That year we danced to green bleeps on screen.
My son had come early, just the 1kg of him,
all big head, bulging eyes and blue veins.
On the ward I met Grace. A Jamaican senior nurse
who sang pop songs on her shift, like they were hymns.
“Your son feisty. Y’see him just ah pull off the breathing mask.”
People spoke of her in half tones down these carbolic halls.
Even the doctors gave way to her, when it comes
to putting a line into my son’s nylon thread of a vein.
She’d warn junior doctors with trembling hands: “Me only letting you try twice.”
On her night shift she pulls my son’s incubator into her room,
no matter the tangled confusion of wires and machine.
When the consultant told my wife and I on morning rounds
that he’s not sure my son will live, and if he lives he might never leave the hospital,
she pulled us quickly aside: “Him have no right to say that—just raw so.”
Another consultant tells the nurses to stop feeding a baby, who will soon die,
and she commands her loyal nurses to feed him. “No baby must dead
wid a hungry belly.” And she’d sit in the dark, rocking that well-fed baby,
held to her bosom, slowly humming the melody of “Happy” by Pharrell.
And I think, if by some chance, I’m not here and my son’s life should flicker,
then Grace, she should be the one.
“Grace”, from “A Portable Paradise” (Peepal Tree Press, 2019) © Roger Robinson.
One result of this pandemic is that freedom of movement feels like a half-forgotten dream. I can barely remember the time when it was possible, with the right resources, to think of a place and book a flight there almost instantly. Of course, that instant ability to travel anywhere is a little artificial, and came at the cost of the environment when utilised on an industrial scale. But it was a great comfort to emigrant families sprawled across the globe – that if anything were to happen to someone close to us, we could go to them, quickly and safely.
Now that’s no longer the case. My grandfather, who lives in an elderly care home outside Bangalore, has recently suffered a fall and is very frail in the aftermath. My family’s chief anxiety is that we can’t be there to support him at such a vulnerable and profound time. We feel powerless.
So this is the poem that I keep returning to. The first image sets up a backdrop of utter powerlessness: as his tiny son struggles to breathe, the father can do nothing but ‘dance to green bleeps on screen’. This is the stage on which we meet Grace, a fiercely kind and determined Jamaican nurse. She is the counterpoint to the potential tragedy of this poem, with her humour (‘Your son feisty’) and ability to defy those above her (‘Even the doctors gave way to her’). She reminds me of Sister Alphonsa, a nun in the old age home where my grandpa is now living. When he stopped eating a few days ago, she had the ingenious idea of giving him milk heavily laced with his favourite whiskey. That’s all he’s been able to eat these past few days.
This poem’s end is breathtaking for its light touch. The incompleteness of that final clause – it’s as if the father cannot even bear to finish his sentence. ‘In the dark’, and against a backdrop of helplessness, Grace is a small lighthouse.
All my love,
P.S. Thank you so much in advance for any messages of support for my grandpa. We are a little overwhelmed at the moment so may not be able to get back to you right now, but we really do appreciate your thinking of him and the family. Lots of love xxx