Bright Passage

Looking up from the brink of the underworld

Hospitals are well lit. Uncomfortably well lit. Flooded with sallow, merciless light: unnatural,  fluorescent. Recessed troffers in the ceiling, cradling thick bars of sizzling white. They are places where light feels like invasion rather than grace, where it offers  harsh illumination, unsparing but necessary: the flip of a light switch, vitals taken in the middle of the night, the glaring bulbs  of the operating room. Their harsh light throws the conflicting needs of their citizens into sharp relief: bodies that need to work  and bodies that need to rest.  

Maybe the lighting feels particularly bright in my mind’s eye because I think of hospitals as places of ruthless visibility, where  privacy is gone and the boundaries of the body become porous, where we see more than we’d like—about our bodies and their  frailty, about where these bodies are always, ultimately, headed.  

At the age of three, my daughter became obsessed with the Greek myth of Persephone and Demeter: the story of a young  maiden kidnapped by Hades, god of the dead, and taken to his dark underworld. It’s also the story of her mother, the goddess of the harvest, who mourns Persephone’s absence so keenly that she plunges the whole world into winter.  

Every night before bed, this was the story my daughter requested. She would lie under the covers, holding her giraffe water bottle with one hand and sucking on two fingers of the other. Sometimes she took her fingers out of her mouth to point at the illustrations and ask questions: Why is Persephone bent over in her dark cloak? Is Persephone cold? Does she miss her  momma? She was particularly interested in the book’s first and last illustrations, which showed the entrance to the under world: at first, a gaping hole opening for Hades’s chariot to carry Persephone underground, and then, at the end, the same hole  opening for Persephone to emerge so that she and her mother can embrace again. 

My daughter was full of questions about this threshold: Why didn’t Hades and Persephone fall off the chariot, if they were  driving straight down? Was his tush showing under his white dress? Does her momma pull her back up? She wanted to know:  why are the bottoms of our trees sticking into the top of their world? She was interested in borders, the places where the  underworld touched the world of grass and sky above.  

Eventually, Persephone is reunited with her mother. But the story doesn’t close with resolution but duality. Persephone eats six pomegranate seeds in the underworld, so she will always return. She will move back and forth between two worlds: one  aboveground, one below. With her mother, and without her. Because my daughter’s father and I were divorced, and she slept  two nights a week at his apartment, I suspected that the myth was one way she made sense of splitting her life between two  homes. Each week, her life held the rhythms of separation and  return. Perhaps it felt most comfortable to encounter this story  from the cozy cloister of bed, when we were tucked together under the covers, her little toes pressed against my thigh.

As a mother, I think the duality of Persephone’s fate speaks to the ways we can never fully “have” our children, just as our  children can never fully have us. Instead, we are destined to share them with the world—more and more, as the years go by.  And as a daughter with two aging parents, I see Persephone’s constant passage in more primal terms something more like the dual citizenship Susan Sontag describes at the beginning of Illness as Metaphor: 

Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.

We are all citizens of the world aboveground, and also—already—citizens of the underworld. We are always people who will someday be dead. Why are the bottoms of our trees sticking into  the top of their world? Because the underworld is never far away;  it’s right beneath our feet. 

Persephone’s passage back and forth between the underworld and the meadows above throws into stark relief the fact that we’ll  all make the journey. We’ll all use the other passport someday. And in the meantime, the boundary between health and mortality is porous and ongoing: Our bodies fall ill. They falter. They break. We glimpse death through their faltering. Or at least, we are reminded. In these moments, we live in a purgatory between the bright world and the underworld. Often, this purgatory has a name: the hospital.  

Photographs by Mary Farmilant


IN GREEK MYTHOLOGY, Hades is often called “the hospitable one.” There’s a dark wryness to the phrase: the corridors of his underworld can always welcome another. They always have more room for the dead. But his name also summons his role as their warden, and—in a way—their caretaker. The word hospital, of course, shares an etymology with hospitality. Both derive from the Latin hospitale—guesthouse, or inn. By the thirteenth century, the old French hospital meant “shelter  for the needy,” and by the 1540s, the English word referred to a shelter for the sick. 

Even the cadences of hospital still hold the charge of hospitality, and the word hospitality—when you remember its  roots—holds the ghost of sickness. The imperative of hospitality contains the knowledge that someday we will all show up at  the guesthouse, in the middle of the night, needing care. 


I’VE STAYED in hospitals three times in my life—more than some people, less than most. At eighteen, I stayed for a week after surgery to fix a broken jaw. At twenty-five, I stayed after a failed heart surgery. At thirty-four, I stayed for three days after my C-section.

Each time, I felt part of a world—just briefly, in passing—that was structured by a series of contradictory intensities: the simultaneous exposure and anonymity of sharing cramped spaces with strangers; the vulnerability and disconnection of needing strangers so badly; the intimacy and tenderness of bodily care alongside the brisk assembly-line necessities of caring at scale. Each time I stayed, my world contracted to its most immediate perimeters: my room, my own body. Perhaps it’s not quite right, in that sense, to say the hospital is a world unto itself. The most accurate units are much smaller: The ward is a world. The room is a world. The bed is a world. The more debilitating the condition, the tighter the perimeter. 

Every one of these worlds had a landscape, whether its boundaries were the bed and the hanging television or the loop of the cardiology ward hallway, where I’d walk in traction-grip booties, pushing my rattling IV pole—like every character in every movie about hospital living—a physical reminder, whispering, Your mobility must acknowledge your fragility. And also, Don’t tangle these wires! The cardiology nurses told me where I could find extra stashes of the good snacks: graham crackers and tiny tubs of peanut butter in the cabinets beneath the sink at the nursing station. This became part of the map too. These worlds were structured by daily rhythms: vitals in the morning, afternoon, evening, middle of the night; meals three times a day, or else, if you were a person who would not chew for months (as I once was), little bottles of Ensure, their flavors tone-deaf in their cheerfulness—Butter Pecan!—alongside a plastic syringe to squirt the thick liquid through that small gap behind my molars. 

Going into surgery, I’d known my jaw would be wired shut for two months afterward, but still, it was a shock to wake up unable  to speak. Having my jaw tightly bound, with my voice stuck inside the grotesquely swollen casing of my face, made me feel as if I were trapped in a dark, private world. It smelled strange in there, the faint wet-dog waft of dried blood on bandages, and the  only way I could describe it was by scribbling messages in a tiny notebook I kept by my bedside.  

Photographs by Mary Farmilant

All that came later, though: Smell. Scribbling. Metaphor. For those first few days in the body, I was floating on the gauzy  cushioning of morphine, and then Vicodin, outside of time and, thanks to the painkillers, outside of my body. I was desperate  for a mirror and afraid of the mirror; desperate to not be where I was, to wake up and find myself on the other side of these  months, everything finished, my face returned to me.  

Morning rounds were marked by the shuffling of feet, listening to myself described in the third person: this patient suffered a  traumatic injury to the jaw joint after falling off the side of a mountain; now the jaw has been repositioned and screwed in place with a Le Fort osteotomy. I wanted, even in that haze of pain, to be interesting. At eighteen, I hadn’t yet suffered enough to learn that suffering wasn’t really that interesting. Or rather, that it was other things more than it was interesting.  

The woman who shared my room, who lay in the bed a few feet away from mine on the other side of a beige curtain, was not a person I’d ever seen or even spoken to. But from these rounds I knew a bit of her story too. She’d had reconstructive facial  surgery because she’d been attacked by her dog. I felt like an eavesdropper, listening to the doctors talk about what had happened to her, but I also sensed there was something in what they  were saying that I needed to hear. It had to do with suffering. Perhaps the woman in that bed didn’t care if she was interesting  or not. She mainly just wanted to live. She wanted to look in a mirror and see her own face. 


POST-OP, you always wake from anesthesia to a different body. Shaking, maybe. Unbearably cold. Suddenly mute. Restless and  strapped to a gurney. Stuck with a tube in your urethra. A different body, altered terms. Sometimes you’ve been warned. Sometimes you haven’t. You’ve crossed the River Styx, and now you need to  learn the contours of the underworld, a darker territory. You’ve landed in a foreign country, except the foreign country is your own  body. What’s the landscape here? What’s against the law? 

Waking up from jaw surgery—even though I had a jaw that wouldn’t open and a face so swollen I didn’t even want to touch the bandages—it was my catheter that bothered me most. Perhaps because I hadn’t been expecting it. I desperately wanted it out until the moment it came out, when it stung so bad—like someone had flicked on a lighter, deep inside my bladder—that I thought, I’ll keep in the catheter forever; just make this burning stop.  

Ever since, certain sensations—like having a UTI—always make me remember that catheter, as if it’s been placed inside me and then removed again. Those sense memories are tiny, shadowy pomegranate seeds—reminders of the other world of sickness and rupture, reminders that it never goes away.

Photographs by Mary Farmilant


EVEN AFTER I GOT BETTER, the hospital stayed inside me, a blurry collage of sense memories: the tightening of starched white sheets whenever someone sat on my bed and food trays clattering with pudding, warm broth, apple cobbler covered in foil. Instant scrambled eggs like soggy cardboard. The awkward dance of trying to cover my backside with my flapping paper gown and also hold my IV pole as I walked a loop around the  ward, shuffling—what a hospital verb, shuffling—in my too-big hospital socks with little black traction dots on their soles, their fabric slouched around my ankles. The sting of an IV coming out or a butterfly needle going in. 

These sense memories feel deeply lodged in me, but they also barely feel like mine: mint green corridors, rattling IV stands,  Ensure bottles perched on napkin-draped trays, soap and bandage smells, cold white fluorescence. They seem trite, or else just archetypal. Maybe I remember these things, or maybe I just saw them on Grey’s Anatomy so many times they feel like they belong to me. Certain tropes of hospital narratives are so familiar—the shitty meals, the vinyl seats in waiting rooms, the  stethoscope bobbing against a doctor’s chest as she races down the hallway—that it’s hard to reclaim particular memories from  this vast bureaucratic subconscious.  


WHILE THERE, I was rarely curious or insightful: I was concerned with comfort and survival; concerned with how will the vomit get out now that my teeth are wired together; concerned with the question of whether or not I can drink on this heart medicine. My body became an object I didn’t have much say over. But it was hard to think about anything else. Until the stay after I gave birth,  when I thought mostly about the tiny person lying naked against my naked chest, froglike, perfect. What a relief, quite frankly, to be in a hospital, which had always felt like a humbling reminder of my self-absorption, a place where I’d cared so much about myself and my own body—finally, now, with another body to care about. 

Hospitals have always intensified the conflicted relationship between pain and solipsism. Pain locks us deeper inside ourselves, even as it gives us the grounds to relate more viscerally, if always partially, to the suffering of others. These cramped, antiseptic corridors bring us close to the pain of others, just when we have no bandwidth to pay attention to it. 


AFTER SHE WAS BORN, my daughter and I attended the “latch class” held every day at noon on the postpartum ward. We walked  past a little fridge full of breast milk pumped by twenty different  mothers. All I could see in that class were other mothers nursing better than I was. They were wearing chic striped sailor tops and gauzy scarves draped over their babies’ latched heads, while I wore my beloved mesh underwear, visible whenever my hospital gown swung open, and my baby cried in my arms, hungry and unlatched. Whenever I coughed, my incision felt like it would split open like a ripped seam. My windowsill was full of food brought by friends—clementines, dark chocolate, bone broth I didn’t drink until it was tepid and greasy—that only seemed useful in alchemical terms. I would put it into my body, so I could pass it on as milk.  

When these mothers complained about cluster feeding, I only heard that they were nursing. It was harder to see the ways they were also worried, also nervous, also wrestling with the impossible—and yet hauntingly, tauntingly common—feat of taking care of those tiny alien creatures our own placentas had entrusted to our constant, ceaseless care. I was so stuck in my own version of helpless anxiety that I couldn’t see the other ways it might manifest.

Photographs by Mary Farmilant

Looking back, these women don’t seem different than me so much as they seem like part of me—or rather, part of the story of  my relationship with my daughter, part of those early days of try ing and worrying, just as the nurses are part of those days and part of our story. These nurses trusted that my body could nurse before I trusted it. They were strangers who not only populated but also structured the most intimate relationship I’ve ever known. 


IN SCARRED HEARTS, a 1937 novel by a Romanian writer named Max Blecher, a young chemistry student named Emanuel arrives at a French sanitarium, largely based on the tuberculosis hospital where Blecher himself spent a year of his life. The first time Emanuel enters the dining room, where “the patients lay on their stretcher beds, two to a table,” all lying on their backs, their  bodies encased in plaster casts meant to facilitate their healing, he recognizes the sanitorium not simply as a cure but as a world:  

Now, as he stared at the sprawling rows of patients, his illness was no longer a simple matter of an abstract phrase, “being ill” as opposed to “being healthy.” He felt as if he had joined the ranks of a military hierarchy. He was part of the fellowship of illness, the fellowship of the plaster cast . . . 

He understands illness as a kingdom, just as Sontag did, recognizes these patients not simply as individuals but as citizens  who belonged to a particular landscape. To Emanuel, the room appears “filled with the living dead, encrusted in rigid poses,  stretched out, mummified, and yet still throbbing with life!” Like the citizens of the underworld, those welcomed by the hospitality of Hades—the legions of the dead, still throbbing with life. 

Throbbing with life, however it first read in Romanian, holds so much truth about hospitals: in the states of desperation and  frailty that bring people to them, a certain texture of life becomes even more urgent because of its proximity to death, like a vein bulging under the skin as a nurse massages the arm, hunting for the pulsing blue line to puncture with her needle.  

One of the sanitarium patients tells Emanuel and his father about Madame Wandeska, a Polish woman who has spent almost  a year there: “She ought to have gone home a while ago, but she  keeps procrastinating.” When Emanuel’s father asks why, the  patient says: “That’s difficult to explain to a healthy person. . . .  She’d prefer to remain here among the sick, where everyone has  something wrong with them, than become an object of curiosity among the healthy.” 


WHEN I LEFT the hospital after my jaw surgery, it felt more difficult to be at home. The mirrors, for one thing. They were  everywhere. Showing me my grotesquely swollen face, which I hardly recognized, except it perched on top of this body that  moved whenever mine did. The body I surveyed with a different kind of yearning: checking to see how frail it looked, hungry for that frailness, the pomegranate seeds of my eating disorder. I’d been told—in no uncertain terms—I needed to gain weight in  order to get the surgery at all, because everyone lost weight in  the aftermath. But I still had the old disordered pride in seeing  my body skeletal in the mirror, and I turned to that pride as a kind of balm or consolation for the ways I hated my own face.  Eventually, I asked my mother to drape sheets over the mirrors.  As much as I couldn’t stand to see myself in them, I couldn’t  stand to feel my obsession with them. I missed the hospital— where everyone else was wearing their damage directly on their  bodies; where people were expected to be doing terribly; where I was so immobile I couldn’t walk past a mirror if I tried; where I was on so many painkillers I didn’t have to think about much of  anything except staying on them.  

In these moments, we live in a purgatory between the bright world and the underworld. Often, this purgatory has a name: the hospital.

Home, on the other hand, was a space I associated with living in a healthy body, and now I was living in another kind of body—constantly longing for the before of health, for the place where things were supposed to feel wrong, where bodies were supposed to look broken, where it was expected that you would  be swollen, moaning with pain, unable to eat. These things were still true for me, but I no longer had the right context for them. This was what the hospital had been: A context in which  discomfort belonged. A landscape that matched my interior. A native habitat for broken bodies. 


AFTER WE STARTED reading the myth of Persephone, my daughter began building the underworld so that she could go there herself. This mainly involved pulling the cushions off our low purple couch and jumping on them, saying, “Now I am in  the underworld, Momma.” Sometimes she would say, “Now I am with Hades.” Sometimes she would say, “Now Hades is very mad, because Persephone is far away.”  

It made perfect sense to me, that she would want to build the underworld out of familiar materials, entering and leaving  as she pleased, and that she would want to play around with the terms of passage between worlds, when passing between worlds was already part of her life. It often made my heart ache to see her working through these dramas of separation and return with her couch cushions, but it also made me feel a deep awe at her spirit, what it was already capable of, and a gratitude for the work that stories do for us: how they help us  wrestle with the things that are hardest to bear, how they help us not to turn away. 

Once, when we visited a museum full of Greek antiquities,  she was desperate to find Persephone. There was a statue of  Demeter, and another one of Hades, but these were not what she wanted. She wanted Persephone. Eventually, I took refuge in her illiteracy and showed her a pale marble bust labeled, young greek maiden. “Look!” I said. “It’s Persephone.” She was thrilled.  

Photographs by Mary Farmilant

Just outside the gallery, she walked around the edges of a shallow reflecting pool. “It’s the River Styx,” she told me solemnly,  then walked to a corner, where she hopped from one side to another. She called to me, “I’m jumping over the River Styx! I’m  jumping over the River Styx!”  

As I watched her hopping back and forth, from one side of  the river to the other, I saw her enacting the myth itself. Persephone is locked in an endless cycle of departure and return, reunion and separation. Her joy at seeing her mother again, and her mother’s joy at seeing her, is not the end of the story but a moment within it—part of a cycle, just like any recovery from illness is never the end of the story.


ON ONE LEVEL, the myth of Persephone and Demeter is an account of that primal fall from innocence: separation from the  mother. It dramatizes the grief of losing that union of bodies. The child loses the proximate body of her first caregiver—the mother’s womb, her breasts, that solitary sustenance—and the mother loses the body of her child, one she can no longer always keep close. But the myth also offers an account of another fall from grace: losing the delusion of the body’s infallibility and nature’s benevolence. If the body of the mother represents the assurance of sustenance and safety, then the child—once she has to separate  from her mother—is also confronting the truth that these things cannot be assured: safety, health, wholeness. And the mother has to confront the truth that even her child’s body—in its youth, its perfection—is not immune from harm, is beyond the reach of her protection. 

The world takes us from our mothers, and in this abduction— however gradual or sudden, however traumatic or organic—it  forces us to understand that they will die, and so will we. Even in its most ordinary forms, maternal separation forces us to recognize that we all belong to the underworld, that even the ferocity of maternal love cannot protect us from the intrinsic fragility of the vessels we occupy.  


DURING MY STINTS in the cardiology ward, after my failed heart surgery, I felt like an interloper: I was younger and healthier than  almost everyone else. This fact seemed to bring the nurses a delight I couldn’t understand at the time. Looking back, though, it makes a lot of sense. It must have felt good to take care of someone who would actually get better.

By the time I had heart surgery, I had no delusions about my body as invulnerable. My jaw had been broken and wired shut. I’d been drinking myself into blackouts for years, and had— during one of these long nights—been punched by a stranger,  who’d broken my nose and changed the shape of my face for good. My time on the cardiology ward only underscored my deepening sense of my body as something that could be broken, but it also helped me understand how lucky I was—in my youth, in my health—and that ultimately I was living on borrowed time, like all of us. This borrowed time was life, and it was something to be grateful for.  

Photographs by Mary Farmilant


DURING MY HOSPITAL STAYS, I’ve always felt consumed by the dwarfing sense of being among. Like if I went far enough inside my body, I would find a single secret written there: This isn’t just yours. It belongs to everyone. Hospitals are humbling and saving  in this way: they remind you that your body is not unique; that it’s breakable and resilient in ways that billions of other bodies  are too; and that it’s made of the same organs inside, which have to do the same things as everyone else’s.  

And yet, they are theaters of inequality in pretty much every way—in America more than most places. Who gets saved in this country, and how, for how much, has everything to do with class and race and work and luck and birth and very little to do with basic human rights. But it’s impossible to spend time in a hospital and not hear the ways our bodies are saying—in their  workings, their similar hungers and hurts and blueprints—that we all deserve care.


MY DAUGHTER’S obsession with the Persephone myth actually began with a song called “Proserpina,” the Roman name for  Persephone, sung by a pair of folk singers, a mother and her daughter. The lyrics express the mother’s grief, rather than her  daughter’s: “Proserpina Proserpina / Come home to mama . . .  I shall turn every field into stone / Where I walk crying alone /  Crying for / Proserpina Proserpina. . . .” For weeks, she wanted to hear this song all the time. She memorized the lyrics and  sang them in her sturdy, squeaky voice—a daughter singing a mother’s pain.  

The myth itself is remarkable for the way it splits into two perspectives. Once Persephone is taken to the underworld, the myth  toggles back and forth between mother and daughter, telling both of their stories. We watch Persephone take up her throne as  queen of the dead, her heart slowly turning to ice, and we watch her mother grieving aboveground, bringing winter to the earth,  making the world share her grief.  

The split-screen myth is a good reminder that very few traumas involve only one person hurting. Which is also to say, if you want to find pain in a hospital, don’t look in the operating theater. Look in the waiting rooms.


THE ONLY TIME I’ve ever seen my father cry—or at least, the only time I can remember—was when they wheeled me away for my jaw surgery. Though I am told he also cried during my heart surgery, after they came out to say it was taking longer than  expected because they had to keep burning away more patches of tissue until they found the right one, the one that would stop  my heart from beating all those extra beats. But I wasn’t there for that one. I was getting ablated.  

In a hospital, it’s both acceptable and dangerous to cry. On  the one hand, it’s part of the script. It’s inevitable. People are dying and being born. These are the parts of life that make us feel more strongly than any others. But on the other hand, it’s  dangerous, like an aperture or a rip in fabric, with that cracked open feeling, that surrender of control. It’s as if everything  might just unravel, like the run in a stocking—no way to reverse it once it’s started. Private lives become public. The nurses know your business, the other patients know your business, the doctors know your insides. The surgeons see your insides. Extreme  emotion—whether desperation or relief—becomes impossible to contain, visible for all to see.  


WHEN I LOOK BACK at the notebooks I kept after my jaw surgery, when I could only communicate by scribbling, I see only notes addressed to my mother, because she was the one taking care of me. Reading these pages, I feel claustrophobic at the sight of my own looping anxieties: What if I choke on my own vomit? What if my face never looks the same way? I wish my mother had  been the one scribbling in the notebooks, so I could understand better what it had been like for her.  


LYING ON A GURNEY, glimpsing my father cry as I rolled away  down the antiseptic corridor—with its mint green walls and sharp  soapy smell in my memory—I wasn’t feeling upset myself, floating on a delicious cocktail of laughing gas and Valium that I was already eager to try again. But the sight of him falling apart seared into me, as if only this place—only this stark spectacle of my fragile body, draped in a gown on a gurney—could tap into some part of him that I’d been trying to access across our years of distance after my parents’ divorce. This part of him felt the vulnerability of my body as fully as if it were his own. I could glimpse it then, that helplessness, but I could only really understand it years later, in another hospital, once my daughter’s body was pulled from mine. Not part of me any longer. Still part of me, for good.  


THE HOSPITAL where I gave birth was sandwiched between the Empire State Building and the East River. At night, my windows  were full of Manhattan skyscrapers glittering against the January darkness. During the day, my view was dominated by roof tops just beyond my window, their mazes of pipes and vents, plumes of steam billowing against the cold. It felt so strange to have the frantic bustle of the city so close at hand, when it seemed like I was living in another world entirely, a cocoon of milk and wires.  

Hospital windows are the borders between the city and the underworld. Neither can exist without the other, but they feel so stubbornly opposite: the bright fluorescent lights against the lush, winking velvet of city dusk; the starched sheets and gleaming antiseptic surfaces looming over grimy streets, their asphalt pocked with blisters of old chewing gum, cigarette stubs, rat  corpses gradually flattened into abstracted dark stains, sidewalks flecked with old bodega sandwich wrappers, ticket stubs, condom wrappers—the detritus of living.  

Windows are rifts in the antiseptic totality of the hospital, a reminder of that other realm, just beyond the glass, whose citizens are engulfed by the frenetic rhythms of their lives. It’s easy to forget our other passports in this world of commutes and hustle and jogging and strollers and salesmen and multitaskers, heels click-click-clicking on the stairs down to the subway, while the patient on the other side of the window is just watching, supine, thinking how that click-click-clicking is beyond imagining, even as it happens thousands of times a day, just a block away.  

And do the commuters on the sidewalk ever look up at  the hospital windows? Perhaps. But they can see no patients there, no particular papery hands on the sheets, no specific bowl of broth, no single sleeping daughter in the waiting room, slumped next to a cooling paper cup of coffee—only, in those bright windows, the idea of illness, how it comes for us all.  

Photographs by Mary Farmilant


FOR THE FIRST YEAR of my daughter’s life, we often walked past the same hospital on our way to the park: a boxy, red brick building whose silhouette looked like something made of Legos—square shapes stacked in odd arrangements, random blocks of concrete where something had been added or refurbished. A grim block. Where all the wailing ambulances were always headed. Sometimes, when I looked up at the inscrutable windows with their white shades or their dark orifices, I thought of all the strangers we’d lived beside in the hospital after she was born, how they’d entered our lives for a few  days—at such an intense point of inflection—and then disappeared again.  

It was impossible to see the patients who lay beyond the  windows as we walked down Seventh Avenue past Sixth Street. But I knew they were up there, maybe staring down at this very sidewalk, where I walked with my daughter strapped against my chest, her fuzzy head nuzzling the underside of my chin. Two kingdoms, and I was a citizen of both. So was she.  

We were both Persephone, just like everyone is Persephone. Even in broad daylight, our bodies already yoked us to the under world. We already had the pomegranate seeds inside us. For most of our walk, I might forget that. But below those hospital windows, I never did. 

This story was produced with generous support from the Orion Fund  for Women Writers.


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Leslie Jamison is the New York Times bestselling author of five books, including The Recovering, The Empathy Exams, and, most recently, Splinters: Another Kind of Love Story. She teaches at Columbia University.


  1. As a former RN (and a c-section mother) this is felt deeply. Potent, intelligent writing. Leslie, you are gifted.

  2. Leslie Jamison is a writer I admire. Recently, I reread “The Empathy Exams” and recommend it to everyone who liked this story The insertion of history always feels seamless amidst the potent realities of sharing herself in universally relatable situations. Reading this at home, awaiting a second hip surgery and futzing with a heating pad, her hospital story was serendipitous today, especially following a news story on hospitals and hospital staff in Ukraine.

  3. Jamison takes navel gazing to new heights.

  4. Thank you for this reminder that we are citizens of both worlds. Beautifully laying one beside the other

  5. Found this to be quite a powerful story on so many levels. As an emergency physician who spent his life working in hospitals and having been a patient myself, it really illustrates the somewhat helpless feelings we have as patients depending on and needing to trust our caregivers.

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