A large Ying-chi'ing glazed porcelain figure of a seated Kwan Yin. From Jingdeshen, China, Yuan Dynasty, dated 1298 or 1299. Courtesy the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri (Purchase: Nelson Trust).
A large Ying-chi’ing glazed porcelain figure of a seated Kwan Yin. From Jingdeshen, China, Yuan Dynasty, dated 1298 or 1299. Courtesy the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri (Purchase: Nelson Trust).

Like a mist curtaining from the surface of a black deep pond, I rise up into voices, slabs of hard sound, scrapes of metal, thuds, and clinks. I realize I lie on my side. And just across from me, on another wheeled table (we are like two reclining figures on a tomb) in this huge brightness that allows us no modest hiding of blemish or sag, there looking back at me is a man whose skin gathers the light at his naked leg. He is trying to pull himself to a sitting position, elbows jabbing air, the hospital gown falling back from his wrinkled thigh. No one comes to help us, we’re utterly alone with each other here in the bowels of Highland Hospital, the long crowded corridor and warren of rooms that is Emergency. This is the classic county hospital—last resort for those without insurance or money—crowded, understaffed, and noisy.

Now we are joined by an intern clutching a clipboard. She has a lovely Asian face like Kwan Yin, the Chinese Buddhist goddess of compassion. I am touched, having come very recently from the island in the South China Sea where Kwan Yin is said to reside. I went there on Buddhist pilgrimage, hoping to encounter her. How oddly appropriate that she has materialized here.

“What symptoms are you having?” she asks me.

I can’t quite manage a response. I was operated on for colon cancer and then given five days of chemotherapy, then I began to vomit and couldn’t stop: Didn’t I already tell two groups of interns about this?

I lie back, imagining this white-coated young woman in the elaborate headdress and flowing robe that Kwan Yin wears, her dress blown by the sea wind.

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