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Good Letters

Wearing a hospital gown and blue-paper shorts I ease down, first onto my side, then gingerly onto my back that still protests after a month in response to once innocent movements. The technician slides a bolster under my knees, and warm blanket over them, hands me earplugs and an emergency call button, pushes a button, and I slide like a shrink-wrapped ham into the scanner, my lumbar spine a barcode to be deciphered, revealing, it’s hoped, both diagnosis and cure.

If the very recesses of one’s body are going to be laid bare, the terror and promise of what lies hidden inside muscle and sinew, tendon and bone on display, these secret mysteries should be exposed quietly, reverently, in the hush toned of candle-lit chapels and whispered prayers, not while one lies prone and motionless for thirty minutes in a confining space-aged tube that roars like a jet turbine, an unrelenting jackhammer rattling teeth and nerves.

Yet noise it is, in a tube that looms stark and sterile only a few inches above my face. I will panic if I don’t clamp my eyes closed and focus on my breath—in and out, in and out. I feel the expansion in my abdomen upon inhalation and worry the movement will obscure the necessary view of my innards.

What to try instead, perhaps an equal and opposite noise that I could somehow incorporate into the raging magnetic soundtrack? If only I knew songs in a genre that could match the machine’s violent thumping and insistence on victory. Death metal?

What I do know by heart are hymns, though it’s been a few years since I’ve sung many with any regularity. If I’d known about the earsplitting noise beforehand, I could’ve flipped through my hymnal reminding myself of second and third and fourth verses.

I don’t sing aloud, or even hum, in case inner vibrations will mess with the imaging. But I call up tunes and words on a mind-screen. I start with the cheerful, “Morning Has Broken,” and “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” but there’s too much dissonance between the metallic pulsing and these happy hymns.

I need a hymn of sorrow, of lament. It is Lent now—though I confess that in my immobility and pain, the liturgical calendar has been last thing on my mind—and “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” a hymn I was first introduced to on Good Friday almost thirty years ago floats into consciousness.

The first two verses are all I can reliably recall:

O sacred head now wounded,
With grief and shame weighed down,
now scornfully surrounded
With thorns thine only crown:

how pale thou art with anguish,
with sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish,
Which once was bright as morn!

I latch onto Jesus and to the words of his wounding while the thundering brings on a headache and hot flash—for who and what else can be present with me in this coffin-tube? Not the technician, who is only a disembodied voice speaking via microphone in the few silent moments between scans. Not my husband in the waiting room. Not even my wedding ring stashed in a locker with my clothes.

I wasn’t supposed to appear before this oracle today. At least, my insurance didn’t think it was medically necessary. I am here by grace, because someone who loves me said, “let me pay for this.”

No matter what images this machine generates from my body, no matter what sort of treatment I may or may not receive, I know I will be healed. I know this because people I love have suffered much worse, their bodies missing pieces, their lives permanently altered in the name of survival. They are whole despite diagnosis, disease, disability. God did not take the cup from them or from Christ—though everyone of them asked to be spared.

Despite our fear God will not forsake us, and that knowledge penetrates me bone deep. I can’t say if my doctor will see Jesus lurking between the L-3 and L-4 vertebrae in my lumber spine when she reads the MRI report. But Jesus is there, always—love alive in me, in each of us. There is nothing more to resist.

For some, being inside this machine is to be trapped in a blaring and claustrophobic torture chamber that will deliver nothing but bad news. But in this confining cacophony I have somehow been cradled and blessed. And with that realization I wonder if anyone has blessed this machine, this room, the people whose bodies have slid like mine, specimens on a diagnostic tray.

It’s a challenge to pray in this bone-rattling din, to hold absolutely still and think, but I cobble a silent prayer: “May this machine be used for the highest and best good by all who come in contact with it. May those entrusted to operate this equipment do so with great skill and compassion. May all who enter here be comforted.”

In the final eight-minutes of magnetic tumult I conjure and bless those who work here—technicians, physicians, janitors. I bless those, like me, who come under extreme circumstances, a failure of the body to work as expected. I bless our friends and families, at home, in the lobby, on social media, waiting, hoping, fearing.

I pray until the din ceases and I’m finally freed. An aide offers me my crutches, leads me down the hall, opens the locker, and leaves me to dress. I slide my wedding ring back on then reach for my shirt, pulling it on while trying to keep my aching back motionless.

Though the room is quiet, my chest still resonates with sound, a reverberating benediction.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Cathy Warner

Cathy Warner is a poet, writer, teacher, editor, home renovator and real estate broker who lives on the shores of Washington’s Hood Canal. She is the author of two books of poetry, Home By Another Road (2019) and Burnt Offerings (2014), and her fiction, short memoir, and essays have appeared in dozens of print and online journals including Under the Sun, The Other Journal, So To Speak, Water~Stone, and the blogs of Ruminate, Relief, and Image. She is represented in several anthologies, most recently West of the Divide (2019). Winner of the Steinbeck and SuRaa fiction awards, Cathy has also been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays. Find her at

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