Colors have new meaning
since the end of you
My favorite always yellow
is stained by the last breath you drew
Yellow once meant sunshine
when the season changed to fall
now it is the color of your skin and eyes
I think not the death of summer
but instead your suffering
Yellow was the stain on your teeth
one last cigarette
Because smoking meant more to you
than not being dead
Now I have a bag at home and
your bones are the contents inside
The bones sit there
in the dark
but I know
that they are yellow too
My dad passed away from liver failure after pancreatic cancer metastasized to his liver. I have had a difficult time interacting with patients since he passed away and have turned to art as an outlet. My dad was a blue-collar man. He was a drinker and a smoker. He had every lifestyle habit that we learn in medical school that puts you at risk for pancreatic cancer. Yet, I found myself surprised when his pale skin and blue eyes started to turn yellow. He became so weak that he could not lift his hand long enough to push his glasses up his nose. His hand would shake, then fall heavy and limp to his side, useless. I have never known more pain than in the moments I slowly watched his body lose one basic function after the other.
I knew his death was imminent when I started medical school. I knew it would be difficult. However, I never guessed that I would bump into classmates in the emergency room when he became septic. I watched my classmate delicately touch his upper abdomen and feel the large tumor in his liver beneath his distended belly — wondering what it would be like to be her instead of me. I never guessed that physicians would start trying to teach me physical exam skills on my own dying father in the intensive care unit thinking they were doing me a favor by showing me positive exam findings on an “uncommon patient.” For months, every time I laid my hands on a patient for a physical exam, they would transform into my father. I would wish over and over that I had not made the association between the death of my father and something as simple as percussing a patient’s abdomen. I felt trapped in a place that would not leave me alone to mourn. Every single day I was confronted by a patient or lecture that took me back to the moments of his death. I never guessed how hard it would be to see another old jaundiced man in the future and know how he would die slowly, painfully, and without grace. Suddenly, the color yellow meant something very different.
Image credit: Custom artwork by the author for this Mosaic in Medicine piece.