Off the Shelf, Poetry Thursdays
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His Last, First Breath

To my cadaver and all those affected by SARS-CoV-2.


As I unzip the synthetic shroud,
he breathes his last, first breath:
one final exhalation from the plastic pleura
before we make acquaintance.
The bag settles atop his silhouette. 
Unsettled by the inflamed fluorescence 
refracting off his lobular enclosure, 
I listen before I dare cut or move or even look.

His final word deserved to be heard.
Eulogizing lamentations for bygone bodies commence.
“May we share a collective moment of silence?”
for those who could not hear
the sound of their last, first breath.
Plastic peels back to bare head and shoulders and
arms and fingertips that, perhaps, once traced lovers’ lips
or anchored palmar grasps. His infinities of histories
lay dormant and unsung as I deliver him: 
now alchemized stillborn.
To me, he entrusted his body, his vessel
so that I may map his uncharted depths.
What a treasure for me to take him apart
after he spent a lifetime putting himself together.
He is but a splinter of the world outside:
free of preservatives yet full of pathology.
His final stasis to our fleeting standstill of
pandemonium, pandemic, panem et circenses.
Performative pauses for the hospitalized, the healers:
by those who can hear but no longer listen,
to those who stand on the shoulders of giants,
to those who have heard the last, first breath.
Cadaveric chasms and anatomic anomalies
wrestle the mind with its menacing mortality.
But so does the fated quickening in your chest
when all you can think of is — am I next?
My favorite classmate,
teacher, patient, muse
has always been dead.
But what of us — the living left behind?
I hope we decompose
in the likes of his repose
as we wait to take
our last, first breath.

Poetry Thursdays is an initiative that highlights poems by medical students. If you are interested in contributing or would like to learn more, please contact our editors.

Cade Herman Cade Herman (1 Posts)

Contributing Writer

Tufts University School of Medicine

Cade is a rising third year medical student at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, MA class of 2024. In 2020, he graduated from Tulane University with a Bachelor of Science in neuroscience and a Bachelor of Arts in French. He enjoys photography and travel in his free time. After graduating medical school, Cade would like to pursue a career in psychiatry.