The Events of 1989

They hid the world from us patients
confiscated radios and magazines
there were no TVs
so we could focus fully
on why we were in here
in a psychiatric hospital
in bucolic Vermont.
But everyone needs a break
from days filled with therapy
from talking of drinking and depression
drugs and suicide
some of us fell in love
others ate too much and purged it
many smoked
one woman cut her arm.
I found my escape from institutional living
in a hidden peephole to the universe
I snuck in the staff lounge when I knew they were eating
squatted before a newspaper dispenser
and read the top half
of the front page of The New York Times.
Millions of people were protesting that spring in China
students, workers, and old people
even military men
when I got bored listening to other people’s problems
in group therapy, my mind wandered
to what was happening today in Beijing.
Sometimes the story was in the middle of the front page
so I could just read the first paragraph
when I couldn’t see it
I figured that no news was good news
nothing had changed much
so the story was at the bottom or inside.
One early June staff lunchtime
I could read what was happening
before I reached the dispenser door
huge headlines screeched alarming news
tanks had rolled into Tiananmen Square.
On their way in, they killed hundreds of people
gunfire flooded crowded city streets
people in their apartments
died while studying and making dinner
those on the street were shot in the back.
The next day, the dispenser framed a stunning image
four tanks stopped before a single man
just one man
where days before there were thousands
he simply stood still and screamed Stop!
That photograph helped me embrace treatment
and get on with the rest of my life
near the twentieth anniversary of the carnage
I watched a PBS documentary
on the fearless worker now known as Tank Man.
China tries to hide the world from her people
like the hospital tried to hide it from me
students interviewed at the University of Beijing
said they’d never seen the famous picture of Tank Man before
and murmured surprise when they learned
he’s an international hero.
But the world always finds a way to trespass
one young man whispered to the others
Must be the events of 1989.

Sheila Wellehan's poetry is recently featured or forthcoming in The American Journal of Poetry, Entropy, Menacing Hedge, Prole (UK), Whale Road Review, and elsewhere. Visit her online at