For Clifford Bernel

By Mark O'Brien 1949–1999 Mark O'Brien
Lonnie didn’t want to eat with Clifford.
I tried to keep my eyes away from his mouth,
Which opened uncontrollably,
His thick saliva oozing over him.
And he couldn’t talk.
So I ate my lunch with Lonnie, heard him talk
About the dive which broke his neck, about
His motorcycle shop in Chico, while
Another nurse gave Clifford lunch.
 
                                                Every day
His parents came to push his chair around
The grounds. A grim, determined pair;
I wondered what disasters they had seen.
The nurses talked with them about
Their son. His eyes are beautiful, they said.
One day a nurse who put her stethoscope
To Clifford’s chest could not detect a beat.
“His heart has stopped,” she said in quiet awe.
The P.A. speakers cried:
CODE BLUE, C-2, STAT! CODE BLUE, C-2, STAT!
The doctors, nurses and technicians ran
Into our crowded room. The squeaking
Crash cart could not be heard above
The urgent, human sounds the doctors made:
A swirl of orders filled the air. “I need
The mallet quick, goddamnit, QUICK, I said!”
Encapsulated in my iron lung,
I noted that doctors weren’t the calm
Professionals portrayed by Robert Young
And Richard Chamberlain, but people just
As scared of death as everybody else.
Then, they took me, iron lung and all,
And parked me in a room
Where women patients spend their lives.
 
The room was quiet as a stone; no clocks
Or television sets marked the time,
Which passed as slowly as Moses climbing Mount Sinai,
Until the social worker, Mrs. Mintzer,
Came to talk to me about Shakespeare. All his tragedies,
She said, contain a point where things begin
To fall apart. The bold protagonist,
No matter what his cunning, skill or strength,
Can see his fall foreshadowed by a small
Event. Macbeth saw Banquo at the feast
And after that it went from bad to worse
Until the murd’rous thane became a corpse
Without a head. She paused to think a while.
Now Clifford led a fairly normal life,
She pointed out, despite his cerebral palsy.
Playing cards and camping with his family
Were not beyond his reach.
The point where things fell apart occurred
Five years ago, when he fell and broke
His shoulder bone.
“Clifford died,” she said.
And tried to comfort me with her sympathy
For my awful loss.

I didn’t mourn his death at all.
“Too bad he died so young,” I said,
At twenty-three.” But all I cared about
Was the space in my crowded room.
The p.m. nurses took me back into my room.
I asked one to play my tape,
Appalachian Spring.
She reached into my bedside stand and slipped.
“There’s blood all over the floor, Clifford’s.
I thought they’d cleaned up all that mess.”
 
I spent the weekend after that in the solarium.
I read and overheard the nurses in the next room.
“They say he wrote exquisite poetry
About the way he felt when people stared
At him as if he were a freak.”
                                   
                                                And so
I learned of my insensitivity,
Insensitivity so great I failed
To recognize a person
Caught in much the same predicament as I.
Such numbness isolates me more
Than any iron lung.

Mark O’Brien, "For Clifford Bernel" from Breathing. Copyright © 1998 by Mark O’Brien.  Reprinted by permission of Lemonade Factory Press.

Source: Breathing (Lemonade Factory Press, 1998)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Mark O'Brien 1949–1999

POET’S REGION U.S., Western

Subjects Living, Death, Health & Illness, The Body, The Mind, Relationships, Friends & Enemies

Poetic Terms Elegy

Biography

Poet and journalist Mark O’Brien was born in Boston and raised in Sacramento, California. He contracted polio when he was six years old; the disease left him paralyzed from the neck down, and he used an iron lung to breathe. He earned a BA and an MA from the University of California–Berkeley. An advocate of independent living for disabled people, O’Brien was a frequent contributor to newspapers, writing columns on such topics as . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Living, Death, Health & Illness, The Body, The Mind, Relationships, Friends & Enemies

POET’S REGION U.S., Western

Poetic Terms Elegy

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.