Denise O’Hagan

Vermeer in Boston

I’d waited decades
To see that knowing glance, forever paused
That letter being permanently written
And that ermine-edged yellow morning jacket.

Yet I found myself, ridiculously,
In the exhibition by accident
Travelled half the world here
For another reason entirely
And stood, clammy palmed and weary
My thoughts haywire, clinging
To another imagined room a mere walk away
Where a team of specialists
Pored over our son
Whose opened chest
Was spread like a canvas
For the surgeons to splatter and daub
And create another version
Of his deformed and failing heart:
Their masterpiece.

And while all this was happening
I met her painted gaze, unflinching,
Wondering, even then, what she’d been writing
(and to whom, and why).
She’d raised her eyes, unblinking
Poised and faintly mocking
Too intelligent, I couldn’t help thinking,
For twenty-first century positivity.
Instead, her Mona Lisa almost-smile
Stayed with me almost all the while
I waited for the phone call
I didn’t feel alone.

And when they’d finished
Eleven long hours later
Applied the appropriate solutions
Brushed away the bloody residue
Hung up their paintbrushes,
It came: ‘Your son is in recovery.’

Still later, on the long flight home,
Juggling pills and international time differences
Her enigmatic expression flew with me
Long after the shadows around her faded
With her writing box and ink-wells,
Her slim stilled quill pen,
The satin ribbons shining in her hair
And the round of her wrist bone
All this slipped away –
Until I saw it later
In a catalogue.

And in one moment
I was back in Boston with her,


Note: Written after waiting for our son’s open-heart surgery in Boston Children’s Hospital, November 2015. Coincidentally, the nearby Museum of Fine Arts was holding an exhibition on the painters of the Dutch Republic, which included a favourite of mine, Vermeer’s ‘A Lady Writing’.

First published in fourWthirty, anthology of selected entries (Booranga Writers’ Centre, Australia, November 2019).