The Thirteenth Floor
And not to have is the beginning of desire.
—Wallace Stevens, “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”
Enter the clatter and clutter of the thirteenth
floor, the chaos of children under clinical
light. This is the land where they wait, thin
as spidery ferns, in wheel chairs hooked
to Critikons feeding nourishment. Vital signs
dot the halls: Phlebotomy Room, Disposal Area,
I have AIDS, please hug me. Pandas and Mickey
Mouse sprawl, Clue spews from a broken box.
Parents and grandparents sit among untouched trays,
rise stiffly to coax their tiny wards to examining
rooms. Pagers and phones ring. Loudspeakers call
someone, somewhere. Ask the child why she’s crying.
She weeps words of rage at her Snoopy bandaid.
Her arm is wet from mourning the all-gone Pocahontases.
She will not speak of her bruises or blond curls
soon to fall, nor of the four years her parents
count by days and hours. You will not see beyond
the hot waiting room, behind swinging doors into
labs that never close, refrigerators filled with
tissue and blood, into computers choked with trials
and data banks, into the work, the work, the work
of piecing fragile bit by bit. Imagine the nausea,
loss of hair, a lung, childhood, a child, the world
of grandparents, foster parents, aunts, uncles,
lovers burying a lost generation and carrying on.
Feel the night sweats, not just from drugs, disease,
but because of earthquakes and shear drops, sudden
plummets in funding, research, hope. This is the country
where a child grieves Pocahontas, the warrior princess,
well-woman flag she wants to raise on her bruised, stuck
arm. Fierce desire fills the room. Look out the window.
This is the height where white geese fly at eye level,
where snow crystals turn to rain, where the sun
suddenly breaks through. Turn back. This is the land
of doctors, nurses, staff stopping, stooping, scouring
cabinets and pockets, searching for the right bandaid.
Desire and determination, passports to the thirteenth
floor, stamped day after day, in a harbor where
a child finally smiles, pointing to Pocahontas
on her raised arm just below a small, sacred fist.
Davi Walders is the author of the poetry collections Women Against Tyranny: Poems of Resistance During the Holocaust (Clemson University Digital Press, 2011), Gifts (Orit Editions, 2001), and Afternoon in the Garden (Orit Editions, 2000). From the mid 1990s until 2005, she was director of the Vital Signs Poetry Project at the Children’s Inn at the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute Clinical Center in Bethesda, MD. The Project was supported by a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry to provide support and writing opportunities to families whose children were HIV patients at NIH during the years of clinical drug trials. The thirteenth floor of NCI was the location of the conference room where Walders and her colleagues held writing seminars.
This poem appeared in Cancer Poetry Project: Poems by Cancer Patients and Those Who Love Them (Fairview Press, 2001), edited by Karin B. Miller, and was previously published in JAMA.