Molly Peacock

Notes From Sick Rooms
September 25, 2020 Peacock Molly



I have often wondered why it is considered a proof of virtue in anyone to become a nurse.
–Julia Prinsep Stephen, NOTES FROM SICK ROOMS, 1883

Who really wants to be a caregiver?
A kindness for the sick, a calling for
home-nursing the way Virginia Woolf’s mother
described it—I could not tumble further
down into that self-free place. That was where
she found herself—as she slipped in behind
the fretfulness and want and fear of their
faces in need. She saw who she was there.
But I hated giving what I barely had away.
Losing myself in the tunnel of need,
down the gravityless jumble of trays
cups, pills, towels… Then listening: to heed
the little voice, the yelp, the moan, the diminished
sound of the sick’s claim. Because I was unfinished,
I faked it with efficiency.



When helping the patient to eat or drink, the nurse should support the head with her hand
and tilt the cup or glass gently, but sufficiently.
–Julia Prinsep Stephen, NOTES FROM SICK ROOMS, 1883

Faking it with efficiency came early,
the young self diverted into crisp plans.
A girl of twelve, cooking for her family
(giving recipes to her mother’s friends!)
President of the sixth grade, all A’s
except for math and gym. Which child is cold?
The efficient one. My parents’ haze…
their dreams almost dreamed…their hopes’ fractured mold
unable to make more hope, made me seek
a perfect outside, organized, promises met.
I’m not a baby! (Though I was.) Or weak.
(Who isn’t weak? The sick are.) You can bet
on me to come through
! My sturdy outside
like a stout cup, a thick glass, empty inside.



The ordinary relations between the sick and the well are far easier
and pleasanter than between the well and the well.

–Julia Prinsep Stephen, NOTES FROM SICK ROOMS, 1883

Like a stout cup, a thick glass, empty inside,
the warm brew of mistakes and apologies
that makes a being human I decided
could never belong in me—what would fill
me was vigilance, always having to
be ready for emergencies.
Happily occupied and unaware…well,
that’s a childhood where they say I love you.
Both you and I said that as kids.
Caregiving wasn’t part of us. We just were.
Then we grew up and lost each other. When
I found you again, you’d been sick. Future: blur—
Newlyweds! A cancer survivor’s wife. Back then
I didn’t realize I was the invalid.



There is, let us confess it (and illness is the great confessional), a childish outspokenness in illness; things are said, truths blurted out…
–Virginia Woolf, ON BEING ILL, 1930

How could I know I was an invalid?
That growing up too soon invalidated
childhood? Maturing falsely lifts the lid
of adulthood so fast. Childhood isn’t shed.
It’s looked for again and again. When it’s found
as I found you—you were thirteen when I
saw you bouncing your leg beneath a desk
in the classroom across the hall, my des-
tiny darling—then childhood doesn’t die.
Pandora’s box? A toybox. (True growth refound.)
Along with lifting that secret door
to find a world fresh as a robin’s egg
came illness—appearing at love’s first stage.
I’m surprised I don’t hate you more.


The meat must be cut up into dice, all fat and skin being removed, and placed in a
jar with a little salt, and enough water to cover the meat. This jar, which must have
either a lid or a thick cloth tied over the top, is then placed in a saucepan of water on the
fire and left to stew. In three hours a cup of strong beef-tea is procured.

–Julia Prinsep Stephen, NOTES FROM SICK ROOMS, 1883

I’m surprised I didn’t hate my sister more.
Born ill, a preemie after the War,
she lay in a glass-topped incubator
while our mother lay still, at home in bed.
How good I was at playing quietly
(isn’t poetry playing quietly?)
by her side or at the foot of her sickbed.
At her door, with beef broth, appeared Grandmother.
Julia Prinsep Stephens applauds beef tea.
I was never closer to my mother
than playing there, age three, with us three,
before a squalling sick infant was slipped
beneath our skin like a pox to inoculate
against pure love. Now love and illness mixed.



As all nurses should know something of cooking, and be ready to prepare food for their patient, I will begin with the invalid’s food. The nurse must of course see all the food before it is given to her patient.
–Julia Prinsep Stephen, NOTES FROM SICK ROOMS, 1883

Pure love, pure feeling, not love and illness mixed,
is like pure taste—the way kids won’t mix
foods on their plates, each flavor separated.
(Too bad grownup plates aren’t divided.)
With the purity of ginger chopped and brewed
I hated my sister. Such hatred cleared
the nostrils! My hatred of you combines
the salt-cinnamon of fury with thyme spines
of fear, the bay leaf of wariness,
and at 7pm I love-hate you most,
the exact time I used to deliver
dinner on your drug trial—timing those roast
fucking parsnips…that’s a love-cleaver.
A caregiver really is a mother.



It may seem difficult to follow this advice, but it is not.
Cheerfulness is a habit…
–Julia Prinsep Stephen, NOTES FROM SICK ROOMS, 1883

A caregiver really is a mother.
How exhausting it is to mix the roles up.
Couldn’t I ever just be a lover?
That’s like longing for a plate divided up…
“If an invalid has to be fed, the meat
must be cut up most carefully, the patient’s
tastes being scrupulously observed.” Meet
Julia Prinsep Stephen, Queen of Patience.
I just can’t separate my contempt from
my admiration—why admire a woman
who didn’t think women should vote? Devote.
Her devotion made imaginary moats
like the ridges on a child’s ceramic plate.
Love was love and hate was hate.



Among the number of small evils which haunt illness, the greatest, in the misery
which it can cause, though smallest in size, is crumbs. The origin of most things has been decided on, but the origin of crumbs in bed has never excited sufficient attention among the scientific world, though it is a problem which has tormented many a weary sufferer.
–Julia Prinsep Stephen, NOTES FROM SICK ROOMS, 1883

Love was love and hate was hatred for crumbs.
The “evil existence” of the “torrent of crumbs”
ignored by “the scientific world” is,
for caregiver and patient, on a par
with itches, bites, hangnails and slivers, points
of irritants that funnel the focus
so the plains of illness tornado to a point.
Yet it is simply a matter of sheets
to be swept, puffed and turned—Julia repeats
a caregiver’s wet hands will calm the fuss
the patient makes by running damp fingers
into the crevasses till every crumb is gone.
Ok now? Excitement becomes a green lawn.
But a universe of knots “nots” lingers.



There would seem to be something in the knowledge that something is being
actually prepared for their relief, which rests the mind…
–Julia Prinsep Stephen, NOTES FROM SICK ROOMS, 1883

Crumbs are little nots—not able, not well,
not happy, not calm, not a future, not a present
except what’s not and what is, make a fretful
sweaty mess neatly divided into a seven-day pillbox.
Yes, it is division that will save the days.
This I have learned from my husband:
that moment by moment attention to the clock
of medication frees you into living as a diversion.
A pleasure is released from each
plastic click of a pillbox compartment, and green
and water and fur and breeze and
verandahs and bare feet on mown grass,
each soft spike prickly, not like a crumb,
but the gentle stimulation of nerve endings
that, in their waking, mean going on.



To look things squarely in the face would need the courage of a lion-tamer…

–Virginia Woolf, ON BEING ILL, 1930

If waking means going on, caretaking
really is a matter of efficiency.
Doing tasks leaves imagination free—
you have your day. “It” doesn’t need faking,
for “it” is death, and the taking of care is
one’s consciousness of Huge. Love locates in
the hours one has, if crumbs don’t interfere
to pretend that Huge is not there.
(If you’d like to make death a mere crumb,
just try to lie in bed with one.)
When a tiny bit becomes the universe,
it crowds you out. Yet you have a choice:
I must have understood this as a child
constructing a universe of wild and mild.



Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it
brings, … what precipices and lawns sprinkled with spring flowers a little rise of
temperature reveals…
–Virginia Woolf, ON BEING ILL, 1930

Constructing a universe of wild from mild
involves selection—and arrangement is control.
How do I hate thee when I do? You child!
(Is that me or you?) I hate you till I call
out to that woman crossing the lawn,
the one who is an I, who isn’t gone,
just out there for you, but not devoted.
Why don’t you call her back to our bed?
Or call her to a rectangle on the lawn
and join her in a sport you played as kids—
oh let’s be bad and play badminton
and let a shuttlecock fly until it dawns
on us that playing within white lines is fun,
a secret us-ness mapped within a grid.



That illusion so shaped that it echoes every groan, of human beings so tied together by common needs and fears that a twitch at one wrist jerks another….
–Virginia Woolf, ON BEING ILL, 1930

A secret us-ness mapped within a grid
for old-time battledore and shuttlecock—
let’s leave this battle. Hey, shuttle your cock
over here! It’s not all sickness all the time, kid…

And when I leave you to get on a plane
and hear the flight attendant instruct us
to put our own oxygen masks on first,
I’m grateful a whole industry thinks as I do.
It lets me withstand the shocked, dirty looks
from oncology nurses who feel I should be
at the hospital every minute, waiting
as I waited for my father in the car
to have his last drink at the bar and take
me home.
Let me come and take you home.



Distances do not appear the same to those up and those in bed. What may be
obviously safe to a person standing up, looks perilously close to one in bed; and the
nurse must not argue the point.
–Julia Prinsep Stephen, NOTES FROM SICK ROOMS, 1883

Let me come and take you home. Anger
covers terror, doesn’t it? Whose terror?
Yours in the isolation room? Or mine
as I gown up to see you? It’s an error!
Now, you’re out. But all the tests don’t get nearer
to an answer. You get better—if weaker,
your face like a sand painting shifting color,
not a stable, solid face, but one that signs
not-knowing, not-understood. You stood
your full height when they admitted you and
now, without a walker, you can’t stand,
so you inch your way into the car.
After twenty-five years of this I don’t say
I can’t stand it anymore. Human beings
adjust to anything. Love stands up to fear.



Always to have sympathy, always to be accompanied, always to be understood would
be intolerable.
–Virginia Woolf, ON BEING ILL, 1930

Love withstands fear and even hate
evaporates. In three weeks you gave up
the walker. In eight weeks we won at doubles.
In twelve weeks the body breakdown troubles
from the drug trial gone awry seem a mirage.
I’d rather be your doubles partner than sign up
for another illness stint. Is there Stage
Four Caregiver PTSD? I have it, mate!
Honey, I grieve. And owe more to Virginia,
who knew that we make do without sympathy,
than to her mother. “It is not easy,” said Julia,
“even with the best intentions, for a nurse
to remain perfectly calm.” Hey, it’s not too late
for hysterical sex! Childhood re-seized. A universe
of verse—if averse, if things get worse.



The art of being ill is no easy one to learn, but it is practiced to perfection by many of the greatest
sufferers. The greatest sufferer is by no means the worst patient, and to
give relief, even if it be only temporary, to such patients is perhaps a greater pleasure
than can be found in the performance of any other duty.
–Julia Prinsep Stephen, NOTES FROM SICK ROOMS, 1883

Once I faked it with efficiency,
like a stout cup, a thick glass, empty inside,
and never realized I was an invalid
surprising myself by hating you so much.
(Pure love I wanted, not love and illness mixed.)
A caregiver’s really a mother.
No! My wife’s hate is the love-hate
that makes a universe of I will nots.
Yet I found un-knotting meant going on
to construct that universe from mild with wild,
a secret us-ness mapped within a grid.
Let me make you a home, my greatest sufferer.
We’ve adjusted to everything! Love stands up to fear.
If things get worse, I’ll grieve, write verse, make
giving you relief my pleasure in reverse: home nurse.

Molly Peacock is the author of eight collections of poetry, including The Analyst: Poems and Cornucopia: New and Selected Poems. Her poems appear in leading literary journals such as Poetry, The Malahat Review, The Women’s Review of Books, and Plume and are anthologized in The Oxford Book of American Poetry. Former President of the Poetry Society of America and former Poet-in-Residence at the American Poets’ Corner, she is the co-founder of Poetry in Motion on New York’s subways and buses and the founder of The Best Canadian Poetry. Her latest project is Molly Peacock’s Secret Poetry Room, a creative space for first generation college students to write at Binghamton University. Recipient of fellowships from the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the New York Council on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Canada Council on the Arts, Access Copyright Canada, the Society for Citizens and Scholars, and the Leon Levy Center for Biography, Peacock is also the author of two biographies about creativity in the lives of women artists: The Paper Garden:Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 and Flower Diary: Mary Hiester Reid Paints, Travels, Marries & Opens a Door. From a binational American and Canadian family, she lives in Toronto and teaches at 92NY Roundtable in New York City.