What the Doctor Said

He said it doesn’t look good

he said it looks bad in fact real bad

he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before

I quit counting them

I said I’m glad I wouldn’t want to know

about any more being there than that

he said are you a religious man do you kneel down

in forest groves and let yourself ask for help

when you come to a waterfall

mist blowing against your face and arms

do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments

I said not yet but I intend to start today

he said I’m real sorry he said

I wish I had some other kind of news to give you

I said Amen and he said something else

I didn’t catch and not knowing what else to do

and not wanting him to have to repeat it

and me to have to fully digest it

I just looked at him

for a minute and he looked back it was then

I jumped up and shook hands with this man who’d just given me

Something no one else on earth had ever given me

I may have even thanked him habit being so strong

Carver was given his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer in 1987, and wrote this poem based on that fateful consultation with his physician. It begs questions of miscommunication, misunderstanding and discomfort – of what is said and not heard, of what is heard and not understood and, of course, of what goes unsaid.

“What the Doctor Said” by Raymond Carver, from All of Us: Collected Poems. 

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