Kendell and I are sitting on our bed together, the TV paused, the remnants of our strange dinner (hash browns, tortilla soup) waiting to be taken back to the kitchen. He's talking to his brother on the phone, getting a little bit heated as they hash out the intricacies of business taxes and bumbling accountants.
He is wearing a white, coated-paper bracelet with a barcode and his name.
I pick up my book, Wet Engine, and start to read a bit. It is a collection of essays about Brian Doyle's son, whose heart is missing one of its chambers; about the surgeon who helps him; about how the medical things that happen to one person in a family happen, in a sense, to everyone in the family. It's also a book about hearts: how they work, how they fail. As I read I remember something else I read once, its source vanished from my memory but its image still vivid. We are wrong, this piece of writing explained, to call the heart the seat of human emotion. The heart is strong, a muscular and consistent organ; tough, unlike love, to damage. The liver, though: that is the organ most like love. Delicate, easily harmed, difficult to repair.
But as I read more about the heart, as I glance across at the white bracelet on my husband's wrist, I think we got our metaphor right. The heart—the real, beating, electrically charged flesh itself—isn't delicate, but fierce; it is complicated, a woven maze of chambers, valves, veins and yet simple, all the same. Trace the route of the exhausted blood, entering, drained of oxygen, the right ventricle, flowing through the pulmonary artery into the comfort of lungs; oxygenated, it returns breath to the heart before slipping through the heart’s last valve, on the aorta, and making its journey again.
Love is the place we return to, exhausted. It is the place that sends us out again, revived. It is the strong, muscular place that keeps us going. It’s tough and reliable, but it isn’t invincible. Things go wrong, the heart overcompensates or withers. It fails to feed itself, its metronomes rattle and jive. "The ways that hearts falter," the book says, "and fail are endless."
Kendell gestures again, agitated with numbers and incompetence, and the white paper bracelet grabs my attention again,
and there in our room on our bed that Nathan made for us this morning, so the bedspread hangs, sweetly, with its points in the wrong places, with Haley out at the high school football game and Jacob babysitting and the two little boys sleeping, in the light of the TV, in the detritus of a meal and the sound of an argument, my feet are cold despite my socks and it happens, what the appointments with cardiologists and cardiac surgeons, the endless discussions (which hospital, which surgeon, which date, which valve, which valve, which valve, which valve), the paper printout with the image of his heart’s faulty place and even the morning spent on pre-surgery lab work and EKGs and X-rays failed at doing, that paper bracelet does.
The paper bracelet makes it real for me that on Monday, my husband will fall under the anesthesia’s spell, and then the carefully-chosen surgeon will cut open his chest and his chest bone and his heart. He will remove his old aortic valve, which has likely been abnormal since birth, and he will sew in a new one, made of pigflesh. While that cutting and sewing takes place, his blood will be fed by a machine rather than by his own heart. Then the cardio team will begin repairing what they cut in order to fix, they will wrap with wire and stitch with thread and mesh with glue, and then Kendell will start this new part of his life.
I keep returning in memory to the night before Steve, my sister’s husband, died. It was Nathan’s first birthday party, and in the middle of the cake, Steve called us. Just to say hello. Just to see how we were doing. We were good friends, of course. But we weren’t the kind of brother- and sister-in-law who just called each other to chat. I don’t remember what we talked about. I cannot forget the nearly-audible impression that I should had the phone to my mother and let her talk to Steve, too, and that I didn’t because she was feeding Nathan a forkful of cake, and he was laughing.
Turns out, he called quite a few people that night, and then the next day he was killed in an accident. I turn that conversation over and over in my mind, thinking maybe only hindsight made it a sign,. But when I found out he was dead, I thought the phone call was a sign. And I missed the sign. I didn’t know it was a sign he would die soon. I just thought it was a phone call. I sat on my porch in the nearly-Indian-summer-warm afternoon, knowing my sister’s husband was dead before she or her daughters knew it, and promised myself to never miss a sign again.
Since we learned that Kendell’s heart murmur was something far less benign that the word "murmur," six weeks ago, and were told he would have to have open-heart surgery, I have been looking for signs. Say we’re at the gas station and the car we pull up behind is being filled by someone we haven’t seen in years and will not likely see again any time soon. We laugh and reminisce and hug each other goodbye and I think is this the sign? Will I look back on the random gas-station meeting and think at least he got to sort-of say goodbye to that person? Is the completed to-do list a sign, or is the fact that the van suddenly needed everything replaced and Kendell was here to do it a sign? That choir performances, and Primary programs and last-for-a-long-time races happened before his surgery a sign? And if there was a sign, and I recognized it, what would I do? What could I say that would be right or be enough?
Probably I am being silly. While it’s serious and complicated, his Monday-morning surgery is also very, very routine. There won’t be any complications; they will repair and then restart the magical chemical translation of sodium, potassium, and calcium into a heartbeat I will hear again. But I still want to fling it out there into the universe: I’d really prefer he doesn’t die. Not yet. Not when he is just forty, when he just got his life back. Instead, I would like the surgeon to peer into the secret, bottom right corner of his heart, to see if that is where his sadness and his anger have been breeding in the bloody dark. I want him to reach into that darkness, carefully with just the tiniest tip of his pinkie, and dredge them away.
While I have been thinking, the problem with the taxes has been solved. The phone call changes to easier topics, and Kendell’s wrist, with the white paper bracelet he got at the hospital this morning and is supposed to wear until his surgery, rests on his chest, moving up and down with his breath. Jacob comes home, Haley calls for a ride, the house fills and settles around us. I feel my own pulse at my own wrist, just because I can. I think about loving someone with my metaphorical heart, and how even though it is imperfect, bitter and sometimes rowdy and unmanageable, sometimes it still sings to me the old four-part rhythm. It keeps bringing me my life. Oversized and exhausted from trying so hard, but still: beating. Beating. Beating. Beating, right underneath the white paper bracelet.