I held an iPad for Miguel as he lay in his hospital bed so he could see his family sheltered at home. He was suffocating, this man who at the worst of times would only tell his loved ones, Me siento bien. All around us the equipment of life and death was buzzing, humming, beeping, a stubborn choir of mockingbirds. I turned the camera on myself so they could see the plastic shield, the gown, the precious N95. Outside, a train pulled away from Marble Hill; the city was fleeing. Sunlight gleamed down the Harlem River, catching the red oaks just starting to get their leaves back. It was blinding. It was the first day that felt like spring. I saw a dozen family members on my screen, squeezed into a small apartment somewhere in Washington Heights. A man my age held a young girl in the air; it seemed important that I see her. She was laughing. Another man rose to his feet and began to clap. Soon the whole room was doing this. Someone whooped — for me! What gratitude, like a prayer over my meager talent. I understood they expected me to save him. Miguel turned sixty-six in the ICU. His family gathered outside his window to release balloons into the sky. I watched as they sailed over northern Manhattan. Later that night his daughter called and asked me to sing “happy birthday” to him. And I did. Tranquilo, I learned to say, todo va estar bien. I was lying in a second language. There are few roads back from where Miguel’s body had gone, his lungs full of something like cement. The rest fell in sequence: kidneys, heart, then brain. From the start I knew that when he died it would be like this, alone and pierced with tubes. When his monitor stopped beeping, I peeled his name tag from the door and let my intern call his daughter. I walked home down Dyckman still in my scrubs as neighbors leaned from windows banging pots and pans, swinging matracas, making noise for me. A virus is such a tiny thing to demand so much from us.
This poem was first published in The BEAT, a medical-student magazine at UCLA.