Reflections on a Waiting Room Lithograph

By | 13 May 2024

after Käthe Kollwitz’s ‘Mothers holding their sick children waiting to consult a physician’ (1920), lithograph


No one knows exactly how paracetamol works:
its mechanism for reducing the body’s temperature
a black box according to a lengthy article on the subject.

I read this article on my phone while my daughter
fights fever in her sleep. The blue light in my palm
forms a raft in the darkness. She is as warm

as a stovetop. Heat radiates in small waves so that
I feel it through the air: without touch. I say stovetop
but I mean pulsar. My neutron star with the sticky brow

sweeps and rotates, turns to and then away from me.
On the bedside table, a bottle of children’s Panadol
stands guard. The plastic, stained brown like glass,

feels weightier than it should. Clear syrup,
its strawberry tang unmysterious to the tongue,
swallowed by nightlight’s glow. She sleeps deeply,

cooled briefly by a commonplace elixir
only partially understood after seventy years of use.


The women in the lithograph hold their children
to their bodies. We do not know what ails their offspring,
only that the date indicates global years of pain:

an influenza pandemic has churned out more loss
than can be absorbed. Their exhaustion
so palpable, I feel its dull weight in the space

between image and eye. The women, huddled in
the waiting room, speak only to their shadows.
We do not know if the shadows speak back.

And perhaps we won’t ever understand what eases pain:
even the healing properties of time are unstudied,
intuited by those whose wounds are no longer tender

to touch. Eventually the darkness drains from the sky
like fluid. By morning, the night is mostly forgotten.
What else is left but a cool, bright mark. I know

the worst is over when she rises and lunges for me:
leonine, hungry for water. I think: if only sickness
could be thwarted by the fierce worry of mothers,

wrung out and tossed aside by their skilful, death-
knowing hands, then we might never be ill again.

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