifully-crafted sonnet by Linda Malm about a mammogram and its results; “The Coffin Shroud,” a stunning villanelle about a soldier’s premature death by James Christensen; and “ICU Nightshift” by Shawn Fawson, whose final image captures the complicated dynamic between a son and his dying father (“From the monitor’s left edge / green lines spike and flash across the screen—one / chained dog after another jumping to break free.”).
There is humor here, too, and speculative fiction. Kathleen Lind’s short essay, “The Nicest Young Men,” shows her aged, arthritic mother happily taking advantage of a series of Mormon missionaries who come to her door to deliver spiritual healing but end up doing her much-needed house work instead. Some solemn point about the healing power of service could be made here, but Lind chooses to give a wink to the wiles of her mother and the eager willingness of the earnest young men. And Carolyn Lieberg’s “Alyce’s Version” asks what any of us would think if we knew we had a gene for immortality.
This new journal is excellent. The cover, a paper-filigree diagram of the workings of the muscles under the skin in the face, symbolizes its purpose to bring together the art, the heart, and the reality of medical knowledge. If you’re human, you’ll like The Examined Life.