Artist-in-residence shares poem

"By Law, I Can't Tell You Their Names" AIM artist-in-residence shares a powerful poem


Photo: Dylan Klempner, UF Health Shands Arts in Medicine writer-in-residence, creates art with Cindy Craig, UF librarian and former UF Health Shands patient. Art therapy with Klempner was a constant source of joy for Craig during her hospital stay.

By law,
I can’t tell you
their names
but their faces
often appear to me
in memory.

I can tell you
what they look like
when they first arrive.
Those who come
through trauma
lie motionless
surrounded by screens
and networks of tubes.
Those who are
starting treatments
on cancer wards
may not seem sick at all.
They wear
Hawaiian shirts,
khaki shorts,
slacks, skirts,
holiday sweaters.
They sit up straight
and laugh easily,
just a hint
of anxiety
in their eager,
flush faces.

I can tell you
what they choose,
when I offer them
art materials
from my cart —
journals, pens,
coloring pages, markers,
paint and canvas board.

I can tell you
what they look like
when there are side effects
from the chemo.
They glance up at me
when I enter their rooms
holding their faces over
gray, rectangular buckets.
They shake their heads, “no.”
They dab their bleeding,
scabbed and swollen lips
with giant cotton swabs,
and they shake their heads, “no.”
Or they lie still
under the covers
open their eyes
and soundlessly
mouth the words.
“No,” they say.  “No.
Today is not a good day.”

I can tell you
where they are from:
Live Oak, Peabody,
The Villages, Lake City,
Palm Beach County,
Indiana, Iowa,
The UK, Germany,
California, High Springs,
North Carolina,
Buffalo, Tennessee,
The Panhandle.

I can tell you
what they do for fun
when they are not
in the hospital.
They drive boats,
hunt deer.
Fish for marlin,
speckled trout, and seabass.
They sew, crochet, knit,
play guitar, piano, drums,
cook, bake, travel
to South America,
ride motorcycles,
fly airplanes.

I can tell you
what they do for work.
They operate cranes.
They farm
or stay home
and take care of children.
They are architects,
college professors, writers,
doctors, veterinarians,
former nurses,
students, secretaries,
owners of craft stores
and bait shops,
social workers,
police officers,
preachers, and engineers.

I can tell you
what they say they miss most
about their lives
outside the hospital:
They miss their
woodworking tools,
boats, quilts,
sewing machines.
They miss sisters, brothers,
parents, cousins, and friends.
They miss the way
their grandchildren
run out of their houses
to greet them
when they pull the car
into the driveway.

I can tell you
what their faces look like
when the musicians
that I work with
play the songs they request.
Their eyes glisten
and sometimes moisten.
They clasp their hands together.
They raise up in their beds
or relax their shoulders.
They gaze out windows
thoughtfully. They say,
“Let me tell you
about the first time
I ever heard that song.”

I can tell you
what their hearts look like
situated outside
of their bodies
at the ends of their beds
or beside their beds.
Large, black, jukebox-sized machines
with computers on top,
they play a consistent,
whooshing beat.
Hoses run from them
into children’s chests
whose bodies tremble gently
with rhythmic precision.
Children with artificial hearts
play games on their iPods
make music on their iPads
watch animated movies and paint
while waiting for the real thing.

I can tell you
about their spouses
or parents
who sleep near them
on narrow couches
in cramped rooms
filled with lifesaving
medical equipment.
“This is what we’re doing,”
say the spouses.
“Back home,
friends and family
are taking care of the kids
and the shop,
so I can be here
with him.”
“This is what we’re doing,”
say the parents.
“I’m here now
so she can have some time
to herself to rest
before they operate again.”

I can tell you
what their parents look like
at memorial services
inside sunlit chapels
or under portable tents
on cemetery grounds.
Dressed in the bright colors
of their Sunday’s best,
or huddled under overcoats,
they hold hands
with the wide-eyed, restless
children who remain
or push their own parents’
wheelchairs through mud.

I can tell you
what their spouses look like
standing in receiving lines
outside funeral homes,
their faces slack and worn.
After months of tears,
they have none of their own
left to cry,
so they open their arms
and shoulder
the tears of others.

I can tell you how,
after they have been
in and out
of the hospital
for weeks,
many of them
will turn the conversation around
to focus on me.
“What brought you here?”
they ask.
“What do you do?
Does someone pay you?”

I can tell you
what they look like
after they leave the hospital,
and take back their lives
and their hair grows back,
and they put the weight back on,
and the lingering limp
from the still-unhealed
hip or knee,
the purple port scar
along their collar line
only add to their
resilient grace.

By law,
I can’t tell you
their names
but their faces
often appear to me
in memory.

To learn more about UF Health Shands Arts in Medicine, visit This poem appeared as a feature on the “Empathy Corner” section of the UF Health Bridge portal. Visit the Bridge  home page to see more content that reflects our experience as providers and staff at UF Health.