We got to know them just a little, for a while,
in the playground behind the hospital,
chaperoned by our other, healthy children
in the sand and swings of early Autumn.
She was French and wore her worry openly,
he ran a business from his mobile phone.
A nice couple. Lives on hold while life went on.
He’d bought a copy of The Jungle Book
and each day enjoyed reading it to his son;
although the boy was far too ill and young
to take it in, he might register something
of his father’s cadence. Just as they’d said
when we arrived: sit beside your boy,
spend time with him, speak, read, sing, anything.
Just let him hear your voice. Create
a comfort zone, terrain, from sound.
My wife sat there for hours on hours
and spoke to him about I don’t know what,
her lips moved silently in silhouette
although I didn’t notice at the time;
there was a job she had to do for him
and so she did it. But I found perching
on a backless stool like a garden gnome
uncomfortable; his brown-yellow skin,
more like a lipid membrane over yolk
than anything that might contain the future,
deprived me of the power to talk.
I sat more with the monitors and tubes,
the CPAP mask, the windows and the floor
than with a real boy. Call this my confession.
I tried to read from books like Mr Strong
but soon pulled out the looped recording
we had made on Dictaphone and let
technology do all my work for me.
Half an hour was often all I stayed
before I headed back to Coram’s Fields
to end my shift early, to talk to those other
mums and dads – or often their mums and dads
looking after other, healthy grandchildren,
or just to stand outside the gate and listen:
to the rhythm of the roundabout, the swing
of swings, the tapped beat of small-booted feet
climbing ladders, and water coursing through veins
scraped into the landscape of a sandpit.
This poem was published in PN Review.