Johanna Shapiro, PhD

Our oldest daughter turns thirteen,
beautiful, athletic
tall and straight
One day she comes home crying:
The nurse at school said
I have scowly-osis

She’s right
Tall and straight
inside her spine grimaces and spits
a malevolent snake
two curves conspire to create
the appearance of flawless beauty

No gentle kingsnake, this
kindly ridding our garden of
unwanted gophers
Think rather a python
ineluctable, irreducible
gently squeezing heart, lungs

She will never have surgery
we say Never
So we try the alternatives
Braces, electric currents
to stimulate muscles,
physical therapy, swimming

She stretches, she twists
trying to outwit the snake
who continues to chase her
She hangs from her knees
every night, suspended from a gleaming bar
Every night we hear the snake hissing

When she runs,
when she plays volleyball,
when she dresses for the prom
we can barely see the snake
Is that him, we ask each other,
peeking out over her shoulder?

Only at night
when everything is still
we sense his footless power
We hear him slithering
and hissing
waiting patiently to seize his prey

In desperation
we try a more extreme brace
At nighttime we lock her in
with a series of padlocks
But our daughter is Houdini
Each night she escapes

into the coils of the waiting snake
and they cavort in the dark
where no one can see them
The hypnotic power of the serpent
entwined with the pliant limbs
of our lovely daughter

She is ingenious, she is athletic
She is beautiful
tall and straight
But in the end the snake claims her
captures her with his mesmerizing spell
devours her like a naive rabbit

So we are forced to allow
the orthopedic surgeon
to wield his knife oh so gently
until he captures the snake
and encases him in a rod-like coffin
forever, and our daughter is free

Only at night
when everything is silent
we wonder, does the snake still stir?
Does he try to lift the coffin lid
Does he wait for a kiss
to rouse his soft charms once again?

Commentary: Twelve years after our eldest daughter was diagnosed with severe scoliosis, and seven years after she’d undergone a five hour surgery to correct the condition, I tackled the experience in verse. When our family first consulted an orthopedist, he explained that Shauna had what is known as an S-shaped curve: actually two complementary and severe curvatures of the spine that resulted in a deceptively upright appearance.

Things went along pretty much as the poem chronicles. We tried all sorts of treatments and procedures, some physician-approved and some not, which seemed to slow the progression of the condition for awhile. Then, after what we all thought was a routine exam and x-ray, we learned her curves had progressed dramatically to the point where they posed a significant health hazard. Desperate, we really did try the torturous brace described in the poem, which literally involved applying padlocks so our daughter wouldn’t remove the brace in her sleep. Which she did anyway. Eventually, the surgery was unavoidable.

For years, my husband and I were haunted by the imagery of a “snake” lurking in our daughter’s back. Something about the way the doctor had explained her problem to us made this picture particularly vivid and ominous. A snake is associated with all sorts of malevolent and trickily clever symbolism of betrayal and destruction. Our poor daughter didn’t stand a chance! What was most disturbing was that, even after a successful operation, we worried that the “snake” would somehow find a way to put her in harm’s way again.

When I wrote the poem, images of Sleeping Beauty and Eve in the Garden of Eden floated through my mind in jumbled progression. Perhaps because all this happened during our daughter’s pivotal adolescent years, the seductive, sensuous aspects of a snake got mixed up in the poem as well. I hoped the form of the poem would suggest the sinuous curves of a snake because this was the image that dominated the thoughts and fears of our family life for many years.